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It’s been over 2 years since Alina Cojocaru danced a MacMillan ballet at Covent Garden. While the public in Washington DC and Havana were able to see her Manon last summer, Londoners who had been dreaming of seeing her in Mayerling at the start of the autumn season had to hold their breaths a little longer and await her return to MacMillan in the role of Juliet, the very same role she had danced in the autumn of 2007.

Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg in Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. Photograph by Elliott Franks ©

The wait was most definitely worth it. If before her Juliet was moving, now she is heartwrenching. She has matured the role, refined it, added nuance and experience, less the innocent teenager more the tragic outcast, headstrong-yet-vulnerable girl transformed by love. These qualities are evident, for instance, in the scene where Juliet, already secretly married to Romeo, tries to challenge her parents as they impose the nobleman Paris on her.  As she tries to fight back, throwing her fists at the father, pleading to the mother, the realisation sinks in that she is alone in this, her whole body expressing the humiliation Juliet has suffered.

Whereas 2 years ago she might have played the scene where Juliet hides under the covers with a slight hint of comic relief now it looks like desperation, the will to disintegrate and not have to deal with an impossible situation, grief written in her face.  This time few in the audience were chuckling.

Alina Cojocaru as Juliet in Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo & Juliet. Photograph by Elliott Franks ©

The other pivotal moment in Alina’s interpretation comes when she discovers the lifeless Romeo in the Capulet tomb, her desperate howl of pain – albeit silent – is louder than Prokofiev’s sublime score. Her last gesture slowly motioning at the faint light above the tomb suggests the hope at a reunion with Romeo in heaven, almost as if she can already see their souls transcending.

While Johan Kobborg might not be my dream cast Romeo he is unquestionably a perfect partner for Alina’s Juliet. If technically her Juliet was arguably on better form than his Romeo, when they dance their bodies move lyrically as one, in full sync. Together they delivered a balcony scene full of passion and romantic abandonment, as if they had no other care in the world. They are well matched in temper too, Johan’s headlong Romeo seeming like the kind of guy who would really drop everything in his life once he fell head over heels in love. The extent of his impassioned nature is also very convincingly portrayed after Mercutio’s death, guilt reaching boiling point as he rushes towards Tybalt to retaliate.

Johan Kobborg as Romeo and Alina Cojocaru as Juliet. Photograph by Elliott Franks ©

With a strong supporting cast full of wonderful performances, from Brian Maloney’s limber, handsomely cast Mercutio, Bennet Gartside’s chilling Tybalt (his death scene one of the most poignant I have ever seen) to Laura Morera’s unparalleled Harlot and Sergei Polunin’s stylish lead Mandolin this is really a performance not to be missed. This same cast is performing again next Wednesday and I would urge those still thinking about it to beg, borrow or steal a ticket.

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As we prepare to send off 2009 and embrace a new decade, we look back into what was hot, fun & fab around the ballet blogosphere to pick our favorite things this year. Feel free to share yours too.

Favorite Blog Posts

Haglund Heel’s “ABT needs a Mayerling” campaign

The coolest ballet campaign of the year. We keep on crossing our fingers & sending positive vibes for Mayerling to be part of ABT’s repertory someday. We’d definitely cross the Atlantic to see Marcelo Gomes as Crown Prince Rudolf.

You Dance Funny on the mess with “Swan Lake’s third act Pas de Deux”

We love uncovering mysteries à la Sherlock Holmes / Dr. Gregory House.  Divalicious prima ballerina decides she doesn’t like the score for her Swan Lake 3rd Act solo and asks Ludwig Minkus to write another one. This in turn bothers the original composer, a certain Mr. Tchaikovsky, who then writes a second version which never makes it to the final cut after all. Complicated? This could very well yield material for a soap opera.

Bloggerina meets Mr. Clement Crisp

Once upon a time our favorite ballet critic, Mr. Clement Crisp, went on a trip to Canada to see a triple bill composed entirely of new ballets, something sadly unthinkable in our neck of the woods. He met the Toronto ballet audience & spoke about what can be done to ensure the future of ballet. We were left very jealous…

Bella Figura’s Make your own Ballet Xmas in Paris

While Eurostar #FAIL would have surely prevented us from celebrating a balletic Xmas in Paris this year, this post provided us a much needed insight into the pick and mix of POB‘s casting. We are very curious about the darkest of all Nutcrackers and we might be more than tempted next December when the Mariinsky will also be in town. The post also offers a witty description of a certain Bolshoi star who has a habit of hanging on to theatre curtains.

