From Light to Darkness: Vadim Muntagirov dances Mayerling's Rudolf
As he prepares for the most demanding role of his career so far, Royal Ballet principal Vadim Muntagirov talks exclusively to Culture Whisper about mad bad Prince Rudolf
His partnering ability has earned him the affectionate nickname of ‘Vadream’ .
A natural danseur noble, he has given us a princely Siegfried in Swan Lake, a dignified knight Jean de Brienne in Raymonda, and a luminous Désiré well worth waking up for in The Sleeping Beauty.
Vadim Muntagirov as Prince Désiré in The Royal Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: © ROH 2014 Tristram Kenton
Muntagirov is, in short, the most Apollonian of The Royal Ballet’s current remarkable crop of male dancers, which is why I for one did a double take when I learnt he would be plumbing the depths of Dionysian debauchery by inhabiting the role of Crown Prince Rudolf in Kenneth MacMillan’s masterpiece, Mayerling.
Rudolf, heir to the decadent Austro-Hungarian empire, may be a prince, but is not one with whom Muntagirov had been acquainted before. An increasingly deranged character who yearns for the love of his distant mother, but is capable of extreme violence towards women, he is ill at ease with the politics of a dissolute court, fascinated with death, in the grip of a morphine addiction.
He meets his end through a murder-suicide pact with his teenage lover Mary Vetsera in the hunting lodge at Mayerling.
Talk about casting against type!
So, when I sat down with Vadim Muntagirov I asked him first how the casting had come about.
‘Kevin [O’Hare, Royal Ballet director] asked me if I want to do it, if I feel like I’m ready. Kevin wanted me to do it earlier, but I was a little bit scared. I heard lots of things about this role, that it’s one of the most challenging male ballets, so I was a little bit nervous. This time I decided to go for it, I felt that maybe it’s time for me to try’.
Now aged 32, Muntagirov had experienced MacMillan’s demanding choreography before: he was a touching Des Grieux in Manon, and enjoyed being stretched both physically and emotionally.
‘When you’re standing in the wings in the middle of the ballet and you’re really exhausted, but at the same time you’re so happy, and you don’t have the feel of a classical ballet dancer, you have some sort of mix of classical ballet and actor in a way like some sort of Hollywood actor.’
For all the demands of the choreography, Des Grieux is also a character of light. Rudolf, on the other hand, is enveloped in darkness. He is a man who mocks, batters and finally rapes his young bride, Princess Stephanie, on his wedding night.
‘The most difficult part of the ballet for me is being angry, I guess, so maybe the pas de deux with Stephanie, that’s the only bit which I really feel not myself. I have to go on stage and be very nasty, very angry, manipulate her, throw her around, that’s maybe the most challenging.’
However, after six weeks’ rehearsal, at the time we met Muntagirov felt he was developing an understanding of his own Rudolf.
‘I want the audience to see my Rudolf not as a monster, but to feel sorry for me; in a way it’s not really my fault I am that way, unfortunately from my childhood… there are some things maybe a little bit similar like I experienced in life, though not the drugs, not that extreme!
‘For example, when I was in Russia my parents had to send me away to ballet school, so I always missed parents’ love.
Vadim Muntagirov in rehearsal as Rudolf with Itziar Mendizabal as Empress Elizabeth. Photo: © ROH 2022 Andrej Uspenski
‘I wanted to be with them, I wanted to be in bed between my mum and dad, but aged 10 they sent me to a different city [Perm, 450km from his home town of Chelyabinsk], so I kind of had to survive by myself. When I experienced some problems with life, most of the times I had to deal with it myself… so, yeah, I don’t feel like a really nasty monster Rudolf.’
Muntagirov is being coached by some eminent interpreters of the role, including possibly the greatest Rudolf of all, fellow Russian Irek Mukhamedov.
Irek Mukhamedov as Prince Rudolf, Viviana Durante as Mary Vetseta. Photo: © ROH
Speaking to me just a few years ago, Muhamedov said Rudolf was his favourite MacMillan role, but stressed how uniquely demanding it was:
‘You had to be Rudolf, you cannot be yourself even one second, even in the interval, you have to be continuing with Rudolf, otherwise you lose the plot, you lose the momentum, you lose that growing role – the role grows from beginning to the end. If you switch off, it’s very difficult to come back.'
Muntagirov enjoyed working with Mukhamedov:
‘He is also a leftie, so he’s doing everything to the left same as me, so he could show me how to do it to the left. And he told me, “after you’ve done Mayerling, it will help you with your character in Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle”. He said it did change him somehow, he started to feel his characters more deeply.'
The duets that anchor Mayerling are among the hardest in the entire Royal Ballet repertoire, particularly the reckless, heavily sexual, increasingly desperate, encounters between Rudolf and Mary Vetsera, who will be danced by Yasmine Naghdi.
Vadim Muntagirov in rehearsal as Rudofl with Yasmine Naghdi as Mary Vetsera. Photo: © ROH 2022 Andrej Uspenski
Muntagirov seems almost shocked by the physical demands of the role.
‘I was in terrible, terrible pain for the first month, probably because it was so unusual. In a way it felt like I was doing something contemporary, because when I do Swan Lake all my muscles have to pull up, sometimes I don’t even breathe; and in Mayerling there are so many solos where you have to go very low and you have to actually breathe out, so the complete opposite.
‘Even to do morning class is not helpful for the upcoming rehearsals that day, because there’s a lot of partnering. I was trying to go to the gym to get a little bit stronger because there is an extreme amount of lifting and partnering, but I didn’t have the strength to go to the gym, because if I rehearse for two hours I’m done for the rest of the day.’
For all the pain and exhaustion, Muntagirov says he’s ‘honoured and happy’ to have been given this challenge and confesses he’s always wanted to play bad characters like the evil sorcerer Rothbart in Swan Lake: ‘I didn’t want to be the one who arrived and saved everyone,’ he laughs.
I am left in no doubt that Vadim Muntagirov’s Rudolf will be as compelling as so many of his other memorable characters and, who knows?, maybe his own light will help illuminate some of the darkest recesses of Rudolf's soul.
I can’t wait to see it.
Vadim Muntagirov dances Mayerling at the ROH on Friday 21 October and Friday 11 November at 7:30pm. Details and tickets here.