Houston Ballet's Connor Walsh on Dancing One of MacMillan's Darkest Ballets
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.
Melody Mennite (Princess Stephanie) and Connor Walsh (Rudolf) in rehearsal. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.
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.
Karina Gonzalez (Mary Vetsera) and Connor Walsh (Rudolf) in rehearsal. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.
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.
Karina Gonzalez (Mary Vetsera) and Connor Walsh (Rudolf) in rehearsal. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.
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.
Jessica Collado (Empress Elisabeth) and Connor Walsh (Rudolf) in rehearsal. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.
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.
Connor Walsh (Rudolf) and Karina Gonzalez (Mary Vetsera) in rehearsal. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.
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.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series
The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!
We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.
Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:
Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?
The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."
January 16 might as well be a Broadway holiday. Three gigantic names were born on this day, in 1908, 1950 and 1980, and they represent three distinct eras of powerhouse musicals. Without them, there'd be no belting Reno Sweeney, no "Fame"-ous Lydia Grant and no rapping Alexander Hamilton. Happy birthday to these indelible superstars.