Warning: this post will contain gushing. Much gushing. Because to be honest, there’s really nothing to criticise about the Royal Ballet’s Manon – Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography is breathtaking, Massenet’s score is beautiful and dramatic, and the standard of dancing and production is exceptionally high. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I’d been looking forward to the Royal Opera House’s live broadcast of their season opener, Manon, for months. So October 16th saw me comfortably settled in a seat at the Manchester Printworks Odeon with a packet of giant chocolate buttons. I love the ROH screenings, with their special adverts about forthcoming productions (Natalia Osipova dancing with Steven McRae in La Fille Mal Gardée, anyone??) and behind the scenes clips… Though in this case I did feel like a bit too much was given away about the plot in the rehearsal footage and interviews. The conversation between Darcey Bussell and Lady MacMillan about the choreographer’s methods was particularly interesting, and the fact that the ROH so actively encourages people to tweet is great for ballet nerds like me – I got a virtual wave from Bennet Gartside, who was dancing that evening, and one of my tweets was displayed onscreen. That means it came up everywhere Manon was being broadcast… Eeep!
One of the great things about watching ballet in a cinema is that you can really appreciate the detail only camera close-ups (or very expensive seats) can give you. One thing that really stood out was the volume and quality of period costumes and elaborate wigs – huge credit has to go to the ROH costume department for their work in this production. And up close, the chemistry between the lead dancers, Marianela Nunez and Federico Bonelli, is undeniable. Nunez dances an utterly bewitching Manon, all Juliet-like girlish innocence in the first act before transforming into an Odile-esque seductress in the second – she’s beautiful, her acting skills are as incredible as ever and it made complete sense for every man onstage to be throwing themselves at her. Bonelli is a handsome, devoted Des Grieux and his sadness as he watches his beloved dance and flirt with other men through the party scene is truly touching. Their pas de deux are the high points of the ballet – the first bedroom scene is full of passionate, youthful joy whilst the second gives way to mounting anger and distrust as Manon refuses to renounce her new wealth. Every single movement conveys these emotions perfectly.
It’s not all that intense though – there’s plenty of divertissements, group dances and comic relief to lighten the mood. At the party in Act II, a drunk Lescaut (Ricardo Cervera) and his mistress (a flirty, sharp, precise Laura Morera) dance a clumsy, confused duet that could easily have provided inspiration for the Red Queen’s adagio in Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Two courtesans compete for attention in another dance, elbowing each other out of the way. When the clients are being matched with girls, one of these courtesans (Yuhui Choe) gets in a huff when she’s given to an old man. As for Manon, once her dramatic entrance has been made she is literally passed from man to man in an endless series of lifts – this reflects her commodification and the fact that, like every woman at the party, she is an object at the mercy of male power, wealth and desire. This idea is first introduced in the infamous pas de trois between Manon, her brother and Monsieur GM – Lescaut parades his sister in front of the wealthy gentleman like a tradesman with a prospective buyer, showing her off, while Manon herself teases him with her eyes and flashes of leg. This makes it seem as if she has power, but of course it’s all an illusion.
This illusion is shattered in Act III, which is a stark and harrowing contrast to the splendid, raucous gatherings and passionate love scenes of the previous acts. Having been shipped to America with other convicted prostitutes, Manon suffers at the hands of a Gaoler (I will never look at Gary Avis in the same way again) before being saved by Des Grieux and escaping to the swamp. Weak and exhausted, she dances one final pas de deux – or more accurately, Des Grieux throws her around as if desperately trying to shake some life into her. Nunez’s last transformation into this dying Manon is incredibly moving, and when it comes to the curtain calls both she and Bonelli are clearly overcome. I’m sure they weren’t the only ones.
Having seen Manon a second time, I think it could be my favourite of all MacMillan’s works. It may be controversial, but I do find that Romeo and Juliet drags occasionally – whereas Manon is the perfect marriage of narration, dance and music. I can’t wait to see it again one day.