The leads in Kenneth MacMillan's Manon are coveted roles in the Royal Ballet's repertory, with passionate duets, decadence and death for dancers to get their teeth into. This was a strong double debut for Lauren Cuthbertson and Sergei Polunin, two of the company's young stars. Polunin gave a promising first performance as Des Grieux, dancing with clean elegance. Cuthbertson's Manon is already a nuanced portrait in dance and drama, an impulsive young woman plunging into experience.
In their first pas de deux, she gets more carried away, more abandoned to emotion, each time she gives him her hand. Young as he is, Polunin is already an accomplished partner, sweeping her ardently through the difficult lifts.
Manon is a changeable character, always ready to be sidetracked by love or diamonds. Cuthbertson is mercurial, caught up in each new offer. Her pimping brother Lescaut introduces Monsieur G M, a potential client, pushing her into prostitution. In the pas de trois that follows, you can see Cuthbertson learning corruption. She steps away from G M with conscious power, leaving him wanting more – then looks to her brother to check that she's doing it right. As she's lifted over G M's shoulder, her hand brushes the new diamonds at her throat.
Her dancing is bold, with a lush openness to her line, and a readiness to take risks with balance. In the final, feverish pas de deux, she and Polunin push the lifts and catches to hair-raising extremes, giving Manon's death a sense of desperation. Polunin makes a slightly Byronic hero, always ready to brood. In the demanding solos, he has smooth line and high, easy jumps.
José Martí* is an exaggerated Lescaut, too ready to give a villainous laugh, hammy in the drunk dance. He's better in his relationship with Manon, watching her with possessive affection. As his mistress, Itziar Mendizabal flings out some of her steps, but shows a confident sense of character.
Gary Avis is a marvellous G M, controlling and cruel, but still a believable person. In the brothel scene, he shows a schoolboy excitement when he decides to throw money into the crowd, making the whores scramble. When Manon plays cards at another table, he's crossly distracted: surely she must be finished by now? What's keeping her?
MacMillan's dances for the corps are bland, but he encourages them to do wonderful character work around the edges of the big scenes. Dozens of little dramas play out in the brothel, jealousies and insecurities coming to the surface. This vivid revival is a showcase for the Royal Ballet's dance actors.
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