Demicontretemps’s “If Ballet Stars were comic book heroes”

We love graphic novels, comic books and movie adaptations of both. We also often imagine deathmatches between our favorite ballet stars… if only we could pitch this idea to MTV. In this very funny post Eric Taub imagines Ballet dancers as drawn by famous comic book artists.

Veronika Part on Wolcott and Swan Lake Samba Girl

She is one of the most glamorous things to have happened to ballet. Just as gossip started to circulate that she would leave ABT she turned the tables on the rumour mill and bagged a promotion for Principal and a spot on David Letterman. May she long continue to fascinate us.

Favorite Tweets/Social Media Stuff

Sanjoy Roy on How dance companies must embrace the internet. The Guardian dance writer Sanjoy Roy picks up on the Ketinoa debate.

Hedi Slimane’s short film featuring Royal Danish Ballet’s Oscar Nielssen rocking and phrasing beaten steps to the music of Supershine drummer Matthias Sarsgaard. We said it before and will say it again: Ballet Rocks! (as tweeted by @hedislimanetwit)

Crankocast – Who would you be cast as in a Cranko ballet? Over here we got the two Taming of the Shrew sisters, one for each Bag Lady. Spooky! How did they know? (as tweeted by Stuttgart Ballet Principal dancer @EvanMcKie)

Charlotte MacMillan’s Mayerling photos at The Arts Desk – breathtakingly sinister studio shots of one of our favorite dark ballets with one of our favorite casts (as tweeted by @Macmillanballet)

Mariinsky in Japan Little Humpbacked Horse photos – mouthwatering candy store-like pictures of the Ratmansky ballet we are dying to see (as tweeted by the lovely @naomip86 – our Japanese ballet guru)

Favorite Ballet Bag Stuff

Interviews – Three fabulous leading dancers with each of the Mariinsky, the Royal Ballet and ABT. Three very distinct personalities which resulted in very different interviews. We hope you enjoyed them as much as we did. We are crossing our fingers for more.

Bridge Over Troubled Water & other Social media posts – We are big believers in the power of social media. All of these posts were great fun to write & some even managed to stir some controversy (see Sanjoy Roy article above).

Supermassive Black Hole – Our resident physicist analysed BRB’s new ballet based on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Perfect for the job.

Grace – This was a tough cookie. Someone asked in our Facebook group if we could write something about the ballerina’s grace. It was hard to put a subjective concept into words but we really liked the final product, not least because it gave us a chance to quote from Pride and Prejudice.

Last but not least

Our favorite Dances of the Decade

Our favorite Dance articles of 2009 (Conventional Media)

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Audience at "Kenneth MacMillan's Choreographic Imagination and Psychological Insight" Symposium. Photo: Charlotte MacMillan ©

Earlier this month we attended the Kenneth MacMillan Choreographic Imagination and Psychological Insight Symposium at Imperial College London. Celebrating the choreographer who would have been 80 this year, this full day event was held in association with The Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) and the Institute of Psychoanalysis and drew on psychoanalysts, scholars and dancers sharing insights into MacMillan’s ballets, along with rare archival footage and live masterclasses. A full register will soon be available through the new Kenneth MacMillan official website (which goes live December 11) but here are some of our own notes and thoughts.

To backtrack a little, my first exposure to MacMillan was a televised performance of his Romeo and Juliet Balcony Pas de Deux with Natalia Makarova and Kevin McKenzie. I remember being quite taken with the lifts where Juliet expresses her delight as Romeo tries to take her to the stars. So much could be said about young love and the feeling of one’s heart brimming with happiness with such economy of movement and no mime. I didn’t know much about MacMillan then but his work struck a chord with me. Later I had the opportunity to move to London and discover, via The Royal Ballet, the extent of his choreographic vocabulary, from full-length to short works, realising that MacMillan’s ballets were all about human emotions conveyed via eloquent steps.

At the time when MacMillan quit dancing and ventured into choreography, ballet was a decorative art form which provided an escape from reality. He set out to do exactly the opposite, turning reality and human suffering into compelling dance works. Putting this into context MacMillan’s biographer Jann Parry introduced the session speaking of how he eventually became the “outsider”,  the most common leitmotif found in his works, first seen in female characters (Laiderette, Anastasia) but later appearing as males (Mayerling, Different Drummer). Kenneth had not been bullied or lonely as a child, but the death of his mother when he was 12 and the difficult relationship with his father and brother set him on a constant search for a surrogate family and for his own identity. Parry also remarked that these events led MacMillan to search for psychoanalysts to help him understand his fears and anxieties and to deal with depression. Whilst he was fascinated with Freud, MacMillan also worried about what would happen to his creative spirit if he dug too deep into his sources.

