Dance Review: 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.

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Dance Review: The Place Prize Finals 2013

For the four finalists of this year’s Place Prize for dance, the gruelling final stretch is finally here. Ten performances over eleven nights, each capped with a nightly audience vote that will help distribute some of the £35,000 total prize money available, with the grand prize going to a jury-selected winner next Saturday evening. This year’s prize offers a slightly different format to previous finals – there are just four finalists in the 2013 edition, compared to five in previous events, whittled down from 16 semi-finalists by both a judging panel and popular vote. It’s safe to say this approach has thrown up four quite different contenders for the big prize.

Rick Nodine is an engaging performer with a background in contact improvisation, and his solo Dead Gig is itself a meditation on improvisational authenticity, structured around the history of The Grateful Dead and Nodine’s teenage experiences following the band. By his own nostalgic admission, Jerry Garcia’s folk rockers were hardly the hip choice of teenage fandom in the mid-1980s: Nodine runs through a list of musicians (The Smiths, Talking Heads, LL Cool J) that sounds like the catalogue of my own childhood. But his sincere passion for a group of aging hippies translates into sensitive and rather beautiful movement material.

As Garcia intones Morning Dew from somewhere beyond the grave, Nodine smears and melts his body soulfully into the floor; narrating a story about a Deadhead “dropping in” to a live performance and dancing with tribal abandon, Nodine likewise lopes and undulates across the stage. As an underage raver in 1987, my frame of musical reference is somewhat different, but the central idea of becoming one with the music through movement that Nodine embodies is immediately recognisable to me; the choreographer’s warm nostalgia infuses a lovingly-crafted piece that, like the Grateful Dead’s music, is more complex than it at first appears.

Riccardo Buscarini is enjoying his second visit to the Place Prize finals, following 2011’s noirish Cameo (with Antonio de la Fe). This year’s offering, Athletes , has a notably icier, more glacial feel, opening with a cold blue wash of light across the stage that falls on three android-like figures clad in white latex. In silence, the three progress across the stage with interlocking limbs, hinging robotically at the hips and pulling each other back in space as each tries to get ahead of the others. Buscarini clearly knows his craft and the sequence is excitingly rhythmic; I would have enjoyed more of it. Instead, the piece segues into an extended slow-motion sequence featuring a fatal-looking kiss. Full marks to both choreographer and dancers for commitment and style; Buscarini’s chilly sci-fi aesthetic lingers in the memory long after the lights fade.

Eva Recacha is also hoping for success second time around. The Wishing Well is a one-woman tour-de-force performed by the supremely perky Martha Pasakopoulou. The quasi-autobiographical narrative follows ‘Martha’ growing up, prevented from counting to the number ten by her mother (who fears it as an ill omen), wilfully rushing about the place and making wishes. The Martha character and the eponymous performer are both sweetly watchable; Pasakopoulou’s tiny frame is full of surprising force and energy, whether she’s marching around the box-lit space singing a strident Greek anthem, balancing on her head or spinning around like a whirligig. My wish for this piece would be that it added up to more than the sum of its vivacious parts.

Last on the bill are the audience votewinners Hanna Gillgren and Heidi Rustgaard, who perform together as H2danceDuet is the story of the duo’s experiments in couples therapy; after year over a decade together, the pair apparently decided it was time to subject their personal and performing relationship to therapeutic scrutiny. Dressed in eye-catching but unglamorous sequinned costumes, the pair relate their experiences in therapy as they repeat looping phrases of jazzy movement – brushes, ball-changes and hitchkicks with occasional added heads and hips. Gillgren learned that she wasn’t a very good friend, abandoning Rustgaard to the soul-destroying company admin while she enjoyed a world of cuddles and coffee with her “yummy mummy” friends.

Duet wraps a gentle humour around a difficult subject – how do two people, especially two such different souls as the gregarious Gillgren and the more reserved Rustgaard, manage to keep a relationship healthy and sane over time? The answer is left deliberately hanging. Rustgaard’s litany of admin tasks (“…access, diversity, engagement, outputs!”) shouted over a series of brutal Callanetic exercises cannot fail to garner sympathy from anyone who has ever completed an Activity Report Form; we understand that the endless Excel worksheets led to some kind of breakdown, during which Gillgren (now standing on Rustgaard’s prone body) was not available to help. And, on a rather melancholy note, there the piece ends; a final “shall we end it there?” may refer to the duet, or the relationship, or both.

The Place Prize may be regarded as something of a barometer for the current state of contemporary dance; from the selection offered this year it seems we are in quite a confessional place with autobiographical narrative (reliable or otherwise) taking the stage in three of four pieces. It will be interesting to see whether the final judging panel go for one of the text-heavy, theatrical pieces or for Buscarini’s more formal trio; with eight performances remaining the field is wide open.

The Place Prize continues 19, 20, 22 – 27 Apr 2013
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