It's been 34 years since Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling touched down on American soil, when The Royal Ballet first performed the great English master's tour de force ballet stateside. On September 22–24, Houston Ballet becomes the first North American company to perform MacMillan's epic chronicle of the murder-suicide of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Crown Prince Rudolf, and his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. Chronicling the last chapter of the Hapsburg Empire, the ballet is known for its true-to-life realism, and for the role of Rudolf, which transformed the way male ballet dancers drive a story. It's considered a dream role for a male dancer. And with seven pas de deux with five different women, a deadly difficult one at that.
Driving Houston Ballet's Mayerling train is principal Connor Walsh, who nearly missed this opportunity to dance the part when Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston Ballet's theatrical home, Wortham Center. Now moved to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts and back in rehearsal, Walsh took a break from his busy schedule to talk about the role of a lifetime.
When you learned you would be dancing the role of Rudolf, what was your next step?
I met with our athletic trainer to put together a program that I could easily do on my summer vacation regardless of where I was.
What kind of cross-training did you use to be able to dance this role and avoid injury?
This ballet is renowned for its demanding pas de deux work, so there was a clear emphasis on core work. I did a lot of forward and side planks with extensions and rotations; some were more circular with twists that helped with mobility. I also did a lot of lunge variations and some free weight exercises. My favorite is a modified hammer curl that we paired with a squat and a press that mirrors the grip and shape of my body when doing carried and overhead lifting.
What about your stamina?
I started running, and I have my mother to thank for that. I figured if she can do it a couple times a week, I could break through my fearful and stubborn mentality about running. I really enjoyed it while I was traveling because I could see cities in a way that i normally wouldn't.
We also got a new rowing machine at the ballet, which is quickly becoming a crowd favorite. I love the full body workout it gives me. That being said, I try to always follow cardio with some yoga to prevent any tightness.
That was the body, but what about the mind? The Hapsburgs were no ordinary dynasty. What kind of research did you do to get inside of Rudolf's head?
I put together a watch list on YouTube of documentaries, movies and performances of the ballet. Mayerling mostly revolves around Rudolf and the complex relationships he had both personally and politically, so it was important for me to understand as much as I could on day one.
The first act is a pas de deux marathon. Walk us through it.
In the first act Rudolf is onstage nearly the entire time. The ballet begins at Rudolf's wedding, where he immediately displays his rebellious nature and discontent with many of the things surrounding him through a solo and a flirtatious pas de deux with his bride's sister. It's awkward.
His next pas de deux is with Countess Larisch, a former lover and friend, who tries to reignite a former affair with Rudolf. After that, he has a pas with his mother, Empress Elisabeth, and he pleads for her affection as he copes with his dysfunctional upbringing.
The act concludes with a terrifying pas with his bride Stephanie where he tortures her with his obsession with death and the demons of his own mind.
How do you see MacMillan's genius in the pas de deux work in Mayerling?
MacMillan was a master storyteller. This ballet is a true piece of theater, and not only are these pas de deux filled with passion and drama, but they are also extremely intricate in a way that brings out the nuances of each relationship.
Rudolf is one complicated guy, and it can't be easy to wrap yourself around his ethics. What have you found in yourself that you didn't know was there?
It's interesting to think about how this ballet is affecting me. He's such a dark character who goes down a path of addiction, self destruction and cruelty, and to think that I'm living that path daily is an uneasy thought. We all have our own dark sides and demons in us, but it's whether we allow ourselves to listen to them that defines us as people.
For now in the studio, I'm letting a darker side come through, but also consciously balancing that with my partners, because in a work like this their trust is invaluable. They go down this dark road with me and their comfort and safety are as important to me as anything else.