Edward Watson as Crown Prince Rudolf and Iohna Loots as Princess Stephanie in a Masterclass of Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling. Photo: Charlotte MacMillan ©

We saw the practical extent to which MacMillan’s work and his creative sources provide rich psychoanalytical material. A panel headed by Dr. Luis Rodriguez de la Sierra (known to us from the “Connecting Conversations” series) offered links between MacMillan’s life experiences and his creative output. This panel juxtaposed the troubled relationship between brothers with the sibling relationship in Manon, where the older brother Lescaut “corrupts” and breaks her innocence by throwing her in Monsieur G.M.’s way; the fact that MacMillan’s father had been gassed in WWI (during the Battle of Somme) with the war aftermath from Gloria and his mother’s recurrent debilitating fits with Mayerling and Empress Elizabeth’s rejection of her attention-seeking son Crown Prince Rudolf. Another interesting discussion centered around  the fantasy of “dying together as an act of love”, an allegory present in Romeo and Juliet and in Mayerling and which the panel connected to Ernest Jones’s theory of a subconscious wish to return to the mother’s womb.

National Theatre’s Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner, the last person to work with MacMillan (in Carousel), demonstrated via video that MacMillan could convey in 5 minutes of dance “what would take a playwright 3 hours with words”. In a short pas de deux from Carousel we saw  how movement marks the evolution of the main female character, from tomboy to woman in love. Actress Nichola McAuliffe also talked about her experience with MacMillan as a stage director. She explained that British Theatre traditionally had actors “dead” from the neck below and that working with MacMillan made her think about the physicality of her characters.

Former Stuttgart Ballet dancers Vladimir Klos and Birgit Keil at the Kenneth MacMillan Symposium. Photo: Charlotte MacMillan ©

To illustrate MacMillan’s creative methods Birgit Keil and Vladimir Klos, former Stuttgart Ballet dancers who created roles in MacMillan ballets, described how he nurtured his dancers and sought a collaborative process. A fragment of the documentary A Lot of Happiness showed the choreographer rehearsing both dancers for a Pas de Deux based on Orpheus and Eurydice, giving them pointers of the type of movement he wanted and encouraging them to try different things. Royal Ballet Artistic Director, Dame Monica Mason also spoke of her experience. Tracing a parallel between Ashton and MacMillan, she said that the first one always expressed a preference for beauty and the second for reality, no matter how ugly that could be.

Speaking about “MacMillan’s subject matter” the eminent Financial Times critic Clement Crisp recalled audience reactions to the choreographer’s work, their discomfort with seeing “appaling grief represented by agonizing, ugly shapes”. A keen supporter who has seen every single MacMillan work (but for two short pieces made for ABT), Mr. Crisp eloquently spoke of the choreographer as a man of the theatre who knew about human suffering and found a way to show those terrible moments of life via fascinating and true choreography “which is ultimately what ballet is all about”, as well as in characters which “kept living after the curtain fell”.

Begoña Cao as Manon, Fabian Reimair as Lescaut and Antony Dowson as Monsieur G.M. in a Masterclass of Kenneth MacMillan's Manon. Photo: Charlotte MacMillan ©

The final section focused on MacMillan’s “Creativity In Spite of Adversity”, his courage to stand firm and travel to where he could realise his vision. Mr. Crisp recalled masterpieces Song of the Earth and Requiem which were created for Stuttgart Ballet after Covent Garden’s administration worried about the use of Gustav Mahler’s music for choreography and, in Requiem’s case, that sacred music could offend religious sensibilities. These points were illustrated with excerpts from the documentary “Out of Line” where Sir Peter Wright, Clement Crisp and Deborah MacMillan shared their personal views on the challenges faced by MacMillan at home and abroad and his special link with Stuttgart Ballet.

Edward Watson as Crown Prince Rudolf and Iohna Loots as Princess Stephanie in a Masterclass of Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling. Photo: Charlotte MacMillan ©

In addition to the masterclasses featuring two Mayerling pas de deux (Rudolf/Empress Elisabeth and Rudolf/Princess Stephanie) with Edward Watson, Cindy Jourdain and Iohna Loots from The Royal Ballet, and the Manon pas de trois (Manon/Lescaut/Monsieur GM) with Begoña Cao, Fabian Reimair and Antony Dowson from English National Ballet, the audience also had the opportunity to watch a full screening of MacMillan’s last work for The Royal Ballet, The Judas Tree*, with Irek Mukhamedov, Michael Nunn and Leanne Benjamin. This gruesome ballet (featuring a gang rape) touches upon the theme of betrayal in various ways. Original cast members Michael Nunn and Viviana Durante emphasised to the audience how MacMillan would let dancers discover the character during the creative process which, as Nunn said, “kept you on your toes”.

