The Wanting Comes in Waves – Manon Review

If you are lucky, in ballets with characters as complex as Manon and Des Grieux, a particular performance might become – as Bag Lady E calls it – your personal “swell of 1969″: that defining evening at the ballet against which all others will be measured. To create this perfect dance memory many components have to come together; not only the dancing, but the chemistry and dramatic intentions. Many performances have their special moments – a striking solo here, a poignant Pas de Deux there – but seldom do the stars align to make of the entire evening an item for the dance memory vault.

For me, this has yet to happen with Manon. There have been memorable sections of the ballet that have stayed with me, but I believe this particular MacMillan work is tricky to get right. First, it requires chemistry between not just two but three main characters to build upon the dynamics of Manon / Des Grieux / Lescaut’s relationship. Des Grieux has just one solo to blow Manon away, immediately followed by a Pas de Deux where both have to convince us they are falling in love. The action moves quickly to Des Grieux’s lodgings, where yet another Pas de Deux cements the central relationship. Just as we are starting to believe Manon loves Des Grieux, enter Lescaut and Monsieur GM to lure our heroine away with a fur coat, jewelry and the promise of more luxury.

Leanne Benjamin as Manon and Steven McRae as Des Grieux in MacMillan's Manon. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

There are various ways to read this ballet’s flawed heroine. The most straightforward is to assume Manon doesn’t really love Des Grieux. But, as Leanne Benjamin showed last Thursday, experienced dancers can pull some grey from the blacks and whites in order to build a more cohesive story. Her Manon wants it all: she wants her lover Des Grieux,  but also money. She is fully aware of the power and allure she has on men. With Lescaut as a liaison between her and the rich Monsieur GM (Ricardo Cervera toned down Lescaut’s incestuous-manipulative angle here), Manon is quick to see how money can give her a better life. Yet she comes to realise during Act II that her feelings for Des Grieux run deep. She desperately tries to avoid him and we see her discomfort and fake smiles as she poses as Monsieur GM’s “thing”. Unsurprisingly, she schemes with Des Grieux to secure both love and money, building up to a powerful finale where Manon loses everything.

Steven McRae was very much put on the spot as Des Grieux, not only because he’s very young (24), he had to step in on opening night as a substitute for an injured Edward Watson. We’ve come to expect great dancing from McRae and he didn’t disappoint, delivering a sensational opening solo where he sustained rock solid balances and brought attention to his upper body to elongate the lines (McRae has shorter proportions than Anthony Dowell, MacMillan’s original Des Grieux). He created romantic and lush phrases to convey Des Grieux’s passion for Manon.

Steven McRae as Des Grieux in Manon. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

McRae’s partnering of Benjamin was terrific, not a small feat given the complexity of MacMillan’s Pas de Deux. Plus his  characterisation as a shy, pure Des Grieux, who is struck by love was credible (realising Manon has left him for gold, he feels betrayed and lost but unable to let go) and detailed (caressing Manon’s lace cover up, using the speed in his dancing to convey desperation in falling at her feet). This was an assured debut and McRae’s Des Grieux will only get better, as age will bring him more gravitas.

Then again, as much as I regard both Benjamin’s and McRae’s individual performances, I felt that for this Manon and this Des Grieux sparks seldom flew (all eyes on this coming Thursday’s show as McRae might have more natural chemistry with Roberta Marquez). So while not a “swell of 1969″ performance, the evening had some good waves, with the rest of the company also on fine form. This run has plenty of old and new casts to choose from. We never know, one of those could very well set the stage alight.

Leanne Benjamin as Manon and Steven McRae as Des Grieux in MacMillan's Manon. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Manon continues at the Royal Ballet until 4 June. For information and booking visit the ROH website.

Her favourite ballets feel like good books – one can see them 1,000 times and they always feel fresh. Linda loves Giselle, all full-length MacMillan plus Song of the Earth, Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, Balanchine’s Serenade and Agon, Ashton’s Scènes de Ballet and Symphonic Variations.


  • [...] recently wrote about how many different elements have to come together for one of *THOSE* perfect evenings at the ballet. Designs and, in particular, costumes, play a big part in creating a mood, helping dancers express [...]

  • May 4, 2011

    Imogen Dent

    I was very torn as to whether to book to see Benjamin and Watson or Marquez and McRae; plumped for the latter but was very sad to hear of Edward Watson’s injury as right up until then I had been toying with treating myself to a day ticket as well. Hoping to see him in good health again and back in action soon as he is one of my dancing heroes.

    However, the good news is that for me Saturday evening’s performance most definitely was one of THOSE nights – I was totally blown away and ended up crying into my binoculars.

  • April 28, 2011

    Rachel Handshaw

    I was very, very much looking forward to seeing Edward Watson as Des Grieux, but from all the reviews of Steven McRae, I don’t think I’ll be disappointed when on May 7.

    My “swell of 1969″ was an ABT performance of Manon- Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes. Unforgettable.

  • [...] The Ballet Bag on Manon. [Read.] [...]

  • April 28, 2011


    Thanks for your comments!

    I do hope we get to see Edward Watson as Des Grieux again soon, his interpretation of the role is very very special. But McRae certainly rose to the challenge (and what a challenge this role is!), we’re really looking forward to tonight’s rematch with his regular partner Roberta.

  • April 27, 2011


    I loved it. I wanted to see Edward Watson but wasn’t disappointed by the cast change. I felt there was a hint of trepidation in the pas de deux but you can forgive that when you know its not the original cast, surely? It didn’t have the Rojo/Acosta chemistry but both individually gave beautiful, for your money’s worth performances which in my view was a privilege to watch. I’m luck enough to also have a ticket for Cojacaru/Kobburg -v interested to see how it compares. Well done McRae, thats what I say

  • April 26, 2011


    The “swell of 1969″, what a great phrase. You can’t make it happen but I’m & thrilled that performance of Manon did it for me. I was on such a high – a rare thing indeed & to be treasured.