Mayerling: the real story behind the ballet

With the release of The Empress, there is a curiosity to link the series to a popular ballet. The Royal Ballet returns to present in October Mayerling, by Kenneth McMillan, which is precisely about one of the remarkable events in the life of Empress Elizabeth, or Sissi.

Mayerling was the palace used by the Habsburgs as a lodging for the hunting period, isolated in the woods of Vienna. Its name is more associated with a shadowy passage from Sissi’s life when her sole son – Rudolf – killed himself alongside his lover, Mary Vetsera. Rudolf was the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and his death interrupted the Habsburg line of succession. He was 30 years old, and Mary was only 17.

Known for his instability over multiple extramarital affairs, a rocky relationship with his mother, Sissi, and above all, an obsession with guns and death, Rudolf’s life didn’t seem like ballet material, but here’s McMillan’s genius. Instead of relying on simple love stories, he sought in all his works to explore human complexities. In Mayerling‘s case, he changes the versions of a publicized “accident” as the Habsburgs first allowed it to be published, all to omit whether the heir committed suicide and that he was addicted to morphine.

As with all of his ballets, there are strong scenes of sex and violence, and this production was created for David Wall and the choreographer’s muse, Canadian ballerina Lynn Seymour. Mayerling is considered one of McMillan’s masterpieces, alongside Romeo and Juliet and Manon.

For dancers, McMillan’s ballets are a dream because not only do they have “impossible” steps, they always have dramatic density. Defined as an “erotic poet of movement”, all roles and movements have three dimensions.

“I didn’t want to create pas de deux with endless dances,” he explained in 1978 of his work. “I wanted a complete narrative, where every move meant something to the audience,” he said.

Mayerling, in particular, brought a strong male role to the center of the story, something different in classical ballet until Rudolf Nureyev. For McMillan, it was a vehicle for the great English dancers as well. And at various times he dances with the important women of the dark and distressing Austrian prince’s life. Although Rudolf’s life is complicated, McMillan hoped the audience would empathize with his pain.

Mayerling‘s revival is part of the celebration of the 30th anniversary of Kenneth McMillan’s death in October 1992. The revival cast includes Royal Ballet stars Steve McRae and Natalia Osipova.


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