With so much background and valuable insights into Kenneth MacMillan’s universe, this was an event that will certainly enrich our experience and understanding of his compelling works. We now look forward to what the new official website may bring.


*The Judas Tree will be revived by The Royal Ballet in a Triple bill dedicated to MacMillan’s 80th birthday, together with Concerto and Elite Syncopations. These three pieces represent milestones in the choreographer’s career and different sides to his work. Concerto was the first piece he created for the Deutsche Oper Ballet as Artistic Director. Elite Syncopations, his ragtime jazz ballet, was made during his tenure as The Royal Ballet’s Director while The Judas Tree, his last work for the Royal Ballet, remains one of his most challenging pieces.

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Our Mayerling crusade continues with new casts, some debuts and thus interesting new takes on MacMillan’s iconic characters. There are very few lead roles that challenge a danseur’s technique, stamina and dramatic skills as does Crown Prince Rudolf and for Rupert Pennefather to have been offered the opportunity to dance it at such young age is a testament to the company’s trust in his abilities. It takes time to develop a character such as Rudolf. Interpretations such as the ones given by Edward Watson and Johan Kobborg earlier on were mature and full of subtleties, each of these dancers presenting the choreography under a new light: Watson emphazising his extensions to dramatic advantage, Kobborg fleshing out his innate musicality (our take on these previous performances [here] and [here]). Up until now Rupert has been cast in roles that fit his danseur noble physique, so with only one scheduled performance of his second full-length MacMillan role (the first having been Romeo) this was a much needed chance to extend his range as a Principal dancer.

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Rupert Pennefather and Melissa Hamilton in the Royal Ballet's Mayerling. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

We were again reminded of MacMillan’s amazing ability to show us characters and feelings that are real, each dancer having to find his own motives in portraying the lead role. Pennefather’s Rudolf is initially presented as a stressed heir. Product of an environment where decisions are made for him, the adult Rudolf has remained a spoiled child who longs to be behind his mother’s skirt. This juvenile angle works well for Rupert, not least because of his own young age. Rudolf seems particularly vulnerable in the Act I scene with his mother Empress Elizabeth, whom he sees as a model against which to measure all other women. He relishes being around the strong types (Larisch and Mary), despising those he perceives as weak (case in point, Princess Stephanie).  Technically Rupert was poised and clean, despite some early struggles with the phrasing in Rudolf’s particularly demanding ballroom solo. His various pas de deux were outstanding, his partners fueling his characterization, the dancing more relaxed and fluid. The remarkable last pas de deux in Act 3 looked as good as any other in the run, in no small part due to Rupert’s chemistry with an amazing Mary Vetsera (Melissa Hamilton).

Even though Mayerling is all about the male lead, Rupert’s debuting leading ladies must also have their share of praise. First Artist Melissa Hamilton was a highly anticipated Mary Vetsera. Her beautiful extensions and her supple body have made her a highlight in modern one-act ballets such as McGregor‘s Infra (where she created a role), Wheeldon‘s DGV and Marriott‘s Sensorium. Regulars were curious to see her bridge the gap between this modern niche and the classical repertory. Cast as Mary ahead of several more experienced dancers, Hamilton’s interpretation was very secure. She sparked Pennefather’s Rudolf in such a way  as to make their scenes together not just the evening’s highlight, but a memorable event at Covent Garden. We hope to see more great things from her soon (on that note, next week we get to see her in Limen opposite Edward Watson).

MAYERLING.RB.7-10-2009

Rupert Pennefather as Crown Prince Rudolf and Melissa Hamilton as Mary Vetsera in Mayerling Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

The always sharp Marianela Nuñez as the sultry Countess Larisch proves how broad her range is, shifting gears from the sunny Lilac Fairy of last Friday into manipulative vixen here.  It is redundant to praise Marianela for her flawless technique, therefore we can focus on the strength of her characterization as the passionate mistress who has a boy to keep her entertained while scheming and plotting to amuse herself in the Austro-Hungarian court. She was particulary insidious when feeding Mary’s fantasies about Crown Prince Rudolf.

