sat 20/07/2024

Mayerling, The Royal Ballet | reviews, news & interviews

Mayerling, The Royal Ballet

Mayerling, The Royal Ballet

The last performance at Covent Garden by Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg

Ecstatic end: Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru in Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling

So last night the Royal Ballet’s first couple, at shockingly short notice, gave their last performance with the company, in MacMillan’s Mayerling, a terrifying, piteous experience that I know I’ll never see surpassed. Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru have blessed this millennium, both artists who used the lightness of their natural physical abilities to tear into dark emotional places, and who last night tore the Royal Opera House’s sell-out crowd apart.

Kobborg the Light-of-foot, Cojocaru the Light-of-heart, dancing away in the blackest, bleakest ballet of all.

Mayerling’s demands on the leading male role are well-known - six women to partner in pas de deux that push far beyond what ballet has ever expressed in duet, to emotionally and physically extreme places, a man with his mother, his wife, his mistresses, some for convenience, others for secret desperate plots. Kenneth  MacMillan, by 1978, knew that strenuous acrobatics meant nothing when a man and a woman meet unless they were speaking of despair. His character, Rudolf, uses and abuses women, but the women are complicit, desiring. The picture of damaged characters is unhappy, but utterly compelling.

Rudolf is on a trajectory to hell from the start: making a pompous imperial marriage to an anonymous princess, whacking her about, and only feeling himself with a manipulative mistress, a den of prostitutes, and finally a teenage groupie who will do anything at all to be with him. In this turbulent place, many fine male dancers have played Rudolf with a percentage of innocence, as a victim of parental damage, or have sketched out something more rebarbative for spectators to colour with their own imaginings. No one has filled in every jot and tittle of Rudolf as powerfully and as unforgivingly as the unmatchable Kobborg.

He was 41 yesterday (and the audience lustily sang "Happy Birthday" to him at the end of the show) and he has suffered heavily for months from a back injury. All of that - age, pain, tiredness - he used to shattering effect in his performance. Stiff and jaded, his Rudolf had supped full of horrors like Macbeth, and he had sold his soul like Faust. I remember 20 years ago the nobility of Irek Mukhamedov’s Rudolf, crumbling under pressure, taking refuge in drugs; Kobborg’s was a man driving himself into the dark, stabbing at his arm with no excuses to make to himself.

Watching the contorted and unruly passions so astoundingly choreographed by MacMillan, you find yourself engaged in a moral discussion about souls and redemption. How bad, mad or sad is Rudolf? Could some intense therapy or kind social work have saved him? Kobborg’s Rudolf is a man alone, verging on unforgivable. But not quite unforgivable. Glimmers of a soul flickered in the Dane's sudden, spry jumps, like bright outlines around an impenetrable darkness.

Kobborg flips the women in his life around as casually as cards. They mean, literally, nothing

There is nothing of the hapless about him, unlike some other (very touching) interpretations of Rudolf. He flips the women in his life around as casually as cards. They mean, literally, nothing. He is completely aware of the emptiness of his soul, almost curious about it. He forgives no one, he forgives himself least of all. The only person he spares that critique is his mother, the fragile Empress Elizabeth - illogical intellectually, but emotionally it’s this Rudolf’s reprieve.

I shivered last night to watch this complicated, terrible man. He grimaced as he leapt, his world full of crooked angles and black corners, illustrated in his tortured dance. He wept to see his mother shunned by his father, but when young Mary Vetsera entered his world, you feared for her. Cojocaru played her initially as full of braggadocio - she fired his pistol over his head to show she was up for his game. Then seconds later she was scared, worried how far this play would go. Even as they went to their deaths in MacMillan’s extreme sex games, she was still persuading herself to believe in him; for sure, she died in fearful doubt, not in ecstasy. God, how painful it was. Bouquets too to Genesia Rosato as Vetsera's mother, and above all James Hay, whose Bratfisch heralds a thrilling new talent.

I can’t say which loss is greater to the Royal Ballet, which has handled its greatest talent so poorly in the past decade (Guillem! Polunin! Cojocaru! Kobborg!) and now is left scandalously bereft at the top. I remember how an elfin 19-year-old Romanian arrested my attention in Ashton's Symphonic Variations with the natural grace of her head movement (see video above) - it was there again last night, that instinctive urgency and longing in her dancing, the marrying of a rare intuition of balance with a gentle charm which enables her to spin a cobweb over a stage as she passes. I also remember how a young Dane sparkled with both foot-fleetedness and arresting charisma as James in Scottish Ballet’s La Sylphide in Glasgow 20 years ago. Both were special, and they grew into greatness feeding on the Royal Ballet's ample repertoire.

They are equal as actors, both remarkable in the realism and mutual dialogue of their characterisations, and also uncannily well-matched in physical style, both more rarefied than London-raised dancers, she from Russian schooling, he from the superb Bournonville stable. I retain delighted memories of their lightness yet richness of being: their Bayadères and Giselles together, their acid noir in The Lesson, their unsentimental emotion in Onegin and Romeo and Juliet, her Titania, Cinderella and Aurora, and her beauty in new Kim Brandstrup ballets, his funny, dumb-hick Colas, his perfectly pitched self-righteousness as Oberon, his heartbreaking Des Grieux and, most extreme in his protean range, his blistering Rudolf.

In the tidal wave of curtain calls, flowers and ovations last night, Cojocaru simply pointed at Kobborg, which was right. This was a culminating performance by him in particular. Cojocaru’s dancing career will go on - she is only 32, and the world offers her a more generous stage than the Royal Ballet has done recently. Kobborg has much to accomplish in choreography and directing, and he too will go on. But I feel incomprehensible sadness at losing them. The Royal Ballet is now a darker, dimmer place. The brightest stars are gone.

Watch the exquisite clarity of Cojocaru and Kobborg in extracts from Ashton's Cinderella with the Royal Ballet

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I share Ismene Brown's incomprehensible sadness. We have been blessed with joy, passion and supreme artistry by this wonderful partnership. The sensitivity, clarity and expressiveness of Alina's dancing is unparalleled. Antoinette Sibley said of Alina at a very early stage in her career, "I knew she was a ballerina from the way she stood". Alina, like Fonteyn, could make you cry from the way she stood on the stage. We can only wish them both the greatest happiness and success in the next phase of their careers but it leaves the ballet world in London bereft.

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