A misunderstood aristocrat in love with a mysterious woman, both of whom die, may be a ballet cliché—Swan Lake, anyone?—but British choreographer Kenneth MacMillan’s 1978 Mayerling is anything but standard. Fleshing out the haunted lives and downward spiral of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, who died together in a suicide pact in 1889, MacMillan’s ballet is historically detailed, psychologically perceptive, and graphic, its mixture of realism and classical dance still daring more than three decades after it debuted.
This spring, the Stuttgart Ballet joined the few companies outside of England’s Royal Ballet to perform Mayerling in a production that will run through May of next year. Spanking-new sets and costumes by Jürgen Rose replace the dark, heavy, and solid look of Nicholas Georgiadis’s originals. While Rose’s sumptuous period costumes—monochromatic in white, black, shades of gray, and splashes of claret—emphasize the formality of 19th-century court life, MacMillan’s choreography gets underneath its cold surface to reveal Rudolf’s loneliness. As they did in real life, both his parents pursue separate love affairs, ignoring their politically liberal son. (The Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph I was not just an ironclad reactionary; he and his wife were starring members of Royals Behaving Badly.)
MacMillan does not sentimentalize Rudolf—guns, skulls, and rape are his toys of choice—but he choreographs the prince’s descent with passionate understanding and a whopping seven pas de deux. Rose’s increasingly abstract backdrops, meanwhile, help to reflect a growing madness. There is no gauzy romanticism in the relationship of Rudolf and Mary, just a white-hot depravity that destroys them both. —Mary Cargill