Dancers Trending

Houston Ballet's Connor Walsh on Dancing One of MacMillan's Darkest Ballets

Connor Walsh rehearses the role of Rudolf in Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

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.

Show Comments ()
Dance in Pop Culture

The revival of everything '90s has been in full-swing for a while now—we saw Destiny's Child reunite at Coachella, Britney Spears is headed back on tour, and the Spice Girls miiight be performing at the Royal wedding next month. But Hollywood saved the best '90s moment for last, bringing *NSYNC back together to receive their official star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on April 30.

Because we love a good dance #TBT, we're reliving five of the boys' best dance moments.

"I Want You Back"

The band's first single from their self-titled debut album in 1998, "I Want You Back," was the start of their takeover (and their choreographed dance moves).

Keep reading... Show less

Looking for your next audition shoe? Shot at and in collaboration with Broadway Dance Center, Só Dança has launched a new collection of shoes working with some pretty famous faces of the musical theater world! Offered in two different styles and either 2.5" or 3" heels, top industry professionals are loving how versatile and supportive these shoes are! Pro tip: The heel is centered under the body so you can feel confident and stable!

Health & Body

When I wrote about my struggle with depression, and eventual departure from dance because of it, I expected criticism. I was prepared to be challenged. But much to my relief, and horror, dancers from all over the world responded with support and stories of solidarity. The most critical response I saw was this one:

"Dance isn't for everyone."

This may as well be a mantra in the dance world. We have become entrenched in the Darwinian notion that the emotionally weak will be weeded out. There is no room for them anyway.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
Name calling, physical intimidation and cyberbullying are all-too-common experiences among male dancers. Photo by Goh Rhy Yan/Unsplash

Growing up in a family-owned dance studio in Missouri had its perks for tap dancer Anthony Russo. But it also earned him constant taunting, especially in high school.

"There was a junior in my sophomore year health class who was absolutely relentless," he says. "I'd get tripped on my way to the front of the classroom and he'd say, 'Watch out, twinkle toes.' If I raised my hand and answered a question incorrectly, I'd hear a patronizing 'Nice one, Bojangles.' "

Keep reading... Show less
What Wendy's Watching
Photo by Scott Shaw

Gina Gibney runs two enormous dance spaces in New York City: Together they contain 23 studios, five performance spaces, a gallery, a conference room, a media lab and more. Gibney is now probably the largest dance center in the country. It's not surprising that Dance Magazine named Gina Gibney one of the most influential people in dance today.

Keep reading... Show less
What Dancers Eat
Maria Kochetkova blatantly breaks the not-eating-in-your-Serenade-costume rules with a personal pint backstage. Photo via Instagram

One of the biggest myths about ballet dancers is that they don't eat. While we all know that, yes, there are those who do struggle with body image issues and eating disorders, most healthy dancers love food—and eat plenty of it to fuel their busy schedules.

Luckily for us, they're not afraid to show it:

Keep reading... Show less
Acosta Danza in Jorge Crecis' Twelve. Photo by Johan Persson, Courtesy Sadler's Wells

What does a superstar like Carlos Acosta do after bidding farewell to his career in classical ballet? In Acosta's case, he returns to his native country, Cuba, to funnel his fame, connections and prodigious energies back into the dance scene that formed him. Because of its top-notch, state-supported training programs and popular embrace of the art of dance, Cuba is brimming with talented dancers. What it has been short on, until recently, are opportunities outside of the mainstream companies, as well as access to a more international repertoire. That is changing now, and, with the creation of Acosta Danza, launched in 2016, Acosta is determined to open the doors even wider to new ideas and audiences.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
University of Kentucky students travel to Arts Advocacy Day in DC each year. PC Dana Rogers Photography

There's so much more to the dance world than making and performing dances. Arts administrators do everything from raising money to managing companies to building new audiences. With the growing number of arts administration programs in colleges, dancers have an opportunity to position themselves for a multifaceted career on- or offstage—and to bring their unique perspective as artists to administrative work.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Photo via the Hammer Museum

While Solange was busy helping big sis Beyoncé give Coachella its best performances of all time, an equally compelling project was quietly circulating on Instagram:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Voices
"There is a palpable sense of hope for the future." Photo by Devin Alberda via Instagram

New York City Ballet continues its first year without Peter Martins at the helm as our spring season opens tonight.

When he retired at the start of the new year, we plunged headfirst into unknown, murky waters. Who would the new director be? When would we know? Would we dancers get some say in the decision? Who would oversee the Balanchine ballets? Who would be in charge of casting? Would a new director bring along huge upheaval? Could some of us be out of a job?

Keep reading... Show less


Viral Videos



Get Dance Magazine in your inbox