Dance Manon Royal Opera House

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The Independent Culture
The Royal Ballet returned to Covent Garden on Wednesday after a seven-week international tour with the first of six performances of Manon. It was standing room only. Does the ballet-going public really have such an insatiable appetite for Kenneth MacMillan's whorey old melodrama or was the packed house a tribute to canny pricing (maximum of pounds 43 against Swan Lake's pounds 58) and the starry presence of Sylvie Guillem and Irek Mukhamedov?

Mukhamedov was dancing not her lover, Des Grieux, but her brother, Lescaut, and he continues to dominate the stage with his portrayal of the devious charmer showing an easy confidence that makes total sense of a complex character. Sadly, Manon is a ballet, not a pantomime and there is probably a limit to how long a big 36-year-old man like Mukhamedov, trained in a very different school, can handle MacMillan's light English footwork. However, he still partners superbly and pays close attention to the other characters on stage - a vital skill seen to greatest effect in the drunk scene in Act 2. Mukhamedov captures perfectly the drunkard's baffled surprise at his own lack of co-ordination. It's a vulgar piece of writing but the Russian's timing and his wholehearted approach provide a hilarious scene that simultaneously highlights the appeal of the evil Lescaut. That his mistress and his sister should both adore him is no surprise and his fraternal feelings for Manon are given a savage twist by the guilty pleasure he obviously takes in presenting her body for a client's delectation. In the brothel scene, this flickering shadow of incest is darkened by the fact that it is brother and sister who are dressed to match.

No one ever doubted that Mukhamedov would excel as Lescaut but when Sylvie Guillem was first scheduled to dance Manon in 1991 people with long memories of Antoinette Sibley predicted that the character's kittenish amorality would be beyond the too-knowing Parisienne. How wrong they were; eschewing the corrupted sweetness displayed by Durante and Bussell in the role, Guillem's interpretation forcibly reminds us that Prevost's anti-heroine is an agent in her own destruction. The dancing isn't bad either. Where the rest of the company looked frayed after nine Manons in three tour venues, Guillem made it seem that the ensembles were merely interludes while the star got her breath back. However, even her most accomplished moves are in the service of characterisation: her idle pirouettes suggest Manon's reckless physicality, the saucy ease with which she presents her triumphantly arched foot to be kissed speaks of a woman who takes a certain pleasure in sin. Tart she may be but she's worth 43 quid of anybody's money.

n Royal Opera House, London WC2 20 July (mat & eve), 22, 24, 31 July (0171-304 4000)