Review: Royal Ballet in Manon at Royal Opera House

Performance: in rep to 27 Nov 08
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 20 October 2008

Performance: 17 October 2008

Kenneth MacMillan’s full-length ballets repay countless viewings: this was the 213th performance of his *Manon* at the Royal Opera House and even if one had seen them all, I expect there would still be something new to catch the eye. No-one does panoramic crowd scenes as he did; with so many little stories playing out behind the main narrative thread. It’s a formulaic approach: eight of the nine first scenes of each Act in MacMillan’s most frequently performed ballets (Manon, Mayerling and Romeo & Juliet) involve a crowded stage; only the lovers’ intimacy in the latter’s Act III opening bedroom scene breaks the mould.

The interaction of all these characters is relished with the gestures and movement of every little vignette being carefully handed on – and enhanced – through generations of dancers: so, in Manon we have the harlots, innkeeper, skivvies, actresses, beggar girls and boys, townspeople, ratcatchers, servants, guards and footmen that inhabit these scenes – respectively the courtyard of an inn on the way to Paris, an ‘hôtel particulier’ (a high-class brothel) and the port of New Orleans. It doesn’t often get said that the enduring success of Manon has as much to do with the cherishing of these uncredited roles by the unnamed artists and students who pass through them and, on this evidence, the intricate panoply of background charm is perhaps even richer today than it was when MacMillan created the work in 1974.

Effective characterisation is also emphasised in the two key supporting roles; William Tuckett’s masterful portrayal of the lecherous, vindictive roué, Monsieur G.M; and Thiago Soares – as Manon’s fleshmonger brother, Lescaut – especially scoring a great comic success in the drunken duet with his mistress (Isabel McMeekan). All the way through the cast, performers were inhabiting roles that were old friends – Elizabeth McGorian’s Madame, Alistair Marriott as the Old Gentleman who first tempts Manon away from the convent, and Gary Avis as the anchor of the seven men who pass Manon around each other in the famous brothel dance that shows she is now just a plaything to be owned and passed between men.

Injuries to some lead dancers necessitated a ‘musical chairs’ rotation of principal pairings; Ed Watson was originally scheduled to dance this evening with Leanne Benjamin, but she was moved to partner Johan Kobborg. So Watson’s ‘Manon’ was the Italian ballerina, Mara Galeazzi. Both Watson and Galeazzi have been with the company since the early ’90s and so this was no scratch pairing. They have grown through the ranks in many of these background roles and this intimate knowledge of the ballet and its multifarious complexities is evident through every nuance of their performances. But the touchpaper is not truly lit until their coruscating final pas de deux, set in the swamps of Louisiana, ending with the heart-rending silent screams of Watson’s Des Grieux, bent over Manon’s lifeless body. With the particular passion of this pairing, it provides a spine-tingling climax and both dancers looked physically and emotionally drained at the curtain call.

Like an antique Louis XV sideboard from the age in which Manon is set, this gem of a ballet is improved by every showing as each performer adds another layer of lustre to its rich patina.

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