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The Royal Ballet in Manon

Posted on November 4, 2005

Such is the popularity of Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon that it is now in the repertoire of a range of companies all over the world. This autumn and winter will see performances of the ballet in Berlin, Milan, Turin, London and Copenhagen. Manon returned to the repertoire of The Royal Ballet on November 4 in an excellently staged and danced revival. Nicholas Georgiadis’ familiar sets and costumes looked magnificent, and were beautifully lit by John B. Read like an old master painting. Leanne Benjamin, who led the first performance, has fully matured into the title role since her debut ten years ago and she successfully places great emphasis on Manon’s youth and impetuosity. Making his debut as Des Grieux that night, Federico Bonelli danced with customary elegance, and his performance was notable for an understated and naturalistic attention to detail. Martin Harvey’s Lescaut is a charming chancer and determined social climber, well matched in a sharply characterised and spirited performance by Laura Morera as Lescaut’s Mistress. This was an excellent company performance, and would have been memorable had it not been completely overshadowed by an incandescent account of the work the following afternoon.

The occasion was the eagerly anticipated debut of Zenaida Yanowsky as Manon, and she did not disappoint. Yanowsky surpassed every expectation, sweeping aside memories of previous exponents of the role in a performance destined to go down in the annals of Royal Ballet history. Concern about Yanowsky’s height and unsuitability for Manon had been expressed by some in advance, but she intelligently used this potential “obstacle” to her advantage in a complex and startlingly new interpretation of the role. Yanowsky establishes from her first entry Manon’s difference from the other women around her. Her individuality is her attraction, her raison d’etre, and the very reason why the surrounding men find her irresistible. You literally cannot take your eyes off her. Yanowsky’s Manon is very conscious of her charisma and she knows exactly how to exploit it to her advantage. Living in a world where the threat of poverty and destitution is pervasive, Lescaut and Manon (like an 18th century Bonnie and Clyde) are a dangerous couple living by their wits, and turning every situation to their benefit. Through their complicit exchange of glances and furtive sidelong looks, the couple quickly establish that they think Monsieur G M an easily duped fool – he may not even be their first victim – and Manon has no qualms about becoming his mistress. With every intention of maintaining herself in luxury, Yanowsky’s Manon is also determined to keep Des Grieux – whom she truly loves – but it is a relationship that exists solely on her terms. She is an independent woman. Manon and Lescaut’s plans go awry only because Des Grieux is the weak link in their chain of deceit and the catalyst of their downfall. By Act III, Yanowsky makes it evident that Manon is seriously ill after her deportation, and she is no longer in control of her own destiny. She barely has the energy to fight off the sexual advances of the Gaoler, and the final pas de deux has seldom seemed so pitiful and exhaustedly agonised. This is a stunningly original and extraordinary performance, which is not only intelligently acted, but beautifully and languorously danced with feminine charm by a ballerina at the peak of her powers.

Of course Yanowsky could not have done it all on her own, so tribute must also be paid to the performances of her fellow cast members, including Kenneth Greve as Des Grieux and Thiago Soares as Lescaut. Greve is a tall and handsome guest artist from the Royal Danish Ballet who memorably partnered Yanowsky in Swan Lake last season. A wonderfully detailed, intelligent actor in the true Danish tradition and a dancer of graceful fluidity, bold jumps and the softest of landings, Greve makes Des Grieux a tender hearted and besotted young man completely out of place in the world Manon has drawn him into. Greve is also an exemplary partner, enabling Yanowsky to abandon herself utterly into his strong arms during the pas de deux. Thiago Soares was excellently cast as a cruel, mercenary and pugnacious, Lescaut who is prepared to use every means possible to gain a foothold on the ladder to riches. He also has charm, and like Yanowsky’s Manon, knows how to use it to advantage. William Tuckett was an absolutely revolting Monsieur G M, and Marianela Nuñez was a vivacious Mistress. With superlative performances such as these, is it any wonder that companies around the world are clamouring to add Manon to their repertoires?

Jonathan Gray is editor of Dancing Times. He studied at The Royal Ballet School, Leicester Polytechnic, and Wimbledon School of Art where he graduated with a BA Hons in Theatre Design. For 16 years he was a member of the curatorial department of the Theatre Museum, London, assisting on a number of dance-related exhibitions, and helping with the recreation of original designs for a number of The Royal Ballet’s productions including Danses concertantes, Daphnis and Chloë, and The Sleeping Beauty. He has also contributed to the Financial Times, written programme articles for The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and is co-author of the book Unleashing Britain: Theatre gets real 1955-64, published in 2005.

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