"It'll feel like we're on tour."
That was the reaction of a grateful Connor Walsh, principal dancer with the Houston Ballet about the troupe's move to the Hobby Center for its performance of Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling.
Because of significant flooding damage to the Wortham Theater Center, the ballet is not able to perform there but was able to secure the Hobby stage to bring on the much-anticipated North American debut of the work MacMillan wrote that was first performed by the Royal Ballet in London in 1978.
And it's a heck of a story, based upon historical events that scandalized the world at the time and inspired conspiracy theories for years to come. It concerns the death of Crown Prince Rudolf, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his 17-year-old mistress Baroness Mary Vetsera who died in an apparent murder-suicide pact in 1889.
There’s sex, violence, drugs, obsession and insanity – all set to MacMillan's powerful choreography with music by Franz Liszt.
Walsh will dance the physically demanding lead role on opening night. “Not only is it sort of a non-stop role – in the first act he’s on stage nearly the whole time – and he also has a lot of different relationships: a pas de deux with his mother, a pas de deux with his wife, with his mistress, his wife’s sister; he actually has two mistresses, so he has five pas de deux during the whole ballet on top of some some solos and ensemble work,” says Walsh.
"In terms of the amount of dancing it's just relentless," says Walsh. "On top of that it's a very emotionally draining role because of the path that he goes down. He sort of goes down that dark spiral into addiction and losing his mind and health."
MacMillan is a master storyteller so there's always a narrative, Walsh says. "One of the fun things for us in the company is that it is based on a true story. In the first couple weeks everyone was coming in to rehearsal saying 'Guess what I found out? Did you know that my character did that?' We were so excited to share what we were learning. It's been a great opportunity for us to dive into history as well as into a great piece of art."
Asked what it will be like performing on a stage other than the Wortham, Walsh was nothing but positive.
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"I think it’ll be a special occasion. The Hobby Center has opened its door to us and it's wonderful," he says. "Most of the dancers in the company have never performed at the Hobby. So in a way it’ll feel like we’re on tour. It will also feel like a coming together of the city, getting to know our city in a way many of us have never done before.
"And we’re just happy to be able to get back on stage.That we can premiere this work will be great."
Performances are scheduled for September 22-24 at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Because of damage done to the Wortham Theater Center during Hurricane Harvey, performances have been moved to Sarofim Hall at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org. $30 to $135.