Posted on June 19, 2013
David Wall, who died on June 18, 2013, created the role of Crown Prince Rudolf in Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling. In 2007, he spoke to Zoë Anderson about creating and coaching the ballet. Here is the interview, from Dancing Times, April 2007.
Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling returns to The Royal Ballet’s repertoire later this month. This 1978 ballet shows the decline and death of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary, a long and arduous role originally danced by David Wall. Here, he speaks about the ballet’s creation.
“I found it very natural, working with Kenneth,” David Wall says now. “I felt he trusted the dancers, what we were doing. He loved to explore, physically and psychologically. Sometimes you’d realise, god, I can’t do this on stage! People would see! Some of the pas de deux I did in Isadora, with Merle Park, that’s probably the only time I got embarrassed rehearsing. But we trusted him enough to be able to do virtually anything for him.”
In person, Wall is friendly and exuberant: there’s a lot of laughter in this interview. His famous red hair is now grey. We spoke at the headquarters of English National Ballet, where Wall has been principal répétiteur for the last ten years. “My job is the welfare of the dancers, and the ballets that they have to dance, the standard of the productions that they’re dancing. Teaching class, rehearsing the company, and I look after the wellbeing of some of the injured dancers.”
He joined The Royal Ballet touring company in 1963, quickly becoming a star. “I think that early training, for seven years in the touring company, equipped me very well when it came to Lescaut [in MacMillan’s Manon], to all the created roles I did. My first director, John Field, was very much a theatre man. He wanted the classical princes to be proper characters.” Wall also singles out Ninette de Valois’ The Rake’s Progress as a turning point in his career. “I was only 18 when I did that. I really didn’t think I had the acting experience. But it was a role I absolutely adored. That’s a very episodic piece, showing the development of a character, the Rake, from a young man to the madhouse. In a way, Mayerling is similar. It’s episodic, there’s a time span, you’re watching the journey of one person through their lives.”
Mayerling had a long creative process. “We actually started – probably over a year before the premiere, on the pas de deux.” It’s a complex ballet, with an elaborate story and many characters: Rudolf, his young wife Stephanie, his mother the Empress, a series of mistresses, other figures at court. It ends with Rudolf’s death in the hunting lodge at Mayerling, in a suicide pact with his young mistress Mary Vetsera. The first Mary, MacMillan’s muse Lynn Seymour, was directing the Ballet of the Bavarian State Opera, in Munich. “So she was flying backwards and forwards, we were taking every opportunity to get the ballet created.”
MacMillan urged his dancers to do as much research as possible, to read about the period and the characters. “But we fell into difficulties,” remembers Wall, “because every account varied slightly. There were so many conflicting views about his later life. So I felt that it was better to base the character around his early childhood. Being frightened by his military tutor with a gun in his bedroom at the age of something like 11 years old. Being marched in the snow, in an overcoat, with his mother watching him from a palace window, at six in the morning. I felt I could imagine how I might have developed, having had those early stresses.”
In the studio, though, “we didn’t concentrate too much on the drama of the piece. We were working from the technical point of view. Kenneth was very good at disguising the intricacies of his choreography. Those moments where you’d say, ‘Kenneth, I can’t do this position, because my arm doesn’t bend that way’! He had surrounded himself with a cast that he knew would take risks, dramatically as well as physically. We were all on the same wavelength.”
Yet Mayerling is full of mime, of moments where the dancers must express emotion almost without movement. In one scene, the Emperor’s mistress sings a song on stage, while the court listen. “All of that tension in that song, with Rudolf, wasn’t something that Kenneth actually asked for. He’d trust me to get drama out of it. I think one of his geniuses was getting the right people together. He just placed everybody, let everybody do what he felt. Once you’ve got the bearing of a character, how they would stand or move, the period, how their reactions and responses would be – it all fits together like a jigsaw, without Kenneth having to say too much. It was very explicit, I’m not saying he wasn’t explicit, but it just seemed to happen. He had a vision in his head, of how he wanted the pieces to be. Somehow, without even telling us, they evolved.”
Rudolf is an exhausting role. “It’s one of the few ballets where, the next day, one really felt totally drained,” Wall says now. The long first act is particularly demanding, ending with a violent scene for Rudolf and Stephanie. “We’d worked on the first act over so many months, not always in sequence. When we came to run it, for the first time, I hadn’t realised how much work was involved! It’s a very heavy role. And the pas de deux with Stephanie is hard. One is always taught, as a partner, to look after her, to cherish her. With that pas de deux, you couldn’t fake it – you had to grab hold of her with a certain amount of power, otherwise it just didn’t work. Dear Wendy [Ellis, the first cast Stephanie] was having to take such enormous risks.”
Throughout the 1970s, MacMillan was a controversial figure at The Royal Ballet. He had replaced Frederick Ashton as director, in a changeover that was badly mishandled by the Royal Opera House management. Besides this resentment, there was fierce criticism of MacMillan’s untidy craftsmanship, of padding or weaker scenes in his long ballets. Yet Mayerling was acclaimed at once. “We’d worked for such a long time on the piece, we didn’t actually worry whether the audience liked it or not, because there was such an involvement,” says Wall. “The audience was the last thing that one was thinking about. Because he’d managed to knit together these characters in such a way. We automatically thought it was going to be a terrible damp squib, as most of his three act ballets were – Manon didn’t get wild reviews – and suddenly everybody said, oh, this is fantastic! It threw me, totally.”
Wall has coached the ballet, working with Antony Dowson and, more recently, Johan Kobborg. “I don’t want them to dance it, or act it, the way I did. I think they need to have the same emphasis on different scenes but they have to bring their own personalities, their own artistry. Which both of them did, very well indeed. One tried to encourage small things – the way his physical bearing changes, from act one to act three, should be visible. What Johan was doing was really splendid. There were just moments that, for me, in rehearsal, weren’t reading properly. I chatted to him and said, ‘There’s this moment here that doesn’t look in keeping with what you’ve just done.’ One is not trying to get a blueprint. That’s where Kenneth was marvellous, he allowed different casts to bring their own things to it.”
Wall has many more MacMillan stories. In 1975, the choreographer had come into rehearsals enthusing about a wildlife documentary, eagerly describing herds of animals filmed at waterholes. “We were all wanting to know what his new ballet was about. Somehow it got around that it would be about the migration of the wildebeest….” At first, I thought Wall was describing a wilder company rumour. Not necessarily. “I think they started the piece. I wasn’t in the first movement, but they did start it. Then we went to Japan, on a very successful tour. When we came back, the whole ballet turned into Rituals” – a very different ballet, MacMillan’s homage to Japan – “but using the same music!”
At first, Wall isn’t sure about his story – but adds that Wayne Eagling, now ENB’s director, had danced that elusive, pre-Rituals version. On the way out, we met Eagling in the lift. Had there really been wildebeest? “Yes, absolutely!”
Picture: David Wall as Crown Prince Rudolf and Lesley Collier as Mary Vetsera in The Royal Ballet production of Mayerling. Photograph © Leslie E Spatt