Among the youngsters, the graceful Elizabeth Harrod was an effective Princess Stephanie and Brian Maloney looked poised and charming as Bratfisch. As  for the Hungarian Officers, it was good to see Ludovic Ondiviela as one, while Sergei Polunin has become pure sharpness punctuated by technical wizardry (e.g. an impressive series of three double tours en l’air) as their lead. This was a Mayerling in which to admire the company’s deep pool of talent in fresh new opportunities. Hopefully it won’t be long till we get to see Pennefather’s Rudolf and Hamilton’s Mary Vetsera again.

The Royal Ballet’s Mayerling is in repertoire until November 10. Book via the ROH website, by telephone or by visiting the Box Office.

For more on Mayerling, Kenneth MacMillan’s Choreographic Imagination and Psychological Insight Symposium will be held on November 8, 2009 at Imperial College London, as part of Kenneth MacMillan’s 80th Anniversary Celebrations. For more information visit www.kennethmacmillan80thanniversary.com

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Kenneth MacMillan, one of the leading choreographers of the twentieth century, is credited with pushing the boundaries of classical ballet and challenging audiences to look beyond the idealised world of fairy tales into the reality and discomfort of their own mortal existence.

With ballets that probed into all extremes of the human condition MacMillan found a deeper way to engage the viewer, to make us empathise with the emotions flowing from his expressive choreography. As part of his 80th anniversary celebrations The Institute of Psychoanalysis and the Royal Academy of Dance are sponsoring a full day symposium which will explore the relationships between physical expression and emotional impact in the choreographer’s work.

Leading MacMillan interpreter Edward Watson, one of the symposium’s participants, has just finished a critically acclaimed run of Mayerling at Covent Garden, dancing the challenging role of Crown Prince Rudolf. We were delighted that Watson agreed to talk to us about the choreographer’s legacy and the way into MacMillan’s complex, yet so very human, characters:

Edward Watson. ROH Photo: Charlotte MacMillan ©

Edward Watson. Photo: ROH/ Charlotte MacMillan ©

Let’s start with your recent performances as Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling. How much physical and emotional commitment does the “toughest of male roles” require and how do you resurface from each performance?

EW: There is no other way to go about it without being totally physically and emotionally committed to it. I don’t you think you can separate them, it’s all one thing. You just get yourself ready to commit musically, emotionally and physically, all of those things, to enter on it, to be believable and credible. In terms of how you feel afterwards…

Because it is such an intense role…

EW: It’s really intense and every show is different, but I never sleep after Mayerling, I am still awake at four in the morning. It’s completely draining, you feel drained after Act II. Actually after Act I you feel like you’ve done three acts already so… it is funny to get yourself ready for it. You don’t want to give yourself out too much at the beginning, otherwise you are not going to have enough energy to the end. In the first act I am always trying to pace myself and, knowing how you are going to feel at the end, you think: why would I do this to myself? But it is an amazing thing to do. I’ve never had any kind of experience like that where you feel you almost lived as someone else for a couple of hours. It’s incredible, a great ballet, it is just amazing.

In addition to Crown Prince Rudolf, Des Grieux and Romeo are all MacMillan classics you have danced a number of times in different places. How have your interpretations of these roles evolved over time?

EW: The biggest change has been with Romeo, because I’ve done it a lot now. Not that I think I wasn’t ready when I first danced it, but Lauren [Cuthbertson] and I weren’t ideally matched and we both knew that, so we relied on our youth to tell the story that way. This is something I have tried to keep. Romeo is a boy and Juliet a girl, they are kids, they are not a prince and a princess. Some people play it like a 20th century classic rather than being clumsy kids which is what they are in a way. The choreography for Romeo is particularly demanding. That I feel I am still trying to get right, to show the youth and abandonment while technically being tight and secure. I’ve now danced Romeo with Lauren, with Mara [Galeazzi] and with Leanne [Benjamin] so you find so many different things with whomever you are responding to or whoever is in front of you.

MacMillan’s characters are typically complex and they demand strong dramatic skills. How important is it to have a like-minded partner? Do you discuss a mutual approach beforehand or is it mainly an act and react dynamic?

EW: Both of those things. Some moments you find something has developed without talking. You are playing something in a certain way, your partner too and it works. When it doesn’t work we tend to discuss. You say, I don’t know what you are doing, what you are thinking or what are you trying to say through the way that you do that step, or is there anything I can help you with, for instance, in the way I lift you. The way into MacMillan is definitely through the steps. It’s not through putting on a face and acting. All is there to be discovered in the choreography. There is so much to be brought out that I don’t think you’ll ever stop finding things in movement. The amazing thing about being a dancer in those ballets is that you will always find something that you haven’t found before. You can connect those steps somehow to your character, to your situation with another character, tiny things like the way you phrase, the way you might stretch something, a look. It is all very physical and thought makes the physical thing happen or sometimes the other way around. It’s a total symbiosis. That was the genius of MacMillan and of the people he worked with when he made these ballets into huge successes: all those elements were exactly right.

