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