Manon has become such a backbone of the Royal Ballet’s repertoire that it is easy to forget what a shock it was when it was first revealed in the 1970s. Indeed some of the scenes are so passionate and overtly sexual that various early critics considered it to be tasteless, unsavoury and vulgar. Over 30 years down the line, the ballet is now justly hailed as a masterpiece.
The focus in almost any ballet by Kenneth Macmillan is the trademark series of pas de deux – these movements where two characters interact in an intense moment of emotion are by far his greatest gifts to the ballet world.
Manon contains some of the best examples, choreographed originally for Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell, perhaps the greatest partnership in classical ballet after Fonteyn and Nureyev. The shock to the first audience must have been the unconventional manoeuvres in these pas de deux – not least the climactic death scene where Des Grieux desperately tries to revive the weary Manon, their contrast of energy and weakness resulting in the most poetic section of the ballet.
Macmillan’s Manon throws the focus on the lovers for most of the time, depicting Manon’s relationship with the destitute poet Des Grieux. She may love him, but the wealth of the old roué, Monsieur G. M., also has great allure, and she flits between the two. In the end, Manon does end up with Des Grieux, but she pays with her life and dies of exhaustion in the Louisiana swamp, where she has been deported thanks to the vengeful Monsieur G.M.
It’s over five years since I’ve seen the Australian ballerina Leanne Benjamin in the title role, but time has not lessened the impact of her performance. She manages a powerful transition from flirtatious, capricious minx in the early scenes to world-weariness at the end, bringing hauteur and passion into the characterisation where required. Her glissandi are beautifully elegant, with the arms moving fluidly to continue the line of the body, and her hands are amongst the most beautiful in the company.
Originally the role of Des Grieux was to have been taken by Jonathan Cope, but he announced his retirement earlier in the season and Federico Bonelli took over for these performances. Sadly, for me Bonelli didn’t come close to matching either Benjamin’s stylishness or her feeling for the story, making heavy weather of the scenes containing difficult partner work and failing to inhabit the character convincingly much of the time. He did warm up for the final scene, however, bringing the curtain down with affecting tears of woe.
Manon’s brother Lescaut is responsible for introducing her to Monsieur G. M., and also for bringing Des Grieux back to her, so clearly it’s a key role. English dancer Martin Harvey acquitted himself well, perhaps not bringing the distinction of David Wall or Anthony Dowell, but he was nevertheless both entertaining and technically refined. His mistress was played by Laura Morera, who continued her bid to become one of the next generation of Royal Ballet principals with witty acting and great attack.
Gary Avis was a little too amiable as Monsieur G. M., but Genasio Rosato was a superb Madame. Two short contributions with high impact were Thomas Whitehead as the Gaoler and Steven McRae as the Beggar Chief. At almost opposite ends of the evening, these two epitomised the fact that the company is in great shape at the moment; the corps shone in the occasionally interminable diversions in the first scene of Act II. In all a great night at the ballet, and Benjamin excelled as always.