Mayerling may not be for everyone, but it is an undeniable example of how ballet can go beyond technical prowess or fairy-tale narrative, geometrical patterns or musical convention. Kenneth MacMillan’s work reaches for the core of human emotions, both the good and the bad, digging deep into the grittiest, the most horrific and perverse of human psyche to turn it into ballet, an art form usually associated with qualities of beauty and harmony. Unsuspecting audiences may be distraught by his choreography, by such an explicit portrayal of the perverse and sinister within men against the various forms of love.
Beyond its lavish designs and opulent costumes which aid in framing a decadent society and its excesses, the ballet largely depends on a strong lead, as its focus is the character of Crown Prince Rudolf. The fact that no one knows what really happened in the event known as the Mayerling incident is not very important for the purpose of MacMillan’s ballet. I now see that the incident only served as a canvas on which he could draw his characters and frame their specific interrelations. Rudolf, a character so shrouded in mystery, presents to the male dancer an opportunity to create a very individual reading. For this reason it demands mature dancers at the height of their dramatic and dancing powers, dancers who can generate a realistic impression, which is something Johan Kobborg excels at.
Presenting us with an innermost portrayal of Rudolf that heavily contrasted with all other readings of the character I’ve seen before, Kobborg emphasises the darkness his character carries inside, the willingness to carry through unimaginable deeds. Right from the start we see how he is afftected by the particular demands and pressures of his position as Crown Prince and by his incestuous relationship with a domineering mother. We also note Rudolf’s violent behaviour when in contact with Countess Larisch (a well cast Laura Morera) and his wife Princess Stephanie (Emma Maguire), but the way he quickly regains self-control hints at something inherent to Rudolf’s character which he tries to keep “in check”. The pas de deux with Empress Elizabeth (Deirdre Chapman) clearly establishes the twisted relationship between mother and son and shows how Rudolf could be both abusing and abused. The weight of this encounter still looms over the following pas de deux as a twisted and psychopathic Rudolf threatens his wife Princess Stephanie with a pistol on their Wedding night.
Rudolf has given into a life of “alcohol and whores at the tavern” but when it comes to his mother’s own love affair, he takes issue and reacts as an offended lover. As he dances a solo which speaks of the guilt for those feelings towards his mother, he struggles to keep his inner demons at bay, his steps conveying despair and even horror at his own feelings as Countess Larisch tries to comfort him. It is at this point that Mary Vetsera enters the picture and raises the stakes. Few can project all of Mary’s complexities like Leanne Benjamin. Her Vetsera is a joyous girl destroyed by the romantic obsession she builds once fuelled by Larisch’s stories about Rudolf. From their first meeting we see someone who is capable of loving him, albeit in a twisted, sick way. Kobborg’s Rudolf sees Mary as just another woman at first, but once she rushes for his gun and points it towards him, his dark side resurfaces and obsessive feelings surge towards her. Needless to say, both Kobborg and Benjamin delivered a pas de deux full of passion playing with the concept of control and role reversal between these two twisted minds.
By the final act, following an accidental killing at his hunting lodge, Kobborg’s Rudolf is a shattered, broken man who is a shadow of himself and now allows the darkness inside to flow, his body ravaged by mental and physical disease. Since the script simply indicates that Mary and Rudolf made a pact to end their lives, what really happens between them greatly varies with each interpretation. In this reading it seemed to me that as Mary arrives at the hunting lodge she realises that the only way to heal Rudolf is to die with him, while for Rudolf killing her is both an act of selfishness and of salvation from his inner feelings towards her. As they dance a deeply upsetting final pas de deux our minds question whether this disturbed and horrible person could really have had any capacity to love.
With great performances, despite a few start of season glitches, from a strong supporting cast including Laura Morera as Countess Larisch, Helen Crawford as Mitzi Caspar and José Martín as the lead Hungarian officer much added to the evening’s drama, but all in all, Mayerling will always be about the lead and here Kobborg more than delivered.
The Royal Ballet’s Mayerling is in repertoire until November 10. Book via the ROH website, by telephone or by visiting the Box Office.