The Royal Ballet Dances Back to Downtown

The Royal Ballet’s Mayerling, set to the music of Franz Liszt, draws from a real-life murder-suicide involving Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince Rudolf in 1889. It is at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Friday-Sunday, July 5-7

For almost nine decades, London’s Royal Ballet has been creating innovative dance with some of the world’s top performers. This week, the company visits Los Angeles for the first time in nearly a quarter century.

The Royal Ballet is staging its dark and dramatic Mayerling, one of its most iconic offerings. Three different casts will be in place for three performances of the three-hour work on Friday-Sunday, July 5-7, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Mayerling was originally mounted in 1978, and this production utilizes the original choreography of Sir Kenneth MacMillan, a renowned dancer-turned-choreographer who served as the ballet’s artistic director from 1970-1977, and then as its choreographer. The production draws from history, in this case the build-up to Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince Rudolf Franz Karl Joseph’s murder-suicide with his lover in the town of Mayerling in 1889.

The Royal Ballet has revived the work multiple times since it was first staged, with this latest one starting in 2017. In a phone call recently from Tokyo, where the company was performing on an international tour, Royal Ballet Director Kevin O’Hare said that Mayerling is one of the most complex works in the troupe’s repertoire, both physically and in its staging.

The production features nearly the company’s entire slate of dancers, with almost 90 people on stage over the course of three acts. Set to the music of Franz Liszt — performed by a full orchestra — it follows the adulterous, hedonistic and moody Rudolf as he deals with his unhappy marriage, and his parents the Emperor and Empress’ tumult. Meanwhile, he pursues a young baroness, Mary Vetsera.

“It has this amazing central figure and the women around him,” O’Hare said, “but more than that, everyone on the stage has to be invested in the story or it doesn’t work. Audiences can get transported into this very intense work.”

Creating Atmosphere

The Royal Ballet was founded in 1931 and is the United Kingdom’s top ballet company. Based in the Royal Opera House in Convent Garden, London, it has premiered a number of works, including lauded versions of Sleeping Beauty and Romeo and Juliet.

Despite Mayerling’s 19th century setting, most of the choreography is modern, with a number of high-energy, athletic moments. These are complemented by elements such as an Act One scene set during a waltz, that, O’Hare said, is reminiscent, though not a replica, of Viennese waltzes of the era. MacMillan’s choreography, he added, was intended to push past the stifled atmosphere of the setting and come off as thrilling and erotic.

Mayerling is about as big as you can get, with sets and costumes, narrative, death and murder — all those good things,” said Rachel Moore, president and CEO of the Music Center, which is hosting the company as part of its series Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center.

This is also a big get for the Music Center, as Mayerling’s run in Bunker Hill marks the first Royal Ballet visit since a 1995 production of Swan Lake at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Moore said that while the company has visited Orange County in the interim, part of the challenge of hosting the Royal Ballet is that its productions generally require a massive stage that can handle the sets. This includes opulent, drape-lined ballrooms, dark wood-filled studies and the rural taverns and hunting lodges of Mayerling itself.

Having the Royal Ballet return to the Music Center puts another type of dance on display in Downtown, Moore said, complementing works that the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Company Wayne McGregor performed earlier in the season (Wayne McGregor himself is the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer).

MacMilllan died in 1992, and O’Hare said that the choreography was tweaked repeatedly before his death. However, the company now sticks to the final composition.

Still, O’Hare said that each dancer brings something new to Mayerling, and performers often come back to help coach new dancers.

“Also we have three different casts for Mayerling,” O’Hare said. “That’s what keeps it alive and fresh. If you came to all three performances, they’d each be quite different.”

While the story is generally dark and intense, driven by Rudolf’s tempestuous nature and fits of rage, O’Hare said there are moments of levity, including a scene where Rudolf’s valet tries to entertain him in a tavern. Still, the focus is on the Crown Prince and the baroness as Rudolf becomes increasingly destructive.

Although this marks the company’s first visit to Los Angeles in decades, O’Hare said he hopes it will be the beginning of a more frequent relationship between the Royal Ballet and the city.

Mayerling runs Friday-Sunday, July 5-7, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 972-0711 or musiccenter.org.

nicholas@downtownnews.com