Review: Royal Ballet in Manon at Royal Opera House

Performance: 3, 5, 8, 9, 15, 17, 26 November 2011
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 7 November 2011

Royal Ballet 'Manon' Sarah Lamb & Rupert Pennefather. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Reviewed: 3 November

Manon is the role that every ballerina wants and the casting for this brief run of nine shows is clearly designed to enable a new generation of dancers to make their mark in this most coveted of roles. The company’s rising British star, Lauren Cuthbertson (clearly marked out as the dancer to carry the baton handed down from Margot Fonteyn and last seen in the locker of Darcey Bussell) will make her debut shortly, but the honour of the opening night was given to a ballerina from New England, the Bostonian Sarah Lamb (whose own debut in the role came just a few months ago).

Repertoire needs to be regularly refreshed and it is vital to bring new dancers into roles that are so quintessentially a part of The Royal Ballet’s heritage, but it needs to be a balanced transition. As an aside, this reviewer hopes that such a strategic shift in casting policy does not mean that we have seen the last of the rich interpretations of ‘Manon’ by the company’s leading ballerinas, notably Alina Cojocaru, Mara Galeazzi and Tamara Rojo, neither of whom has been cast for this season. I was surprised, in researching this piece, to find that Cojocaru has only danced as Manon four times at The Royal Opera House. It is surely not yet time for her day to be called.

On the other side of the coin, it must be said that Lamb has waited patiently for her time to come. A principal dancer since 2006, she is finally stepping up to the very top rank. Having already opened as Aurora in *The* *Sleeping Beauty* _(albeit as a replacement for an injured dancer) she also has the opening night of _The Nutcracker next month. I can’t remember the last time the same ballerina opened in three successive full-length ballets at The Royal Opera House and it may not have been since the era that was so completely dominated by the Prima Ballerina Assoluta, Fonteyn herself. (I’m tempted to say, “answers on a postcard, please” but nowadays I’m sure it must be via a tweet or a poke)!

Earlier in the year, Lamb’s opening foray into the lascivious, bawdy, unjust world of Paris on the precipice of the French Revolution was tinged with an understandable nervousness but here, just a few months later, she demonstrates a steely command of her subject, unfettered by any worries about the strange, swirling, angular choreography that Kenneth MacMillan created to provide such a uniquely appropriate signature for his masterpiece.

Manon Lescaut is not, in any sense, a nice girl and many interpretations seem to err towards the fact that there must be sweetness in her love for the “student”, Des Grieux, but Manon is a ruthless gold digger who will climb on anyone’s back to get the rich life she wants: and how brilliant is MacMillan’s portrayal of this compliant cunning than in the scenes where she is manhandled as if a rubber doll, first by her pimp brother, Lescaut (Thiago Soares) selling her to Monsieur G.M (Christopher Saunders); and later by a collection of clients at the brothel (tellingly including Des Grieux). The lustful debauched atmosphere created by MacMillan is brought into vivid realisation: the way in which Manon’s legs linger as they straddle Monsieur G.M’s neck and shoulders and his look of animal desire was both shockingly and brilliantly portrayed by Lamb and Saunders. Every performer in the bordello scene enacts their own little cameos of ribaldry around the periphery of the central action. I got a surprising glimpse of a laughing Ricardo Cervera burying his face in Genesia Rosato’s cleavage that seemed to be straight out of a Carry On film. A special commendation is due to Claire Calvert on her excellent portrayal of Lescaut’s Mistress.

In this interpetation, Manon’s rapport with the wicked men in her life is much more artfully drawn than her relationship with Des Grieux. Although Rupert Pennefather has greatly improved in expressiveness since the spring, I find that he still appears to be concentrating on the mechanics of the choreography (especially when partnering) rather than seamlessly inhabiting the character of Des Grieux. The opening adagio solo, in which Des Grieux introduces himself to Manon in a deserted marketplace (where does everyone go?), is a slow set of agonising balances, pirouettes and arabesques that is extraordinarily difficult to master. Pennefather performs competently but without flow as he appears to tick off each bar of the choreography, but with a noticeable lapse of hopping out of a pirouette into balance. He has the natural attributes of handsomeness and length of limb to be an outstanding danseur but, right now, although he is improving by each performance, there is still a way to go before he appears comfortable in the role. It is an earnest effort but a dull one.

Manon seems a safe and unadventurous programming choice for The Royal Ballet so early in this new season when the ballet was one of the last offerings before the summer break. But performed alongside The Sleeping Beauty in the autumn repertoire, it seems to be a clear statement in Dame Monica Mason’s final season as Director, to reaffirm the ongoing tradition for these ballets – alongside Romeo & Juliet, which follows later – to continue as the core slashes, swirls and dotted i’s of the company’s signature. Their vitality to The Royal Ballet comes from the handing down of a rich heritage of performances from one generation to the next as seen to great effect in the excellent supporting cast, amongst whom Soares, Saunders and Rosato were superb. We should perhaps not lose sight of the fact that the richness of their portrayals comes from having performed their respective role over many years.

Manon continues in rep until 26 November
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