Manon

Choreography by Kenneth MacMillan
Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House
(2011)

Manon was to have opened with Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson as the first cast, but injury brought forward Steven McRae's debut in the role of Des Grieux - to excellent reviews.

Well, there were other promising debuts during the run: Marianela Nuñez and Nehemiah Kish, Sarah Lamb and Rupert Pennefather.

In addition, of course, to the regular pairings of Tamara Rojo with Carlos Acosta, Alina Cojocaru with Johan Kobborg, Laura Morera with Federico Bonelli, and Mara Galeazzi with David Makhateli. What riches, what a range of interpretation What a difficult choice

I was more than fortunate with my choice of Sarah Lamb and Rupert Pennefather, a couple who must remind older patrons of the first pair to have had the dance made on them by Kenneth MacMillan in 1974 - Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell, the golden couple cleverly cast against type in this highly charged sexually explicit ballet.

Pennefather is very much in the danseur noble tradition of Dowell, tall, elegant, long clean line. Delicate, petite Sarah Lamb resembles Jennifer Penney, a fellow North American, another golden girl, on whom some of the work was created when Sibley was injured. They fit well in this tragic tale of ill-starred love, venality, and vulgarity - his guileless face, her deceptive dainty prettiness.

MacMillan created the lovers' duets first, and they are out of this world, equal to, if not surpassing, his Romeo and Juliet. Stand alone without scenery these breathtaking pas de deux would still tear at the heart and rouse the senses. Tender, gently beseeching on his part, sexually abandoned on her part.

The moment of transition from a young provincial girl in love with a handsome student - eyes locked in each other's gaze, limbs entwining, her body draped around his neck and shoulders, soaring lifts, the joyful discovery of sexual passion - to calculating seductress when Manon suddenly realises her own power, Lamb achieves with astonishing subtlety. Men fall at her feet. She seizes her chances.

Sex and beauty - while it lasts - are for sale. And her louche debauched brother Lescaut is the opportunistic pimp. In this dark role the darkly handsome Brazilian Thiago Soares, his looks a contrast to Pennefather's fair Englishness, the clichés of good and bad, is quick and slick, fast on his feet, his legs like flashing sabres, and his cocky manner a delight in his drunken duet with his mistress. Claire Calvert, promoted to First Artist this season, seizes her chance with this showy coquettish role.

Lescaut and the all-powerful Monsieur G. M. manhandle Manon like a piece of merchandise. In decadent eighteenth century France anything and everything is available at a price. The rich seek out the slums for kicks; the poor pick their pockets in return, or sell their own bodies. But woe betide them if they are caught. Tumbrils of fallen women pass by in the opening scene, an augury of Manon's fate in the colonies, where she is still for sale.

The superlative choreography is rich, dense with meaning, drama and emotion. An adult ballet, there are moves that had never been seen before in classical ballet: Manon's gaoler draws her body erotically back and forth between his legs like an inanimate object, and then discards her like a rag. She gets a diamond bracelet for her pains - more a handcuff, if only she knew it - just like the one the wealthy Monsieur G. M. gave her in Paris when he made her the queen of the demi-monde in Madame's hôtel particulier.

Manon's journey from ingénue on the way to a convent - the germ of amorality is already there when she picks the old gentleman's pocket in her carriage - to sweet lover, to high class courtesan, to downfall and then redemption demands not only dancing stamina, but acting skills. Lamb is wonderful. Her technique and reach is sure, her understanding sensitive, her dancing extraordinarily moving.

Pennefather looks like a young girl's dream, and his attention, his forlorn love, his loyalty are convincing. The last pas de deux, when they are escaping and know all is lost, is unbearable. A bedraggled Manon remembers her past, and gathers strength one last time.

Pennefather raises her from the floor, after a horizontal duet, and they dance what might have been if only she'd been true, till she fades and dies. His anguished face, her lifeless body, the swelling music leaves the audience in a state of catharsis. A collage of Massenet's music from various sources serves like an early Hollywood film score. It is the subtext. MacMillan knew how to wrench and pile on the emotions.

The dramatic choreographic art of Kenneth MacMillan is given fresh impetus in these interpretations. A signature work in the Royal Ballet's repertoire (the last outing was in 2008), one realises on each re-viewing the worth of the man. The dancers rise to his rewarding marathon demands. A splendid production, operatic, lyrical - my admiration grows with each viewing.

In rep till 4th June 2011

Reviewer: Vera Liber