Kenneth MacMillan's Manon shows a world of riches and extreme poverty, as the heroine tries to choose between love and diamonds.
On the opening night of this terrific revival, Leanne Benjamin's headstrong Manon was partnered by Steven McRae, making a stellar debut as her lover Des Grieux. Around them, the Royal Ballet dance with alert drama, creating a jostling, perilous 18th-century world.
When we meet Manon, she's already sliding into a corrupt underworld, drawn in by her pimping brother. Des Grieux, a naive innocent, falls in love and falls right after her. McRae makes his demanding first solo look easy, moving through its long phrases and off-balance turns with lyrical simplicity. His dancing is gorgeous, with open line and speedy footwork, and shaped with an urgent sense of drama.
McRae's partnership with Benjamin is ardent and assured. One of the Royal Ballet's most experienced ballerinas, Benjamin dances Manon with eager freshness. She's pulled this way or that by the claims of love and money, but we always see Benjamin's Manon making choices. Persuaded to leave Des Grieux, she hugs the bedclothes for a moment, then turns away: decision made.
In the brothel scene, Benjamin dances with extraordinary lightness, showing off her legs and feet with flirtatious precision. Passed from hand to hand, her Manon is both passive and working it. McRae watches her, a Des Grieux willing himself to resignation but not getting there, plunging in – against his better judgement – to be another of her partners.
He confronts her in long, lyrical steps. She brushes him off, pointing out her dress and jewels. It becomes a clash of mime and dance: Benjamin's grounded, naturalistic gestures against his yearning arabesques, her pragmatism and his idealism. In the last act, Benjamin's Manon withdraws into herself as she faces prison and death. In their wild last duet, McRae is always urging her on, trying to bring her back to the world.
Ricardo Cervera is nimble and ruthless as Manon's brother Lescaut. He has crisp comic timing in his drunk dance. As his mistress, Laura Morera dances with luscious style: her legs swooping through big steps, then tapping into sharp footwork. Gary Avis is a swaggering Gaoler, though Christopher Saunders is colourless as Monsieur G.M. The Beggar Chief's choreography is thin, but Paul Kay gives it dash.
The big group scenes show off MacMillan's, and the Royal Ballet's, ability to create dramatic worlds. Beggars crowd about the inn, pressing up against sumptuously dressed prostitutes. There are dozens of engaged performances making up the picture, from Genesia Rosato's madam to the giggling courtesans of the corps de ballet.
Manon, now a worldwide hit, was much criticised at its premiere in 1974. The music, a pretty patchwork of Massenet compiled by Leighton Lucas, came in for particular complaint. Now conductor Martin Yates has reorchestrated it. It's a brighter, shinier version, with more tinkles and twinkles.
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