So every time one approaches the choreography, there must be new things to be discovered?

EW: Physically everybody is different. I look very different to, say, David Wall [who created the role of Crown Prince Rudolf] or Irek Mukhamedov. So just as they approach steps musically different or physically different, so will I. In classical ballets like Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty, there are set rules, very obvious rules of what looks right and what doesn’t, but when the choreography really describes character and character situation, there is so much an individual can find to say with a character. It is a dancer’s dream. Of course there are rules, there is set choreography to set music but you can find your way of saying certain things within those rules.

Are there any experiences or specific preparations that have enriched your interpretation of a particular role?

EW: I do a lot of reading. With Romeo I went straight back to the play. Kenneth worked really close to Shakespeare’s play and I know Lynn Seymour [who created the role of Juliet] did. There were a few masterclasses that Tamara [Rojo] and I did with Lynn where she read the text to us and described what he was trying to say at that point. I also read Manon, but it was a ballet I grew up with, watching it as a kid and dancing various parts always.

The most research I did was with Mayerling because Crown Prince Rudolf was a real person and so you have a responsibility to be very honest. I read a lot of books on the subject. Deborah [MacMillan] lent me a book which Kenneth gave her for her birthday which he based the ballet on. She lent me her copy so I could find things that he had underlined in there, things that were really important to him. I also had a weekend in Vienna, I went to visit Mayerling and saw the grave. It fascinated me, this ballet has always fascinated me since I was a kid, from having seen the South Bank documentary originally with Lynn Seymour and David Wall. It is one of those ballets that grow on you. The more you see it, the more you want to see it again. Being in Mayerling had an impact on me because it doesn’t come around that often. It wasn’t in the company for about 8 years while I was here.

Edward Watson as Crown Prince Rudolf in MacMillan's Mayerling. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Edward Watson as Crown Prince Rudolf in MacMillan's Mayerling. ROH/ Photo: Johan Persson ©

Did you do any new readings or research this time?

EW: I re-read The Road to Mayerling and when I visited the Mayerling lodge, which is now a convent, I found these weird photocopies outlining the events with dates and times, so I read through that, but I had already done so much before that I knew what I wanted to do, what I wanted to change. I wanted the character to build up more this time.

MacMillan revolutionised storytelling in classical ballet, taking it out of its comfort zone, digging deep into human psyche. How relevant are narrative ballets nowadays?

EW: I think people want story-based ballets. It is easier for an audience to want to come to a ballet with a story. Triple bills are harder because of the lack of a linear narrative for a whole evening. Alice in Wonderland is going to be Chris Wheeldon’s next thing [for the Royal Ballet] and I think it is the right time and I hope it is a success.

Having said that, MacMillan’s one-act ballets are what made me, what I grew up in. My first principal role was in My Brother, My Sisters. Those ballets say much about people, feelings and situations, and even Gloria, and Triad, ballets I did when I was younger, there’s so much in them that is not about set characters like Des Grieux, Rudolf and Romeo, but they are still such an amazing experience.

In the past you mentioned that your role in Gloria – one of MacMillan’s most personal ballets – was your favourite…

EW: Did I? I love that ballet, I really love it.

Which is your favorite one-act MacMillan now?

EW: It changes all the time, I have nice memories of all sorts of things but Different Drummer really changed a lot for me. Physically, it really felt like it fitted. I had to work very hard but I understood its physicality, I understood where he was going with it, and in a funny way, it’s the same kind of intense experience as Mayerling, only shorter, but also totally exhausting. It was a wonderful working time for me, Leanne and I were working together a lot and she had worked with Kenneth on the ballet, so she could help me a lot. And Monica Parker who coached us was really enthusiastic as it hadn’t been done for a long time, for about 15 years. It was a ballet people hadn’t seen, that a whole company hadn’t been involved with, so it was really exciting to have the responsibility of bringing it back and making people want to see it. That whole experience probably makes it my favorite one-act.

And your favorite full-length?

EW: Manon and Mayerling are both wonderful. Manon is a ballet that I had always wanted to do since I was a kid, since I was at White Lodge and it ended up being the last big MacMillan role that I debuted in. I love it and Mara is fantastic and I wouldn’t be anything in that ballet without her, it’s really about what she gives me. But more recently, and for the same reasons as above, I should say Mayerling, it is still kind of…it is still lingering on my back!

