Review: Royal Ballet in Manon at Royal Opera House

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

Royal Ballet 'Manon' Lauren Cuthbertson & Sergei Polunin. 
Photo: Tristram Kenton

Reviewed: 8 November

Important events need to be recorded, hence my quick return to The Royal Opera House to document the debuts in Manon of The Royal Ballet’s rising star partnership of Lauren Cuthbertson and Sergei Polunin. Already fêted with the lead casting, earlier this year, in The Royal Ballet’s first newly commissioned full-length ballet for a generation (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) this partnership is clearly the latest attempt to recreate the special magic that Fonteyn and Nureyev brought to Covent Garden: Polunin may merely be feisty instead of wild (an image reinforced by his desire to open a tattoo parlour, as revealed in a recent interview with The Indy ) and a native of the Ukraine, as opposed to the remote Tartar regions of Russia, but the pair are definitely the closest match yet to the identikit profile of the only world superstars that the Royal Ballet has ever possessed. In her final season as Director, after no less than 53 years with the company, one has the sense that Dame Monica Mason is on that final push towards creating the dream team that will rewind the clock to those halcyon days.

This was a big challenge to be overcome along that journey since neither dancer is ideally suited to the respective roles of Manon and her lover, Des Grieux. The words “English” and “Rose” would appear comfortably in any description of Cuthbertson, easily the most accomplished British-born ballerina of recent years, and yet Manon is a young woman eager to exploit her sex appeal; happy to trade her body for a bracelet or two. Polunin is a bravura dancer, at his best swivelling through a chain of 14 consecutive pirouettes (as he does here in the Gaol scene) or multiple tours en l’air, but the choreography for Des Grieux is built upon foundations of gentle, lyrical adagio dancing, replete with long-held balances and soft, fluid turns. The exciting anticipation for this show was how both dancers would cope with characterisations and choreography that appeared to be outside of their comfort zone.

The outcome was that they both succeeded admirably but to different degrees of success. Cuthbertson impressed the most, even accounting for the disadvantage of a wig that gave her more than a passing similarity to Meryl Streep in the film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. She addressed the role with a command that began well and improved throughout. Her second act solo, in the Hôtel Particuleur (a charming name for a brothel), was especially memorable with searing sensuality flowing through her remarkably expressive arms and understandably leading into the dance of desire in which she is touched, held and transported by all the brothel’s punters.

Polunin appeared strangely anonymous in the opening scene of the crowded courtyard and he struggled (as many have done before) to deliver fluidity in the notoriously difficult adagio solo. He looked unusually shaky and uncomfortable, stepping forward to regain balance in the signature lift instead of remaining firmly planted to the floor, failing to extend his arms through to the fingers and often hopping out of the slow turns. Someone, sitting vey close to the stage, suggested to me in the interval that he appeared to be suffering from muscle spasms high up in a thigh (an irritation hard to hide in white tights), which may have accounted for this lapse of composure. But, even in this solo, the few moments of virtuosity were delivered with such aplomb that I suspect most in the audience will have willingly overlooked the more basic flaws. And credit must also be given for the way he came back in the 2nd and 3rd Acts, forging a believable, sympathetic partnership with his Manon. Like many bravura dancers before him, and certainly following a trend set by Nureyev, Polunin seems to have licence to embellish the choreography when his significant abilities are able to go beyond the levels originally set by MacMillan and notated for the future: certainly, unless I am much mistaken, his own solo in the second act seemed notably aggrandised.

Gary Avis gave an authoritative, lecherous but less sinister account of the rich Monsieur G.M. – his emphatic acting ability always creating and projecting insightful nuances of this crucial role. It is also always a pleasure to see José Martín perform in a role that I shall always associate with him. His Lescaut is also richly drawn, layered from years of experience and expert coaching. It is a shame that we appear to be seeing less and less of him in other roles. The orchestra, under the control of Martin Yates, gave a fine account of the score, which this conductor recently re-orchestrated . One of the pleasures of watching Manon is that Act II will always throw up some new cameo that I’ve never noticed before. Here it was the moment when Leanne Cope, playing the prostitute sinisterly dressed as a young boy, grabs a coin thrown by G.M. and jubilantly thrusts it into her décolletage.

This fell some way short of the best performance of Manon I’ve ever seen (or even the best this year) but it nevertheless grew into an excellent double debut that will undoubtedly continue the stratospheric rise of this partnership. In Monica Mason’s youth, the Royal Ballet was dominated by a British woman, who was the epitome of British style, and an Eastern European man, who could jump and turn like an Olympic athlete; both sharing the additional coincidence of six-lettered forenames. Given the attention now being heaped upon a British woman and an Eastern European man, both sharing six-lettered forenames, Mason will leave the company having done her best to complete the circle.

_*Manon* _*continues in rep until 26 November*

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