MERRY MEMORIES

Posted on 02 May 2018 By Rose Mulready

In our 2018 season of The Merry Widow, three legends of The Australian Ballet return to the stage in character roles: Colin Peasley, a foundation member of the company; Artistic Director David McAllister; and beloved former principal artist (now the company’s ballet master) Steven Heathcote. They let Kate Scott in on the high points and high jinks of their long journeys through the ballet: standing ovations, onstage proposals, wardrobe malfunctions and all.

See when Colin, Steven and David are performing in the Sydney season of The Merry Widow: View Sydney casting 
Canberra and Melbourne casting will be released closer to the seasons.

COLIN PEASLEY

I've been Baron Zeta since the very beginning; I was the original Baron. What keeps me coming back to the role? I’m a performer. I was a member of The Australian Ballet for 50 years. If you put down the number of performances I've done with The Australian Ballet it'd be millions! You can see how contagious it is, because David McAllister's coming back on stage too.

Once performing gets in your blood, it's very hard to get it out. There's nothing nicer. You can be really depressed when you walk into the theatre, but eventually, after you put your makeup on, it’s Njegus or the Baron looking back, it’s not you. You get to escape everything and become the person you’re playing. And that's really a wonderful thing.

We opened The Merry Widow at the Palais Theatre in Melbourne, which was glorious. No matter where we went, we always had an incredible reaction. The Sydney Opera House, the Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown, Her Majesty's Theatre – everywhere we would have people lining up at stage door. There was one woman who’d mortgaged her house to see every performance of The Merry Widow!

Colin Peasley with Leanne Stojmenov / Colin Peasley. Photography Kate Longley

You’ll notice that Hanna doesn't do any jumps. It's all turns and bourrés. The reason for this is that although Marilyn Rowe was the first Hanna, it was also designed to be danced by Margot Fonteyn, who was, at that stage, late in her career. Although The Merry Widow was first performed here in Australia, there was always an eye to add New York, Washington and London seasons. In a way, Hanna’s choreography is very simple, but, my God, it's a star role.

We went to Uris Theatre in New York [now the Gershwin Theatre]. Fonteyn made that wonderful entrance when everybody on stage turns and looks up to her, this glittering woman in a beautiful black dress and jewels. The entire audience stood and Jack Lanchbery, who was conducting the orchestra, had to stop for at least a minute to let the audience die down so he could start the dance again. She hadn't done anything! She hadn't even walked on the stage! She just stood there in that beautiful dress and looked like a million dollars.

After that opening-night performance we went to a night club, the place everyone would go after a show. We all sat there and drank and ate: I think on Margot's bill, certainly I didn't pay anything. In New York the notices were written straight after the performance, ready for the next morning’s paper, which went on sale about 1am. We all sat there waiting, getting thoroughly sozzled and feeling like stars.

When we were in the Uris Theatre a lot of entrepreneurs came to us and said, "We'd like to take you to San Francisco. We'd like to take you all around America. We'd like to form a company and use your principals and we'll pick up a corps de ballet.” And the alarm bells rang, because the ballet wasn’t copyrighted – you can’t copyright what’s not written down. So we got quickly got it notated to stop anyone pinching it. This was all because of Margot and New York.

Margot Fonteyn and artists of The Australian Ballet, New York, 1976. Photography Martha Swope / Colin Peasley with Ray Powell, 1990. Photography Earl Carter

DAVID McALLISTER

The first time I was on stage in The Merry Widow was in 1985, the tenth anniversary of the production. John Meehan and Marilyn Rowe danced that season, so it was like a revival of the original cast. I did the Lead Pontevedrian boy, and I loved it, because when I was in The Australian Ballet School I used to stick my face up against the crack of the door to watch everyone waltz across the studio. Being able to actually dance in The Merry Widow was a dream come true.

We'd all heard about Margot Fonteyn and the opening in New York in 1976. Jackie Onassis was there; everyone who was anyone was there. There’s so much glamour around this work. Every time we performed it, I felt like I grew up a bit: I did Lead Pontevedrian, then the Act I Waltz, and then I got to do Camille. You felt like you were part of ballet history.

