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Flash Review, 10-14: Court Melodrama
A meandering "Mayerling" at the Royal

The Royal Ballet's Mara Galeazzi and Edward Watson in Kenneth MacMillan's "Mayerling." Johan Persson photo courtesy Royal Opera House.

By Victoria Watts
Copyright 2009 Victoria Watts

LONDON -- I consider it unfortunate that my first report on ballet in London should take as its subject one of the most charmless works in the Royal Ballet's current repertoire. Through repeated viewings of Kenneth MacMillan's "Mayerling" -- most recently on October 7 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden -- I've tried to 'get into the spirit of it,' aware that my initial dislike might in some way have been grounded on an unfamiliarity with the host of female characters and the accompanying inability thus to follow what I naively assumed was a genuine narrative.

Based on a 19th-century scandal, "Mayerling" climaxes with the murder of 17-year-old Baroness Mary Vetsera by Crown Prince Rudolph, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, prior to his own suicide. The program notes describe this as a suicide pact, but I think that's a disingenuous description when Rudolph clearly pulls the trigger on her. None of the preceding scenes, depicting Rudolph's wedding night with Princess Stephanie, showing him shooting an innocent man at a hunting party or misbehaving at a tavern, give the sense of inexorable trajectory that is so crucial for tragedy. Indeed, these little incidents with a bride he can't love, consorting with Hungarian separatists, flirting with his mistress, take me on a journey with him or with the women MacMillan revolves around him. Perhaps this is intentional. Maybe it seemed like a 'modern' way to deal with the three-act story ballet in the 1970s. Plenty of metaphorical ink has been spilled debating this choreographer's merits and my own carping about the many facets of this ballet that deaden my spirits, leave me bored and fidgety in my seat, or make me want to howl in outrage would likely make an enervating read. At the same time, I hope you'll appreciate that it's hard to appraise the performances of a hard-working ballet company when the material they're working with seems like a rather laboured, unfocused melodrama.

After several years living in the U.S., I'm not as knowledgeable about the Royal's dancers as the regular Opera House balletomane. From this performance, though, it seemed to me that Edward Watson and Mara Galeazzi are fine partners for one another. Indeed, the only fizzle of excitement I experienced all evening came during their pas de deux at the and of Act II. The first meeting between Crown Prince Rudolph and the young Baroness Mary Vetsera was sexy, a little dark, and nicely nuanced in terms of the power of attraction that sparks between them. Iohna Loots also gave an impressive performance as Princess Stephanie. She balanced the cool, regal restraint of the ballroom and tavern scenes with a terrifyingly wild abandon during the wedding night pas de deux.

The Royal Ballet corps de ballet in Kenneth MacMillan's "Mayerling." Bill Cooper photo courtesy Royal Opera House.

There's little to say about the corps. Their dancing was neat, efficient, but rather flat. Without any dazzling ensemble arrangements for them to sparkle in, this seems the best that can be expected. At no point did I get that 'get off your bum and join them' urge, and this is surely a bad thing. I wanted to see more breath, more expansiveness in the movement, but then I suppose that that would not be in keeping with the tight, repressive energy of the Austro-Hungarian court. I'd hoped it would all be let loose in the tavern scene, however the women's demure butt-thrusts and coy hip-wiggles were unconvincing. It was all done so much better, with greater musicality, more sass, and an unsettlingly dirty veneer, by Bob Fosse in "Sweet Charity." Maybe it's not a fair comparison, but I get the inkling that that's exactly the energy and ambience that MacMillan was aiming for here. In this instance, it's as much a question of performance as the material being performed. The women just didn't have the lascivious lustiness and the hard-edged, calculating brutality of notorious tavern whores. I'd let it slide, but for the supposed psychological realism for which MacMillan is lauded. It's a gross error in the dramaturgy to have your principals performing the ballet equivalent of 'dancing from the inside out,' expressing all the angst, sorrow, passion, and violence that MacMillan can conjure while the corps de ballet play prostitutes with less inner force, less knowing sexuality, than a group of nicely brought up 6th formers at a college in Buckinghamshire would. It's this same lack of consistency in terms of the dramatic style of the ballet that engenders my other bete noir here: the sequence of ronds de jambs that the maids perform. Like an unwelcome jab in the ribs, I see it and wince every time. What are they doing those dance steps for? I know. I know it's a ballet and people in ballets use the classical vocabulary. But, in almost every other instance the characters perform a stylized but quotidian vocabulary unless they are dancing out their thoughts and feelings, or dancing in a social context (I'm not including the scene at the hunt -- I prefer to pretend that doesn't even happen). So why have the maids dance their entrance in this way? I'd send my own choreography students back to the drawing board for such an inconsistency.

Later this month I'll be seeing "The Sleeping Beauty." It will be the first time for me with this 2006 production, made to mark the company's 75th anniversary, but there will surely, hopefully, be less for me to carp about.

Victoria Watts works in the Faculty of Education at the Royal Academy of Dance, and has previously taught in the highly regarded dance department at the Ohio State University, and in the women's studies program at George Mason University. She received her MFA in Dance from the Ohio State University as the recipient of a Fulbright Award, and recently received a fellowship from the Social Science Research Council, funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation, for preliminary research on her doctoral dissertation in cultural studies. Throughout all her academic endeavours she has maintained her practice as a dance teacher, regularly contributing to the work of The Jackie Palmer Stage School.


Victoria Watts works in the Faculty of Education at the Royal Academy of Dance, and has previously taught at Ohio State University, and in the women's studies program at George Mason University. She received her MFA in Dance from Ohio State University as the recipient of a Fulbright Award, and recently received a fellowship from the Social Science Research Council, funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation, for preliminary research on her doctoral dissertation in cultural studies. Throughout all her academic endeavours she has maintained her practice as a dance teacher, regularly contributing to the work of The Jackie Palmer Stage School.

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