A Very Merry CoupleRonald Hynd and Annette Page Talk About Dancing, PNB and Merry Widow
by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin
March 7, 2005 -- PNB Studios, Seattle, Washington
We caught up with this lively pair while they were in Seattle staging and coaching Mr. Hynd’s choreographic rendition of Lehar’s "The Merry Widow" for PNB’s March program. Interesting and fun, with a twinkle in each of their eyes, what follows is an edited version of a transcription of our chat.
We like for our readers to hear about how people got started in ballet. What are your respective stories?
Annette Page: I had very conventional start. My mother loved ballet and sent me to class at the age of about four or five. I don’t remember much about it but seemed to have a talent for it and was the “best butterfly” or whatever we did. I started to get serious and began taking the RAD exams. I saw the Royal Ballet in Manchester, which is where I’m from, and this clinched the idea of my pursuing ballet.
I had a “perfunctory” audition for “Madame” (Dame Ninette de Valois) where I did some short bits and pieces and she decided I had some talent and offered me a scholarship at the Royal Ballet School. This was tricky at the time, as it was last year of the war, blackout was in effect, and there was no boarding facility as there is now or school to complete my academic training. I took the underground (subway) or busses to the Royal Ballet School from North London and was only 10 or 11 years old. No one thought too much of this then, but can you imagine this kind of thing being allowed now?! [Laughs.]
I was offered a contract at Sadlers Wells, the touring company of the Royal when I was 17. After a year or so, I transferred to the main company where I met Ronald. I got to dance with and marry the prince! [Laughs.] I retired at 34 and we began a family. When I felt I could leave our daughter long enough, this led to my helping Ronald with his productions. My last “official” performance was in London, then we toured the States, and my last actual performance was as Cinderella here at the Seattle Opera House!
Ronald Hynd: There were three boys in my family and we all loved listening to the radio, particularly the music from Swan Lake, so whenever it was on, we’d run over and listen. I wanted to see what this thing was called ballet, so I went to a Sadler Wells production in 1944, was intrigued, went back, and went back and got totally hooked. I have a natural response to music and I loved jumping.
I had read an ad in Dancing Times for Marie Rambert’s school – apparently they were looking for boys, as most of the men were in the services. I started with Ballet Rambert but had aspirations of being at Covent Garden and so went over to the Royal Ballet. I had a very rewarding performing career.
I went to Munich to take over for John Cranko and was there for three years. It was during this time that we met Kent and Francia in Amsterdam. There were lots of struggles with the opera side of the company, the ballet essentially as being viewed as “the opera’s night off.” I broke into choreography at the suggestion and encouragement of Robert Helpmann and decided to go freelance. I was later asked back by Munich and while there made so much progress, that we were approached by Columbia Artists about a 6-week U.S. tour. The opera said “no” – that the dancers were needed for "Rigoletto." This was the reason for my final break with the opera and with trying to run a company. I did not have the Stowell’s stamina!
Tell us about the genesis for Merry Widow.
RH: I had made one of my first dances, "The Minotaur" and Helpmann liked it and, as I said, encouraged me and said, he’ll keep me in mind for the future. I basically forgot about his comment but out of the blue, he rang me up one day and said, “How would you like to choreograph a full-length Merry Widow for the Australian Ballet?” I told him I needed to think about it for a couple of days and would call him back. About five minutes later I rang him to say, “yes!” [Laughs.]
I’ve always had an interest in operetta and I loved the Elisabeth Schwarzkopf recording of "Widow" from 1953. Anyway, it was commissioned from Helpmann in 1974 and premiered the following year. It was the first full-length commission for the Australian Ballet. It was a big challenge, a big risk on the part of Helpmann, and I think a big triumph.
This is the 100 anniversary of the operetta and the 30 of the ballet. The operetta has always been terribly popular in both Australia and Great Britain. It had its London premiere in 1906. Lots of happy coincidences this year!
Speaking of casting, I know Margot Fonteyn did the part of Hanna. Was she in the original cast?
RH: John Meehan was the original Danilo and we had thought about Margot for the premiere but Helpmann felt that since it was an Australian project, the first casts needed to be Australian. For some later tours however, we asked Margot to do it and she did. I taught the role to her in London and we put the whole thing together in Washington, D.C. She was 57 at the time and it was her last “big” role.
Have you read the new book about her yet? I feel like it’s reading about our life stories, enfolded into hers. She was a total, utter professional, who while maybe slightly contained would burst out on stage.
AP: She was the perfect model and dressed beautifully. She really changed with the arrival of Nureyev on the scene. She had been thinking about retiring; had not danced Swan Lake in about a year and we all thought that Ashton’s "Ondine" for her was supposed to be her “swan song.” I think she needed money for her husband’s medical expenses, who having been paralyzed in a shooting incident needed constant nursing. Thus, her career continued for another quarter of a century!
She became “harder” and occasionally would throw tantrums, but not like Nureyev’s! [Laughs.] They had an absolute grip on the Company. A whole generation was left with the remainders of performances that they didn’t do. That meant that I only got to dance lead roles once or twice during a run and it always felt like an opening night.
As luck would have it, what with one person being out for one reason or another, I did many performances of Cinderella and Swan Lake and started to enjoy things and the feeling that I could make some little change in my performances, even take a risk or two. But, I knew this wouldn’t last when the injured dancers and Margot (who was guest performing) came back and I would be back to one or two performances in a run of 6. This was the moment I decided to retire.
Both of you must have some stories about “Madame.”
AP: She was an absolute tyrant! Not that she mistreated us. It’s just that her word was LAW! Sometimes it paid off to talk to her and maybe plant a seed in her mind. For example, at the premiere of Ashton’s "Fille Mal Gardée," I went backstage to offer my congratulations and Ashton said to me that he hoped that someday I would dance it. Armed with this encouragement, I went to Madame who said, “Don’t be ridiculous!” But, two weeks later, my name was up on the casting sheet. So it did pay off!
RH: After a tour to the States, I was suddenly landed with character roles, which I liked doing, filling in for someone who was out, but suddenly the prince and other leads parts were not any more on the horizon. I went to Madame with a concern about the direction my performing career seemed to be taking and got the same reaction, “Don’t be ridiculous!” She even suggested that I could do Benno in "Swan Lake!" [Laughs.] Yet, when it came time to find a partner for Annette, there I was scheduled to be the prince. Our careers never looked back!
AP: She never lost her marvelous Irish accent and had a lovely speaking voice.
RH: At her 100 birthday party, she thanked well-wishers saying how nice it was to have this festive occasion to send her off to her next journey, Heaven. Well, she lasted for a couple of years beyond that! She was compassionate yet completely professional...
AP: She ran the Company from its inception, so worked hard to build it up and was in charge of all aspects of it, including financial.
This is your third time to Seattle?
RH: Yes, and the second time for "Merry Widow." One time before for "Sleeping Beauty." We hope to be back for "Beauty" again next season. I love American dancers. They have a terrific work ethic, whereas I find the work ethic in mainland Europe to be sometimes shaky.
AP: American dancers are such a pleasure to work with and it’s such a delight being here at PNB. They have energy, are keen, and like Ronald said, have a terrific work ethic. They listen to and absorb what we say and they can do anything. Kent and Francia have created a fabulous company.
Tell us a little about your daughter.
She went to the Royal Ballet School and eventually danced with the English National Ballet but had to stop when she was only 24 due to an injury. However, she has made a successful career in classical music and opera management.
Edited by Staff.
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