About the upcoming MacMillan symposium this November, can you give us any insights into what participants may expect?

EW: There will be discussions from psychologists and also from dancers and collaborators who were involved with Kenneth on creating those ballets and, demonstrations from people like me, doing bits of Mayerling. There’s also going to be archive footage, so people can see and discuss the ballets. It will be very interactive, people will be able to ask questions rather than just being presented to. I have a feeling it’s going to be a very interesting day, a real eye opener into what MacMillan is all about.

In your opinion, what is MacMillan’s greatest legacy to ballet?

EW: In my opinion, all of that work. Even those works that are considered failures or that aren’t danced so much these days. It’s so important that someone was constantly pushing classical ballet. It’s classical ballet pushed beyond what you would expect it to, either to tell a story or, like Song of the Earth, telling you everything about life, death and everything in between. No costumes, amazing music, choreography that moves you and you understand somehow through those amazing poems and Mahler’s music that someone can express those feelings to an audience. And that the very same person can tell the most complicated story, like Mayerling, through dance. I find it total genius that someone can do that. No stop and mime, all of those feelings are expressed through choreography.

Song of the Earth is my favourite ballet of all time to watch and the last few times I did it, I loved it. It’s so strange because you are very removed from everyone else. There’s more impact to be made [as the Messenger of Death] by being subtle and just gently there. The poems that inspired Mahler’s songs say “death is like a whisper” and that changed the way I did the role, it’s like a little whisper that’s always there or a feeling, slightly dimmer and you wonder why. It’s little things like that, that you can read and find out. When he was making the ballets MacMillan didn’t always tell people exactly what he wanted them to feel, but it was obviously in his mind, his influences from what he read, from what he heard, all this concerned him.

How transparent then, that even when he did not say it, he could actually find a way to.

EW: Well, that’s the kind of genius he was.


Kenneth MacMillan’s Choreographic Imagination and Psychological Insight Symposium takes place on Sunday, November 8, 2009 from 10am to 8pm at Imperial College London.

This all day event will include a series of set pieces – videos, masterclasses, presentations – interspersed with opportunities for interactive discussion among the participants on stage and members of the audience.

The day will be divided into four separate sections:

MacMillan’s Language – Gesture & Emotion Observed and Expressed

  • Includes videos, presentation and discussion with National Theatre AD Nicholas Hytner and actress/writer Nichola McAuliffe

MacMillan’s Creative Methods – Working with Dancer’s Bodies

  • Includes videos and Mayerling masterclass (Monica Mason with Royal Ballet’s Edward Watson, Iohna Loots and Cindy Jourdain on Mayerling Act 1 Pas de Deux)

MacMillan’s Subject Matter – Breaking the Rules

  • Includes videos, presentations and discussion with FT dance critic Clement Crisp and Manon masterclass (Wayne Eagling with dancers from ENB on Manon Act 1 Pas de Trois)

MacMillan and the Institutions – Creativity in spite of Adversity

  • Film of MacMillan speaking, with comments from Peter Wright, Deborah MacMillan, Clement Crisp. Discussion on the creation of ‘The Judas Tree’ –  with dancers from its original production (Viviana Durante, Michael Nunn and Stephen Wicks)

The event will close with a screening of the complete ballet “The Judas Tree” followed by a social gathering where the audience will have the opportunity to meet and talk with the participants.

Full programme & booking details available from the official website: www.kennethmacmillan80thanniversary.com

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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.

Mayerling Cast. From left clockwise. Leanne Benjamin as Mary Vetsera, Johan Kobborg as Crown Prince Rudolf, Laura Morera as Countess Larisch, Deirdre Chapman as Empress Elizabeth, Helen Crawford as Mitzi Caspar and José Martín as the lead Hungarian Officer. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Mayerling Cast. From left clockwise. Leanne Benjamin as Mary Vetsera, Johan Kobborg as Crown Prince Rudolf, Laura Morera as Countess Larisch, Deirdre Chapman as Empress Elizabeth, Helen Crawford as Mitzi Caspar and José Martín as the lead Hungarian Officer. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

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.

Johan Kobborg as Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH © Source: Voice of Dance

Johan Kobborg as Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH © Source: Voice of Dance

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.

See also: our take on the Edward Watson/Mara Galeazzi cast

The Royal Ballet’s Mayerling is in repertoire until November 10. Book via the ROH website, by telephone or by visiting the Box Office.

