‘We did it! We made it!’ The first curtain calls taken by Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru at the end of their last Mayerling were in character (Rudolf and Mary having elected to die together) and then as the dancers themselves: for their farewell performances with the Royal Ballet, they had overcome injuries in order to accomplish a demanding three-act ballet.
Whatever their reasons for leaving the company at apparently short notice, performing Mayerling was a considerable achievement on both their parts. The role of Crown Prince Rudolf requires the dancer to partner six different women – and Kobborg has been suffering from a back injury. He turned 41 on the day of the performance, serenaded from backstage. Cojocaru, still only 32, has also been injured, cancelling other performances but determined dance this one. They have been the Royal Ballet’s Special Ones (like Sylvie Guillem before them): exceptional artists but not always amenable as team players.
I remember them both as youngsters at the start of their careers. Kobborg had recently graudated from the Danish Royal Ballet School when he was a stand-out soloist during the second Bournonville Festival in 1992. (He still had a full head of hair then.) Cojocaru had just joined the Royal Ballet from Kiev in 1999, age 19, when she first danced Symphonic Variations as last-minute substitute. Both were unmistakeable stars in the making: how fortunate the Royal Ballet has been to feature them in leading roles, often together, over the past decade.
We haven’t seen enough of them in recent years, either because they were unavailable through injury or were guesting elsewhere. They may have felt thwarted by too few opportunities to create new roles and experience fresh challenges as members of the company. Their account of Mayerling on 5 June was a reminder of their artistry and intelligence in re-interpreting complex roles within an ensemble of fellow dance-actors. What a loss – even if Cojocaru returns as a guest artist after Kobborg retires.
He was noticeably stiffer as Rudolf, turning his impairment of physical grace into a psychological disability. This heir to the throne thought he was in control, entitled to do whatever he wanted. He glared at his father, the Emperor, when reprimanded for making a spectacle of himself with his bride’s sister at his wedding ball. He repulsed his mistress, Marie Larisch (Hikaru Kobayashi), for being too clinging and fobbed off the insistent Hungarian conspirators.
His undermining weakness was cruelly revealed in the ‘closet scene’ with his mother, Empress Elisabeth (Kristen McNally). When he was unable to elicit from her the love and understanding he needed, he grew violent. She had failed to prevent him becoming a twisted being who hated himself – a hatred he took out on his hapless bride (Emma Maguire). I’ve never seen a Rudolf who smiled so sinisterly: sometimes secretly to himself, drunkenly in the tavern, smugly as he retrieved his gun after the police raid, crazily with Mary Vetsera. He believed he was the manipulator in charge. Only when he saw his mother with her lover did he revert to impotent distress.
Cojocaru as Mary Vetsera was presented to him as the perfect groupie, groomed by Larisch to fulfil his sex-as-death fantasies. It’s evident from the first time we see Vetsera as child at Rudolf’s wedding party that she models herself on Larisch. She copies the same steps then, and does so again when Larisch visits the Vetsera household. When Cojocaru danced briefly on her own in the fortune-telling scene, her special qualities as a ballerina were evident: she phrased the choreography beautifully, playing with the music, contrasting small steps with poised arabesques. This Mary would catch anyone’s attention.
When she let off Rudolf’s gun in her night-time encounter with him, my blood ran cold, recognising a terrible complicity between these twin souls. Mary, no innocent, knew what she was doing as she offered herself to Rudolf, his lethal solace. Cojocaru’s body seemed infinitely malleable, though a few hesitations revealed that Mary’s resolution wavered when she fully realised Rudolf’s desperation. She had no qualms, however, when the time came for their suicide pact. The vital girl of earlier scenes had become a death-addict. By then, Rudolf was so far gone that he barely knew who she was. Kobborg had traced Rudolf’s arc from control freak to damned outcast, at the limit of his endurance – as the character and the exhausted dancer.
During the flower-filled curtain calls, Kobborg and Cojocaru acknowledged their partnership, embracing each other and bidding farewell to the company and their audience. She put her hand on her heart and pointed at him to take all the credit. His smile was, at last, joyous and genuine. Among the tributes to the other leading dancers, the audience gave extra loud applause to James Hay as Bratfisch, a blazing star in the making. A glorious and sad occasion, with all too many farewells by the end of the season: Leanne Benjamin, Mara Galeazzi, Brian Maloney, all leaving. Alas.