i arrived for opening night of this champagne-soaked confectionary masterpiece with a totem bag made from promotional banners for the National Ballet of Canada’s 2014 production of Manon. faded now and held together with the kind stitches of a couturier coworker, the purse shows xiao nan yu in a striking palette of white, red, and black: the same colours of the marquee from which she currently gazes confidently down from across the facade of the Four Seasons Centre. this palette not only bridges two of xiao’s most iconic roles, but in ancient cultures they also represented the progressing stages of a woman’s life. few shade ranges could more perfectly suit the celebrated principal dancer’s graceful, self-directed transit from one brightly lit stage to the next.
after 22 years with the company, xiao chose her farewell piece grandly: a role that originated as a german play, finding success as an operetta scored by franz lehár, later adapted into english and made famous by lily elsie on the london stage. but choreographer ronald hynd’s ballet might be the lustiest incarnation in over a hundred years with a Hanna who is unafraid of scandal yet guided by unflinching pride. as the first act drew to a close i could see why one of the National Ballet’s most acclaimed and beloved artists would choose this role as her farewell. she explained in an interview with savannah saunders for The Wonderful World of Dance that she “wanted to leave the stage at [her] highest point”, and to chava lansky for Pointe Magazine that Hanna Glawari is “confident, she's glamorous, she's fun and she's very sure of what she wants to do, which sort of reflects how i feel right now at this age, and in my decision regarding retirement.”
but hynd’s production also offers the lead dancers a wealthy range to play and provides ample opportunity for technically demanding ensemble work from the corps and soloists. one can see the generosity that karen kain spoke of in her farewell statement announcing xiao’s retirement; The Merry Widow is a rare piece that gives a mainstage company the chance to show off while managing to unite comedy and drama. this effervescent world of forgivable excess is studded with moments of sincere, rapturous yearning between the two leading couples. but the role’s most irresistible quality is that it places xiao in that dress for her final curtain call the evening of june 22nd, where she’ll be celebrated even more extensively than she was for her penultimate performance.
a well-sold opening night begun with bureaucratic buffoonery from principal character artist jonathan renna as Baron Zeta, ambassador to france, and newly made principal dancer brendan saye as the embassy’s undersecretary. with the recently widowed Hanna Glawari returning with twenty million francs to her name, a plot must be contrived to re-marry that money back into her native ‘Pontevedro’. stories set in a fictional european principality often promise uninhibited splendour and imagination, and this one is no exception as they decide upon count Danilo Danilowitch, a childhood sweetheart who, unbeknownst to them, had spurned hanna when she was a penniless peasant girl.
it’s under this scheme that one of the National Ballet’s most decorated principal artists and celebrated choreographers enters the stage, already slightly sauced: guillaume côté manages some striking leaps and flourishes before his Count Danilo stumbles, underscored by an unsympathetic horn section, clearly in need of a good woman to save him from the demon bubbly. Danilo is not the only character sodden with cares; he’s merely in his cups earlier than the rest of the party. in the twilit world of The Merry Widow, a common solution for worries and plot-accelerating misunderstandings is simply to drink more. if champagne is the panacea for all Pontevedrian concerns, then tipsy flirtation is their primary mode of communication.
nowhere is this more wittily apparent than in the touching affair between the elderly Baron Zeta’s coquettish young wife Valencienne and the dashing french attaché Camille de Rosillon, played to perfection by principal dancers jillian vanstone and naoya ebe. vanstone’s Valencienne is a fountain of youth in silks of mauve and mint; a day-drinking, foot-stamping, affectionate adulteress who proves baronesses just want to have fun. her teasing seems as light and fussy as their bottomless drinks, but the measured tempo of their first pas-de-deux invites you to take their tendre more seriously.
this precipitates a party of dazzling filigreed finery populated by belles of the era in lusciously tiered petticoats that will leave you with an appetite for sumptuous desserts. pastries in motion, the gowns manage to mimic drooping peonies heavy with sensuality while flowing and gathering around the dancers’ ankles with fluttering grace. more opulent than the world’s most breathtaking basilicas, the late desmond heeley’s glorious set and costume designs erupt with a vitality that frames the dancer’s pristine lines in intricate abundance.
into this dreamy belle époque enters xiao nan yu, applauded by the audience and accepting admiration from a line of fortune-hunters with smirking graciousness. her number of suitors puts the Princess Aurora--hell, even the bachelorette--to shame, which she navigates with practiced confidence. her self-assurance is interrupted only by an introduction to a spectre from the past: a count who seems to sober up significantly when they come face to face again after untold years in a heart-racing moment of palpable gravity, especially when she realizes he still wears the handkerchief she bestowed upon him in their youth. xiao and côté deliver powerful performances here, registering a multitude of complex feelings in their expressions and body language, making it clear that this comedy is frothy in spectacle only and will be compelled by a profound passion henceforth. a touchingly scored flashback sees xiao return as a Gisellesque maiden tying her bright orange favour round the neck of a youthful Danilo whose family will never permit him to marry her. even on the cusp of performance retirement, she can still play an unguarded teenager brimming with love and so vulnerable to heartbreak that she could have squeezed protective maternal instincts from a stone.