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Arriving at Covent Garden last night and glancing at my Mayerling cast sheet I wondered if the audience – mostly non-ballet-regulars thanks to a promotion ran by The Sun newspaper – had any idea of their lucky draw with this particular cast: principals Laura Morera as Mitzi Caspar and Steven McRae as Bratfisch, soloists Sergei Polunin and Thomas Whitehead as 2 of the Hungarian separatists, Cindy Jourdain as Rudolf’s mother Empress Elisabeth (aka Sissi), a very talented field team to support a luxury leading cast: Edward “born to play Crown prince Rudolf” Watson, Mara Galeazzi as his Mary Vetsera and the much missed Sarah Lamb, back after one year absence, as his older lover Countess Larisch.

Mayerling Cast, from left clockwise: Mara Galeazzi as Mary Vetsera, Edward Watson as Crown Prince Rudolf, Sarah Lamb as Countess Larisch, Sergei Polunin as Hungarian Officer, Steven McRae as Bratfisch and Laura Morera as Mitzi Caspar.

Mayerling Cast, from left clockwise: Mara Galeazzi as Mary Vetsera, Edward Watson as Crown Prince Rudolf, Sarah Lamb as Countess Larisch, Sergei Polunin as Hungarian Officer, Steven McRae as Bratfisch and Laura Morera as Mitzi Caspar. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Whether this hot cast was already known to few or many, I think we all soon understood how special this performance was going to be. All that has been said in the press, rather more eloquently, of Watson’s Rudolf a couple of years ago is true: his “unfurling line” is better than ever. So is the “ability to turn his distinctive appearance to dramatic advantage. But what particularly impresses me is how he is able to remain so naturalistic, so effortlessly at home in a role which is said to be so demanding, the Mount Everest of male dancing. Watson turns MacMillan’s choreography inside out, he inhabits it so completely that by the time he loses his head and his lover in Act 3 he does not seem to be executing steps anymore, he is entirely possessed by dance, and thus by obsession and madness. His approach to the role is a crescendo of faster turns and high extensions combined with signs of agitation, of symptom, in every gesture.  Every step links into a continuous whirlwind of emotion.

Although Crown Prince Rudolf is frequently onstage and frequently dancing it is interesting to observe how MacMillan envisaged a character who does not “dance with the music”. This is blatant when you compare Rudolf against the dancers in the Tavern or his private entertainer Bratfisch. The latter are stereotypes, the “ballet within the ballet”, whereas Rudolf, except for the scenes where he joins in the group dances, is always a dissonant voice, an unconventional mover. Mayerling is not about the sequence of bravura steps which are characteristic of male classical roles, but more about how the protagonist, through scattered solos and a series of pas de deux with his many women, conveys his diseased view of the world, another of MacMillan’s ground breaking choreographic visions.

Edward Watson and Mara Galeazzi in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling Photo: Johan Persson / ROH © Source: Danser en France

But even though MacMillan crafted steps that speak more than actions, he also stayed rooted in theatrical tradition, demanding from his lead strong dramatic skills. When Watson is not dancing we see Rudolf’s neurotic mind constantly questioning his surroundings, observant, clearly setting his own agenda. In Act 2 for instance, the family gathers to hear a lieder sung by the Emperor’s lover, the actress Katherina Schratt, a song (“Ich Leide”, by Liszt) which speaks of farewells, of someone who is leaving. As Rudolf stands at a safe distance from everyone else, we see he is listening carefully, that he is soaking up those words to fuel his dark intentions.

With Watson’s line becoming progressively more extreme – I have never seen him using his extensions in a classical piece so liberally – we see the edges this Crown Prince is willing to go over to rid himself of this world. He carries the weight of the distant relationship with his mother, unleashes his Oedipean frustrations on his wife and on his old lover Countess Larisch, but in the encounters with young lover Mary Vetsera we see the dance become more weightless, almost like a brief release from pressure. Here Watson throws all caution to the wind, so full of complicity in his last “crazy-love” pas de deux with Mara Galeazzi’s fluid Vetsera that you think for just one moment this Rudolf might not go ahead with the initial suicide plan. But we know how it all ends: not happily.

It was a fantastic, intense start for the ballet season. Although there are always first night jitters and some fine tuning as performances progress, the company seemed on great form back from their break and probably pleased with the big cheer they got from a very appreciative crowd. With this amazing cast and such a compelling piece we hope the new audience left enthused and ready to come back for more. It certainly sounded like it.

The Royal Ballet’s Mayerling is in repertoire until November 10. Book via the ROH website, by telephone or by visiting the Box Office.

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