Sex And Death In Austro-Hungary: A Ballet For Grown-Ups

Lise Smith
By Lise Smith Last edited 71 months ago
Sex And Death In Austro-Hungary: A Ballet For Grown-Ups

The London dance stage is fizzing with fatal attractions this month - English National Ballet is revelling in Ecstasy and Death over at the Coliseum, Sadler's is hosting a pair of tragic star-cross'd lovers from the National Ballet of Canada, and the Royal Ballet greets Spring with a revival of the danse macabre to end them all - Kenneth MacMillan's 1978 masterpiece Mayerling. Based on the real events leading to a hushed-up double suicide at the court of Emperor Franz Josef, Mayerling is a dark, intense ballet about as far from the conventional folktales and fairy princesses as it's possible for the classical form to get.

Unusually for ballet, our central character is male - and what a character for a dancer to get their teeth and tights into. Mad, bad and supremely dangerous to know, Crown Prince Rudolf is the unhappy heir of the Austro-Hungarian throne. The decadent trappings of the Austrian fin de siècle, with its easy morals and even easier liaisons, surround him at every turn. At the same time, Rudolf is weighed down by the oppressive traditions of the Imperial court, an ill-fated marriage to Princess Stephanie of Belgium, and the constant, treasonous demands of his Hungarian separatist friends. Edward Watson physicalises this torn personality superbly, reaching his long, limber legs into arabesques that speak of great yearning. What the young prince is yearning for, even he may not know precisely - but it is certainly some kind of escape.

Rudolf is perhaps the most physically demanding role in all of male repertory; the prince is onstage in almost every scene, and frequently partnering his many lovers in hugely athletic pas-de-deux. It's also an emotionally demanding role, requiring a visible descent into the torment and madness that makes a suicide pact appear plausibly appealing, even necessary, to the prince. Watson, who recently brought his talents to the role of Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis at the Linbury, performs Rudolf with great emotional legibility and maturity. He seeks not only sex but solace in the arms of his mistresses, craving a connection beyond the merely physical.

Nobody does sex in ballet quite like MacMillan, and Mayerling might be the most darkly erotic of all the choreographer's works. Each of the nine acrobatic duets here indicates some kind of affaire; Rudolf's lover Countess Marie Larisch drapes herself over the prince; his mistress Mitzi Caspar coils herself around him; and the impressionable young Mary Vetsera launches herself bodily into the prince's arms. MacMillan splits his ballerinas' legs wide open in erotic display, sends them tumbling across Rudolf's back and down to the floor, positively dripping with hungry desire. Frequent and acrobatic though the prince's love life is, it seems to bring him little joy; by the end of Act 2, Watson shows us a prince wild with despair, embracing death as his only available option.

Mara Galeazzi is a rather wide-eyed Mary Vetsera, full of crazed passion for the troubled prince and sharing his fatal obsessions. Sarah Lamb, as Rudolf's lover-turned-procuress Marie Larisch, dances with a knowing, adult poise. The two make an excellent pair of foils for Watson's tormented antihero; Lamb in particular brings an exquisitely decadent expression to her bad-girl role. Zenaida Yanowsky, who seems to be gradually taking on the roles of everyone's mother at the ROH, gives a performance of cool fortitude as Empress Elisabeth, melted only by her lover "Bay" Middleton (Gary Avis).

Mayerling is physically exhausting to perform - Watson, taking a long and loud curtain call, is visibly spent at the end - and almost as emotionally exhausting to watch. Strictly for grown-ups only, this is a ballet for those who like their dramas bleak and taut, devoid of tutus, tiaras and happy resolutions in the spirit world. If that sounds like your kaffetasse, we can't recommend this excellent revival enough.

Mayerling runs until 15 June at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Tickets £4-£93. For more information see the Royal Opera House website. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary review ticket

Last Updated 21 April 2013