This summer, Linda and I pulled a switcheroo with our home companies, seeing that San Francisco Ballet visited London in June, and that The Royal Ballet came to Los Angeles, a regular (and new favourite) ballet destination for me since my move to California two years ago. I was torn between the two programmes being presented by the company in L.A., as I could not stay in town for both. The new Wayne McGregor, Inferno, drawing from a collaboration in AI with Google looked compelling, but when the other ballet on offer is Mayerling... that is unfair! As you can see from my bio, it is one of my all-time favourites. I just can’t resist it.
There’s also something interesting going on with Mayerling at the moment. We have been observing a renewed interest in the piece. When we first researched it, in order to write a cheat sheet during the 2009 revival, we noticed it was rarely performed outside the confines of The Royal Ballet, as it’s such a demanding theatrical work. But recently, the ballet has entered the repertory of many other companies, including Houston Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet (where it’s getting rave reviews) and, surprisingly (given it’s a company I associate with technical perfection more than with powerful acting), Paris Opera Ballet. What is it about a ballet that portrays the decadence of the Austro-Hungarian empire that is so attractive to audiences these days? Is it because of the surprising political shifts we are seeing around the world?
Judging from the reaction in L.A., Mayerling remains as impactful as ever. It was met with a standing ovation, and my companion at the Sunday matinee performance loved how contemporary the choreography felt and how the costumes were a marvel of engineering (they truly are!). The last time I had seen Mayerling live (not counting the 2018 cinema screening, which is being released on DVD soon), was in 2017, with Edward Watson and Natalia Osipova, and watching the company in L.A. brought back great memories of all these years attending the Royal Opera House and of so many great performances of this ballet. Yet, the first contact I ever had with this MacMillan masterpiece was the 1994 DVD with Irek Mukhamedov and Viviana Durante, who convinced me this was a much better ballet than Onegin (which I had seen around the same time, and had found extremely disappointing. I still do).
Many Mayerlings on, Thiago Soares’s Rudolf had somehow always eluded me. Finally, here was a chance to see him alongside the Mary Vetsera of Lauren Cuthbertson. Thiago is by far the most sympathetic Rudolf among the current Royal Ballet roster, which is surprising given he is a tall dancer who can project great power (for instance, as Lescaut in Manon). He has found a way to play the character that is unique and works for him: this Rudolf might look like a powerful man on the surface, but he’s fragile and introspective, as projected in small gestures and in the duets with his different partners. His dancing also has a touch of modern expression. Despite being injured, Thiago’s partnering skills and physicality were as impressive as ever, especially with Anna Rose O’ Sullivan’s Princess Stephanie (in an excellent debut) and with Lauren’s fiery and impulsive Mary Vetsera.
This is the first time I have seen The Royal Ballet perform outside its home theatre and I could, therefore, observe that most of the production elements and sets are preserved on tour, with the exception of the “Habsburg” ancestor pictures, which did not appear during the scene transitions. It also helped that I had amazing seats and that I could notice every detail and even secondary characters, like Princess Stephanie’s father, the infamous King Leopold of Belgium. With a new DVD set to be released soon (the third DVD version available), and with so many performances scheduled around the world, now is the perfect time to either discover or revive your interest in MacMillan’s fabulous Mayerling.