Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon is a modern classic, loved by the audience and regularly performed by every major ballet company in the world. The success of this piece is a testament to full-length narrative ballet’s capacity to survive in a prominently abstract dance age and to attract new audiences, because let’s face it, love stories are always appealing.
As in every MacMillan ballet, acting is a key element in Manon and it is not only through the choreographic phrases (ie. the blend of steps) that the audience is drawn into the story but also via the dramatic input of its interpreters, the gestures, the costumes and the interactions with the members of the corps.
Despite availability on DVD of an older version (with Jennifer Penney and Anthony Dowell as Manon and Des Grieux) The Royal Ballet chose to record and broadcast a couple of weeks ago a more recent performance of Manon with Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta in the main roles. It’s been quite a good run for both of them, since they have featured on almost every publicity spread this season. Furthermore, thanks in part to his own contract with Decca, Carlos has been captured on various DVD’s and TV broadcasts since last year. With both dancers at the pinnacle of their careers, one can expect great performances.
I’ve seen Manon played in different ways. Manon as a naive girl, easily manipulated by her brother Lescaut and lured by the promise of a better life, so that when she falls in love, she is in constant struggle with her feelings. Or Manon completely assured and conscious of her power, which she uses to its full extent in order to survive, teasing Des Grieux and playing with him as if he were an object, only later realising she has fallen in love with him. Tamara Rojo’s Manon seems to blend parts of both archetypes in her interpretation but the whole is, in my opinion, slightly confusing.
In terms of technique, Tamara brings her A-game into the role. Her dancing is lush and her musicality is overpowering. There are very few dancers who possess the ability of doting with intention every single note in the music. The position of her body, hands and head ever changing with the music, the steps linking in the choreography. Tamara also knows when to place extra physical stretches to end a choreographic phrase and her use of extensions is well judged, which is a real gift in these days of extreme extension abuse. However, the only part where I find fault (even when if small) is on the acting.
Somehow I don’t fully understand this Manon’s character. It seems that she enjoys the luxury and the life Monsieur GM can provide. So it is not only due to Lescaut’s will that she decides to trade Des Grieux for the wealthy Monsieur (I really don’t sense any manipulation from Lescaut here and there is no hesitation on her part either). Which means she can’t possibly love Des Grieux at this point, whilst the various pas de deux with him, mainly the first one, suggest otherwise: we see Manon completely besotted.
Is it really that Manon enjoys the attention she gets from these men thus everything becomes complicated by the fact that she develops feelings for Des Grieux? Are we looking at a girl who is trying to survive, completely dependent on her own charms or are we looking at a girl who is just passed around without any will of her own, whose only truth is her love for Des Grieux? I don’t think Tamara is playing the naive girl card, but in her portrayal, Manon’s intentions are only clear to me in the last act where she is the impotent woman trying to cling to the only thing left (Des Grieux), having lost everything else. It is here where Tamara is at her best. The interpretation and execution are flawless and one can really connect to the pain, sadness and regret that Manon is feeling.
Carlos Acosta gives us a fine Des Grieux, even if there are plenty other roles that suit him better. There are some flashes of super-Acosta, particularly in those pirouettes and he is definitely a good partner for Tamara. While I was convinced by his straightforward Des Grieux – very much a man in love – let’s just say drama is not Acosta’s forte. I’ve seen and enjoyed more complex portrayals and here I particularly recall the Kobborg/Benjamin Manon from the same run last autumn. Not only did Kobborg give a flawless execution, he also showed why he is currently the best dancer/actor in the company.
This production also features a strong supporting cast: Laura Morera is fantastic as Lescaut’s mistress, in a role that suits her perfectly and Jose Martín an efficient Lescaut, both showing good comic timing in the “drunken pas de deux”. Paul Kay brings his showmanship skills as the beggar chief.
This review is based on the BBC4 broadcast of The Royal Ballet’s Manon, recorded during its 2008-2009 season.