Every now and again we just want to look at something that gives unalloyed pleasure. Or to do it frequently. Who is to judge? Life can be painful enough without us feeling guilty for watching a bright and breezy sitcom rather than a work of deep social significance. So this week, here’s to feeling good, with the help of ABC TV’s catch-up service iView and its special section devoted to arts programming.

The Australian Ballet: The Merry Widow
Amber Scott and Adam Bull in The Merry Widow for The Australian Ballet. Photograph © Daniel Boud

The Merry Widow was created for The Australian Ballet in 1975. It translated the glamour and high spirits of Franz Lehár’s operetta to the ballet stage with such success that in its first two years alone it was performed 178 times. If you take into account the different versions of Swan Lake and Giselle in its repertoire, TAB has performed those ballets more frequently than Widow. If you’re looking at single productions of a work, Widow and Rudolf Nureyev’s Don Quixote come out way ahead in popularity, with Don Q just pipping Widow at the post. Each has been staged more than 440 times.

Widow has been good to the company in another way too. It was gifted the performance rights in perpetuity so it benefits when another company wants to program it, as American Ballet Houston Ballet and National Ballet of Canada have done, among others.

The Australian Ballet was founded in 1962 but not until The Merry Widow premiered 13 years later had it commissioned a full-length ballet. Robert Helpmann, then Artistic Director, came up with the idea and wrote the scenario. In 1930 he’d danced in a production of the operetta starring Gladys Moncrieff and thought then it would make a good ballet. The leading role wasn’t created specifically for Margot Fonteyn, as some believe, although she was definitely in mind for the part – she and Helpmann had a long shared history. In 1976, TAB took the ballet to the US and UK only a few months after the premiere and Fonteyn, then in her late 50s, starred as Hanna Glawari. There was, of course, an element of expedience. Fonteyn was a rather bigger drawcard than the still relatively youthful national ballet company of Australia.

Could Fonteyn still dance? Yes, she could, as I can attest, having been in the London audience in 1976. The choreography for Hanna is not especially difficult but it is a part for a dancer of some life experience who understands heartbreak. And for the ballet to really work she must have charisma and a gift for comedy. It’s not as easy as it looks.

Margot Fonteyn and John Meehan in The Merry Widow. Photograph © The Australian Ballet Archive

As in the operetta, the impoverished imaginary nation of Pontevedro must keep the titular widow’s inheritance within its borders if it is to survive. Intrigue ensues as Hanna has Count Danilo Danilowitsch dangled before her as a prospective marriage partner. The action, such as it is, takes place in Paris in 1905, where Pontevedro has an embassy. The Belle Époque is a gift for any designer and Desmond Heeley created some of the most delectable gowns imaginable for the women, shown off to much advantage as they waltz with handsome men in suave evening suits and splendid diplomatic attire. There is Hungarian-style folk dance in the second act, the can-can in the third, and any resemblance to reality is strictly accidental. Yet there is something true about the central relationships that prevents Widow from being a cartoon. In amongst all the rom-com misunderstandings and buffoonery on the part of the Pontevedrian powers-that-be there is genuine feeling.

Ronald Hynd’s choreography, executed with a light touch, is charming and apt. The pas de deux for Hanna and Danilo, who have history between them, are deeply romantic. The second pair of lovers, Valencienne and Camille, are more impetuous and are given the ballet’s most complex choreography in their rapturous Act II pas de deux. The pretend Mittel-European folk dances in Act II and the can-can in Act III are icing on the cake. Pay attention, too, to the luscious arrangements of Lehár’s music from John Lanchbery, assisted by Alan Abbott.

Over the decades many of TAB’s greatest stars have illuminated the parts of Hanna and Danilo, starting with Marilyn Rowe and John Meehan. The performance available on iView was recorded in 2018 and features Amber Scott, all huge eyes and tender heart, and Adam Bull, who is stylish but without the glinting eye of the best Danilos. Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian are wonderful as Valencienne and Camille. It’s huge fun to see TAB Artistic director David McAllister as embassy functionary Njegus and his fellow former principal artist Steven Heathcote as Valencienne’s aging husband, Baron Zeta. Back in the day they lit up the stage on many occasions as Camille and Danilo. The Merry Widow can be seen on ABC Arts iView until August 20.

Bangarra Dance Theatre: Ochres
Ochres, Bangarra Dance Theatre. Photograph courtesy of ABC

It also does the heart good to see Ochres, the work that put Bangarra Dance Theatre on the map. It was created in 1994 and toured nationally and internationally the following year. The performance available on ABC iView until June 30 was filmed at the 1996 Perth International Arts Festival. It’s hard to underestimate the importance of Ochres, coming as it did so early in Bangarra’s history. The company was founded in 1989 at NAISDA, the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Foundation, and by 1991 Stephen Page was Artistic director. Ochres was the second evening-length piece produced under his aegis and he hasn’t stopped. The body of work created during his reign, much by him, is a shining light in our culture.

The opening of Ochres provides one of the indelible images of Australian performance. Djakapurra Munyarryun, who co-choreographed with Page and Bernadette Walong-Sene, paints his face with ochre, his sweeping movements deliberate, strong, mesmerising. The work is inspired by yellow, black, red and white ochres and their significance to First Nations people, and draws its movement language from Indigenous culture. It looks entirely unlike any other work – a major achievement. Bangarra’s unique form of contemporary dance has developed powerfully over its three decades of existence and the company is now larger and more polished than in its earliest days, but this is a great trip down memory lane.

Other ballet available on ABC Arts iView
Daniel Gaudiello in La Sylphide, The Australian Ballet. Photograph © Jeff Busby

Also available on iView are TAB’s Romeo & Juliet (until July 30), choreographed by Graeme Murphy; the delightful old favourite Coppélia (until August 20); David McAllister’s sumptuous version of The Sleeping Beauty (until August 6); La Sylphide (until August 6); and Spartacus from 2018, choreographed by Lucas Jervies (until August 6). I am not a fan of the Murphy R&J and perhaps Spartacus is best seen live in a theatre. It received plenty of strong reviews but I think it looks both overwrought and underdone onscreen, if those qualities can co-exist. The little gem of this clutch of works is La Sylphide. Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello absolutely nail the gorgeously buoyant Bournonville style and the ballet runs little more than an hour. No excuses for missing it. And now up on iView is the Alexei Ratmansky Cinderella I wrote about in my first column on April 29, there to see or see again until July 30.

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.