I've seen dramas happen. In 1990, Adam Marchant was cast to perform Danilo. He was so excited he left class early to go and put his make-up on, fell down the stairs, and broke his fifth metatarsal, so the whole season's casting had to change because we were one Danilo down.

Mishaps? The can-can ladies have these huge, big heavy hats, with little wiglettes stuck on the side for extra curl. Often someone would lose a wiglette – Hanna would do that big entrance in her beautiful white cloak and there'd be what looked like poo in the middle of the stage, and the maitre d’ would have to very surreptitiously kick it away. The Pontevedrian dresses have these metres of metres of lace that are attached to the under-skirts, and the dancers have these little heeled shoes … I’ve seen many performances where someone’s petticoat unravels and you've just got metres of red lace running after them like a long serpentine tail. 

Memorable moments? One night [then Music Director] Charles Barker, who was conducting the performance, proposed to [then Principal Artist] Miranda Coney after the performance, onstage with a microphone – she said yes!

David McAllister. Photography Daniel Boud

This season, Steven Heathcote is going to do the Baron and I'm going to do Njegus, so it's going to be like the old days like when he did Onegin and I did Lensky, or he did Romeo and I did Mercutio. We're getting the team back together. And Colin's coming back for this season, which continues that link back to the original.

It's an opportunity to exercise that performer muscle. You get so used to watching other people perform, and you can be very analytical about their performance, but it’s much harder to step outside your own. The fear and the ecstasy of being onstage is something that I wanted to feel again. I got a bit of a taste of it in Nijinsky [David stepped into Steven Heathcote’s guest role when he was ill] and it was really fun – I got quite addicted. Steven had to wrestle his costume back off me.

There are certain ballets that you think, “Oh gosh, if I could just go back and do that one more time …” Camille was a role that I loved, and I had some fantastic Valenciennes. You feel a million bucks in The Merry Widow. The costumes are really flattering, the story's really fun, and you get to be that romantic person having an illicit affair. I’ll love watching the young Camilles and Valienciennes do their part this season, but I'll be concentrating on my new role to do it justice as well.

David McAllister and Steven Heathcote. Photography Daniel Boud

STEVEN HEATHCOTE

My role, Baron Zeta, has been immortalised by Mr Colin Peasley. I'll be watching Colin carefully in the studio, gleaning any special tips I can.

What’s so enjoyable about the Baron is the manipulation he undertakes in order to save the country from bankruptcy. His motives are less than pure, although they are patriotic. It's much more akin to a straight acting role. There is less choreography to concern yourself with, but like any dancing role, you’ve got to be in your character and telling that story the entire duration of the performance. And as with any role that lends itself to humour, you do have to be really careful that it doesn't tip over into slapstick – humour is so much funnier when the person involved in producing it doesn't think what's going on is funny.

Danilo, of course, was a super-fun role. He's the bulletproof guy, the dashing one who gets all the girls and drinks champagne all day. But I think one of the lovely things about the production is the way Ronald Hynd takes Danilo down a peg or two: when it comes to Hanna, he's forced to eat humble pie. The usual magic that he wields around women isn’t working.

Steven Heathcote and Benedicte Bemet. Photography Daniel Boud

Even though you reach a certain age where obviously you can't perform as a dancer anymore, I still love the whole atmosphere of being involved in a production, being on stage and being a cog in the wheel. Is there a danger I’ll leap back into Danilo’s role when I’m up there? Well, certainly, because it’s so ingrained from dancing Widow for so many years. It's amazing how the brain locks away movement sequences. When you hear that music, somewhere, deep down in the hard drive of your brain, that file is reached into and brought forth. And yet, I can't remember what I had for lunch yesterday. It's quite extraordinary.

Why is the work so enduring? I think the answer's simple – romance never goes out of fashion. It's got all the great elements of a love story: boy and girl meet, they part, they meet again later in life, and there’s a spark. Is it gonna happen? Is it not? And then you’ve got all the political maneuvering that goes around the periphery of this relationship. In a way, a very simple story, but a very clever story. A great romance is always going to have eternal appeal.

Kate Scott is the editor of Luminous: Celebrating 50 Years of The Australian Ballet

Steven Heathcote. Photography Daniel Boud