Kenneth MacMillan’s ‘Manon’ by the English National Ballet was an English balletic masterpiece which travels through the upper and lower classes of Parisian society, a French brothel and comes to a final and tragic close in a hazy Louisiana swamp. The audience was swept away by Macmillan’s emotionally-charged choreography, which, for the most part, synchronises delightfully with Jules Massenet’s re-edited score. The action follows the social circles of a young girl named Manon, who must choose between her love for the penniless student Des Grieux and the riches which the lecherous Monsieur GM would provide. The matches are negotiated by Manon’s brother Lescaut, who switches allegiance from Monsieur GM to Des Grieux in Act Two.
With some scenes incorporating up to thirty dancers, it wouldn’t be wholly inaccurate to imagine the staging becoming a little crowded or overly stimulating. However, the continuing background action during group scenes compliments and occasionally mirrors the actions of the main characters. This doesn’t detract from the ambience or pull the audience’s focus away from the main action. Indeed, the corps de ballet shine throughout the performance, most notably as the male ‘customers’ in the house of ill repute in Act Two. They also impressed as the haunting, ghostly female prisoners under the Gaoler’s control in Act Three. The roles played by the corps de ballet serve as a great reminder of the social and class discrepancies between the customer and the courtesan, the beggar and the bureaucrat, and true love when pitted against the notion of selling one’s soul for money.
It is truly the soloists, however, who are the lifeblood of this ballet. Although soloist Joseph Caley (Des Grieux) perhaps takes a while to come alive in the more simply choreographed solo performances, his emotion, and the strength of his acting cannot be denied. This is especially true in his duets with Manon (Alina Cojocaru). Their deep level of chemistry and impeccable artistry create a believable pair of playful and innocent lovers, doomed to be kept apart by money, and finally, death. James Streeter performs a wonderfully supercilious, grandiose and portly Monsieur GM where every reaching of a hand, or look directed towards Manon is as disturbingly uncomfortable as intended. High praise must be given to Jeffrey Cirio, who dances so adroitly, and acts so convincingly in his charismatic portayal of Lescaut. Cojocaru (as Manon) lights up the stage in her solo performance, but particularly during her playful duet with Des Grieux at the end of act one.
Overall, the beauty of the tragic tale of ‘Manon’, coupled with its original choreography and exceptionally talented cast, means that this production is not to be missed.
The English National Ballet’s tour of ‘Manon’ continues, next in Milton Keynes.