Dance review: Mayerling, Royal Opera House

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In Mayerling, Kenneth MacMillan creates a world on stage, a stifling, glittering court that boils over with repression and need. Telling the story of the doomed Crown Prince Rudolf, who commits suicide with his teenaged mistress, MacMillan fills the stage with charismatic, individual portraits. It’s a darkly adult ballet that shows off The Royal Ballet’s strength in drama.

Edward Watson’s Rudolf is trapped by expectations and indulgences, isolated as the heir to the empire. As he struggles with court life, full of spies and people jockeying for position, each failure to find intimacy sends him spiralling further out of control. Watson is lucid in Rudolf’s disastrous choices and resentments. He’s grown in authority in this role, now dominating crowd scenes as well as the jagged, anguished solos and driven pas de deux. Watson’s Rudolf pities himself more than he fights against his own nature.

Sometimes MacMillan’s ambition runs ahead of him; the moustachioed Hungarian officers don’t convey much sense of the separatist Hungarian cause. Yet the court’s intricate relationships and power struggles are brilliantly conveyed. When Marie Larisch, Rudolf’s former mistress, meets Mary Vetsera, his would-be mistress, she tells her fortune. It’s a tiny scene that shows us Larisch clinging to power by manipulating events, priming the groupie-ish Mary. For her first sexual encounter with Rudolf, Mary has already turned herself into an embodiment of his morbid fantasies.

Mara Galeazzi, who retires at the end of this season, is a lighter Mary. Her fluttering feet and show the character’s pliability, rather than her own obsessive drive. Sarah Lamb’s Larisch has a delight in power, without losing tenderness for Rudolf. Zenaida Yanowsky is superb as Rudolf’s mother, with flowing, regal lines and conflicting emotions. Laura Morera’s Mitzi Caspar is a tart too sensible to waste time on hearts of gold. As Rudolf’s unhappy wife, Emma Maguire is fearless, despite a slip in the big pas de deux.

MacMillan’s dances for all these women are distinctive and bold. Even when they’re lifted or tugged through athletic, explicit pas de deux, they never lose agency: they’re complex people, driven by their own needs.

Nicholas Georgiadis’s magnificent designs conjure up a sumptuous, claustrophobic world. His costumes look heavy with velvet and lace, yet still allow these dancers to move. Martin Yates conducts a vivid account of the Liszt music, chosen and arranged by John Lanchbery.

Until 15 June. Box office 020 7304 4000

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