As the heroine of Kenneth MacMillan's Manon, ballerina Agnes Oaks is torn between love in poverty and life as a rich courtesan.
When a prospective client drapes a fur robe around her, she snuggles into the collar – but it's an instinctive reaction, not yet a decision. It's when the diamonds come out that the glint of calculation crosses her face.
It's a vivid moment in a fine performance. Dancers across the world are eager to play the big dramatic roles in Manon, created for the Royal Ballet in 1974. That production is still going strong; now English National Ballet brings a second Manon into British repertory. Importantly, it brings the ballet to a wider British audience. This Manon will tour: it's 20 years since the Royal Manon was seen outside London.
Though the text is the same, the ENB production uses stark designs by Mia Stensgaard. Nicholas Georgiadis's original version set rich brocades against dirty rags: Manon's choice was all around her, pressing in on the action. Stensgaard's version is more abstract. Simple screens frame the action; the dresses are light, lacking the weight and detail of 18th-century costume.
It's attractive, but this is a weaker vision. Stensgaard's brothel would fit into a 1950s Gene Kelly musical, her prostitutes dressed in puffs of Technicolor tulle. The ENB dancers are learning the naturalistic bustle of MacMillan's big scenes, but their setting gives them less support.
The ballet is still carried by its main roles: Manon, her lover Des Grieux, her pimping brother Lescaut. Oaks, who has announced her retirement from ENB after 18 years, gives one of the freshest, most spontaneous performances I've seen from her. The dancing is nuanced and fluid, with flowing line and a dramatic sense of the music.
Thomas Edur's Des Grieux has less insight: he's classical and tender, but his hero could be more driven. Dmitri Gruzdyev makes an emphatic Lescaut, underlining dance and dramatic points: he's pointedly wicked, rather than amorally charming. As his mistress, Elena Glurdjidze dances brightly, but does not stress the role's vulnerability.
As a company performance, this Manon is lucid and lively. The drama of supporting roles could be stronger, though Michael Coleman makes a striking old man in the first scene. Reaching after this ballet's wayward heroine, he's both an old lecher and a vulnerable human being, hoping for something we know he can't have.
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