It's a part that was specifically created for her and one that Houston Ballet Principal Melody Mennite holds dear. And with the upcoming production of Marie, a story of Marie Antoinette, Mennite has prepared once again to dance the title role with Artistic Director Stanton Welch's choreography to close out its 2019-20 season.
"In 2009, Stanton was creating this ballet for the first time as a world premiere and he chose to go with me as his Marie. And he created the role entirely on me and I got to premiere it. It has really felt like my ballet," Mennite says. It is a challenging role - she never leaves the stage except for intermissions in the three art - but it gives the dancer a welcome opportunity to dive deeply into the character of Marie Antoinette.
"I do like dancing it. It’s always hard to describe; the question I got a lot this year was whether it was exciting to go back to Marie. I don't know if I can describe it that way. It is a tremendously emotional and painful journey that she takes. So I fell very close to the role but it's also very challenging to immerse myself in. I think that's what what I appreciate about it. There’s no other role where I am so deeply immersed in another person's story and I love that Marie Antoinette was a real person. I feel like I'm honoring her life and her story when I'm dancing that role and that's pretty special."
With sweeping music from Dmitri Shostakovich, the ballet picks up the story from the time Marie is a young girl sent from her Austrian home to France to become the bride of Louis XVI to her eventual decision to stay with her royal husband and face the guillotine.
"She experienced a tremendous amount of trauma and loss in her life," Mennite says. "[As a teenager] she was ripped from her entire family and her country and never returned and was stripped naked at a border and had everything taken from her and was sort of told 'You’re French now.' So going through the arc of her life on stage is almost emotionally unbearable sometimes."
Mennite describes Marie — whom she described as one of the first celebrities — as "kind of the first victim of propaganda. You look at what we do and how we kind of dehumanize celebrities now, I would say that absolutely she was misunderstood and painted as only one facet of who she was and what she did."
Asked why the Marie Antoinette story continues to be told in all its forms, Mennite says "She was the first celebrity in a way and I think we still become fascinated with people are raised to that status. We have a fascination when someone receives that much blame and huge circumstances surrounding her as the icon of that fall of the monarchy and these people doing these insane things, I think that as human beings we want to look at that and understand it. How could that be? Not only her part of the story but what humans are capable of."
Just as she takes a kinder view of Marie Antoinette, Mennite says Louis XVI was probably misunderstood as well. "I love their relationship through out the ballet. It was absolutely a rocky start and from what I've read the poor guy had some serious health issues. I know sexually there was a big problem there that caused chaos and drama.
"It was an arranged marriage and they were meant to produce an heir. According to historians he had some really painful problems that prevented them from being able to consummate their marriage for years and years. He was also very young so I have empathy for his character and compassion. I also think it must have been so frustrating for her to be thrown into those circumstances and then on top of it feeling rejection and inadequacy with him.
"He seems like kind of an awkward guy who had a sweetness to him. The whole thing is pretty unfortunate how it all turns out."
Marie Antoinette was rumored to have found some comfort and companionship outside her marriage to Louis with Swedish Count Axel Ferson. "Part of the story is her having this friendship another guy who’s an outsider. He's not French either. Neither of them felt like they fit or belonged, " Mennite says.
Throughout the ballet, Marie's costumes are reflective of where she’s at in life, Mennite says. "She starts off with this pretty structured look when she's in Austria and there's like little buttons all down her dress and she's obviously younger. That dress is white and that color represents purity. It's got some red accents. There's already this red which signifies passion and death and violence. The costumes tell the story throughout.
"I like how they were able to build that classic Marie Antoinette look with like large hips so at one point I do have the full high wig and this insane dress on that I show the audience for a few moments because obviously that's not danceable. "
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"Ian Casady is my Louis XVI and Connor Walsh is my Axel Ferson and they have been since the very first Marie." Asked how much she remembered from dancing Marie before, Mennite says "I think that this ballet for all three of us it’s pretty much encoded in our DNA now. I actually found myself in a rehearsal with Connor, they put the music on and I found my body doing the movements well before my brain knew that I was going to remember that. And I had to laugh."
Mennite adds that the story of this ballet is one with resonance right now. "There’s a lot of separation between people — you have the revolutionaries and then you have the French monarchy. There's a big chasm between them. At the same time within those two camps there's a unifying quality of trying to survive and be together and have a life for themselves.
"For the audience, sitting and experiencing this story in the way it's been constructed, it becomes a very unifying experience and I think this is so important right now. It hits us in a way that make us want to experience this all together."
Performances are scheduled for June 14-23 at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Sturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas. For information, call 713-227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org. $25-$200.