Manon

Ballet in three acts
The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House
(2008)

Production photo

There has been some criticism of the Royal Ballet Director Dame Monica Mason's safe programming of the new ballet season at Covent Garden, but I for one am not complaining if the dancing and acting are of the calibre of yesterday's Manon, Leanne Benjamin and Johan Kobborg affecting in their tender pairing and technique.

Manon's pragmatic amorality, her corruption of a young 'man of feeling' and good breeding in the debauched atmosphere of Régence Paris, passionate all-consuming love, and redemption in a prison colony is a sensational plot for a three act narrative ballet, which demands exceptional acting skills from the dancers.

Quietly confident Benjamin is a lovely dancer, not flashy or showy, but reliable and a pleasure to watch.

Kobborg, a fine dancer too, who immerses himself deeply in dramatic roles, is well cast as the innocent Des Grieux, studying for the priesthood, out of his depth in a vile milieu.

There is no waiting for build up in a Kenneth MacMillan ballet - act one has a wondrous pas de deux, the first of several lyrical duets in a mire of depravity. This first lovers duet between Manon and Des Grieux is pure and romantic, he timid and restrained, she quick and bright, a mirror image of Juliet as she takes a flying leap of post-coital elation on to his bed.

Then follows the temptation of riches. The sexually charged trio with her brother Lescaut (Viacheslav Samodurov) and rich Monsieur G.M. (Christopher Saunders) is all legs, entwining, enflaming, stroked and manipulated by men. An object of male gratification, she is passed around like a piece of lightweight baggage.

Manon and her brother sell their souls and join the court of the courtesans. Wealth is theirs as long as they please the rich. Viacheslav Samodurov (Lescaut) and Lauren Cuthbertson as his mistress (a role Monica Mason danced in the original cast) please the audience with their drunken pas de deux - light relief comic partnering done very well, ballet so easy to pastiche.

But this cheerfully hedonistic Lescaut does not suggest the incestuousness I've seen in other productions of his relationship with his sister.

Leanne Benjamin is will-o'-the-wisp light and mercurial on her steel strong legs and beautiful feet. Her off balance turns and holds are secure, her soft arms vulnerable and expressive, but her tiny frame is not that of seductress - unless one is drawn to paedophilia, which is hinted at in MacMillan's staging - he did go down the dark psychological alleyways of human nature. Commanding and poised in her courtesan scenes, if swamped by her rich robe; in the final scene in the swamps of Louisiana, hair shorn, in drab dress, her gaunt frame crumples and folds.

Johan Kobborg is a perfect match as her poor lover Des Grieux: completely in his role even when sitting at the side at the card table, his kind gentle face tormented but forgiving. Captivated by Manon from the moment he sees her, he is prepared to follow her no matter where, no matter what, which she and her brother exploit, drawing him into their scheming.

He is caught out cheating at cards for her, Manon is banished to the colonies, and her brother killed. The tragic arc is not done yet: another man, her gaoler (Gary Avis), buys her; degrades her; and Des Grieux is forced to kill him.

The fallen woman is redeemed by love. The death scene pas de deux, a dance of exhaustion, he lifting her like a rag doll from a lying position, ends with Kobborg sitting, his head in his hands, over her body enveloped by the mists and creepers of the bayou.

A tale of doomed love, as moving as in the traditional ballets Giselle or Swan Lake.

Kenneth MacMillan's 1974 ballet, with its mix of lurid details (two murders, rape, and fellatio), comedy, dramatic passions, dastardly acts, duelling, death, and a breathtaking series of pas de deux for its young lovers (with echoes of his Romeo and Juliet), draws on Abbé Prévost's 18th century 'janséniste' moral tale, L'histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, but the idea of the ballet first came to MacMillan from the 1968 film, Manon 70, with Catherine Deneuve in the title role of the amoral free spirit. An interesting conflation of centuries for a modern classical ballet.

MacMillan's scenario is sympathetic to Manon, whose amorality, as he saw it, is driven by a fear of poverty, not by venality. So, although a courtesan pimped by her equally amoral brother Lescaut, her love for innocent Des Grieux is real, if divided. A ballet heroine in spite of herself.

If I have one reservation it is not the music by Massenet, an unusual knitting together of bits and pieces from a wide range of his works (but not from his opera), orchestrated and arranged by Leighton Lucas with the help of Hilda Gaunt - it serves well enough if one is not too purist about it - but the original set design, by the late Nicholas Georgiadis, inspired by the works of 18th century artists. All flouncy russets and gold, both the ragged curtains backdrop for the staging coach courtyard scene and the sumptuous hôtels particuliers interiors, I wonder whether it might be time to consider a new set, money and loyalty permitting. MacMillan's choreography holds up so well today, feels so modern, but the set looks overdressed, tired, and passé.

In rep 11 October - 27 November 2008

Reviewer: Vera Liber