act two opens on a glamorous outdoor set with deep orange lanterns framing a pavilion worthy of versailles and the aforementioned kerchief worn now on hanna’s hip. only the merriest of widows would integrate so much golden thread into her mourning ensembles, which serve as an ideal inky background for the saffron silk that links the two lovers through time. this handkerchief, as drenched in meaning as the scenery is in stage-champagne, vibrantly highlights the tension between the leads. it twirls from xiao’s spinning wrist, its hue as insistent and impossible to ignore as the chemistry sizzling across the garden party. their tender passion brings an already silent audience into a moment of even deeper quiet when she ties it around count danilo’s throat to imply a continued affection that her pride and inheritance won’t allow her to declare. i wouldn’t have been surprised if the intensity with which côté plays this moment ignited the wispy thing, nor concerned since the over-served evening affair saw every dancer in possession of their own personal carbonated fire extinguisher.
the opening ballabille showcases the technique of dozens of company members and gives some believable ethnic roots to this fictional balkan principality, garnering applauses thrice. though i spotted a recently promoted dancer flub a step or two, as did guillaume côté ever so slightly, the general atmosphere is so tipsy that stumbles were entirely in sync with the boozy elegance of Pontevedro. if you’re going to trip over your feet, this is the ballet to do it.
if only sparkling wines flowed as obediently in real life as they do as xiao circles côté pouring champagne into his mouth from en pointe, rewarding the stately slavic steps he plunges into to impress her. she points pointedly with pointe shoe at him, eliciting chuckles from the audience as she communicates her true choice with just the tip of her toes—all while agitating him by flirting with other suitors. côté gets to flex his too rarely called-upon comedic skills as his hysterical Danilo drinks his way through a platter of champagne, discards them into the wings, and spirals off stage in a jealous huff. his retribution for rejecting her in their youth continues as Hanna replaces valencienne in a compromising pavilion rendezvous; xiao pulls this off with a coy, careless swagger when reproached by her former lover, perfectly playing a complex, confident woman who risks disgrace to save another woman from it. declaring her intention to marry herself and her fortune off to the french attaché, Pontevedro’s banners drop with the curtain and Count Danilo throws the handkerchief at Hannah’s feet.
if there was never an appropriate moment to applaud the previous two sets, the audience couldn’t resist receiving chez Maxim’s this way. with ornate embossed mirrors and dripping cascades wrought to resemble glowing bluebells, it’s a suitable setting for the untangling of this love quadrangle. amidst this splendour glittered a number of enchanting supporting performances. rebekah rimsay had only been on stage as an enraged client for a few seconds before a patron behind me remarked, “she’s good” aloud, a review that sums up any other wordy attempts to capture how consistently funny and intelligent rimsay’s choices as a character actress and dancer always are. six grisettes in can-can plumes execute a charming number while vanstone flirts with her leg more brazenly than she’s dared before.
but it was xiao nan yu’s final entrance, in a snow white sea-foam cape that wouldn't fit in most carriages designed to bring princesses to their weddings, that brought me to gasp. she spun to reveal twin black bows, one demure and one dominant, that i knew would have caused the aforementioned couturier to have melted where he stood. hardly less beautifully caped and gowned, vanstone was heartrending as Valencienne caught by her doting, fatherly husband with the handsome attaché. she dances a poignant plea for understanding, and if an arabesque could talk hers would say in the clearest voice “please don’t be mad.” Baron Zeta confers a deflated blessing by twirling her intricately along with camille in a pas-de-troix that becomes a pas-de-quatre as the two conflicted couples come together centre-stage. choreographed with simple, impactful geometry communicating the many ligaments that connect each member, the four principals execute expert performances of longings frustrated by their social position.
but in true belle époque fashion, the Baron invites Camille to share Valencienne’s left arm as they exit, appropriate for a time when an affluent society wife’s lover was an accepted fixture of the household. in contrast to the original german operetta, where Valencienne refutes Camille’s protestations of love by replying, via fan, that she is an “anständige frau” (respectable wife), hynd’s production is hardly bound by the conventions of the Hays Code and so the sympathetic lovers needn’t die in a freak accident by the final scene. instead, this world is mercifully without an excess of such anxious anständige, instead opting for an understanding that permits the gentle sins of consenting fops and dandies.
with pride appeased and misunderstandings resolved, the final pas-de-deux between xiao and côté is flawlessly rendered by two artists at the peak of their game. she hangs from his shoulders in a series of breathtaking lifts and spins like a swath of silk charmeuse, the final word in feminine poise and self-possession. the crescendo could barely be heard over the sounds of applause as the curtain fell on a euphoric climax. rising again quickly it revealed a kiss between the leads, one of profound trust and esteem and more enthralling than any romantic moment. i saw the Onegins, the Tatiannas, the Albrechts, the Giselles, and an echo of her Manon in that gesture of deep respect. after years of sharing studio space and building incandescent careers alongside each other, côté knelt and kissed xiao’s hand in the final spotlight as if he couldn’t bear to see her off. a standing ovation endured for long minutes while the audience gave thanks to xiao’s performance and years of consistent virtuosity.
a note of caution: you’ll return home after The Merry Widow to find your mid-century modern furniture drab and dreary (the National Ballet could not be reached for comment about the hidden fee of having to refurnish one’s house and wardrobe in belle époque finery). i was spared this only by an obliging bottle of champagne waiting to pour over myself in the bath, quenching any remaining longings for stress-free romantic entanglements the production may have stirred up. the love stories within this ornate production thrum with a deep resonance that grounds the work, allowing it to trip tipsily into the breathless, lusty corridors of an age remembered as innocent, one that certainly regarded the games of love as such.
emily trace is a toronto-based writer of plays, articles, spoken word, fiction, personal essays and reviews for the arts. educated at the University of Toronto and a graduate of the Emerging Arts Critics Programme, she is also an aspiring director and dramaturg.
The Merry Widow runs from June 19th-23rd at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.