Jurgita Dronina spellbinding in English National Ballet’s Manon

Milton Keynes Theatre
October 24, 2018

David Mead

There’s a rare beast doing the ballet rounds at the moment. Thanks to English National Ballet, Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon is touring outside London for only the second time in three decades.

A story full of the high and low life of 18th-century Paris, Manon sweeps you along. The action follows the girl of the title, who has to choose between her love for the penniless but attractive Des Grieux and the rather older but rich Monsieur GM. It’s a tale that may be full of delicious characters but equally one where it’s hard to love any of them. They all have a bit of an unpleasant side, even Manon herself.

Set outside an inn, the opening is a little drawn out but does show the sort of world we are entering: one where aristocrats and the wealthy live alongside thieves, beggars and prostitutes, and what a fine line there sometimes is between them. It’s here that Manon, on her way to become a nun (not that there’s much sense of that) bumps into Des Grieux for the first time. There’s lots of action but things really take off when Manon and he retire to his apartment.

English National Ballet in ManonPhoto Laurent Liotardo
English National Ballet in Manon
Photo Laurent Liotardo

Manon is a role that calls for experience, and Jurgita Dronina was superb as she gave a beautifully nuanced interpretation; an actor-dancer at the very top of her game. In the Act I pas de deux, one of MacMillan’s best, she was utterly transfixing. At first full of delicate footwork and floating arms, fluttering bourrées reflect her fast beating heart. You sense that it’s all just waiting to explode, and it does as with gay abandon she gives in to her feelings and throws herself at Isaac Hernandez’s De Grieux with reckless abandon as the passion flows. The lifts are just as ecstatic.

Her later pas de deux with the lascivious Moniseur GM is a dance of desire of a very different kind. Played by Fabian Reimar, he is a particularly loathsome and arrogant individual, all wandering eyes and wandering hands. He is decidedly creepy and disturbing. He clearly sees her as little more than another trophy. Is it any surprise there is a sense she doesn’t really want to be with him, despite his gifts of furs and jewels? Indeed, there are times when she seems as much a manipulator as her brother, Lescaut. Maybe it runs in the family.

Hernandez’s partnering is exemplary but, for a while, his dance with Dronina felt a little cool, external look trumping internal feeling. But I believed increasingly as the evening went on, and his final pas de deux with Manon’s now failing body was emotionally unforgiving. Both dancers looked totally drained as they embraced at the curtain call.

English National Ballet's Manon,here with Alina Cojocaru and Joseph CaleyPhoto Laurent Liotardo
English National Ballet’s Manon,
here with Alina Cojocaru and Joseph Caley
Photo Laurent Liotardo

Of the other main roles, Ken Saruhashi made for a manipulative Lescaut, not above effectively selling his sister to an unpleasant old man, and for as much as he can get. His drunken solo was just right. As his mistress, Crystal Costa was spirited and vibrant. Bubbly and effervescent. She stole almost every scene she was in.

The ensemble lend great support all the way through. You have to feel for the men in Act II, though. It’s incredibly difficult to pull the attention away from the goings-on at the card table, which totally overshadows their ensemble dance.

For those used to Nicholas Georgiadis’ sumptuous sets for The Royal Ballet’s productions, Mia Stensgaard’s spare designs may come as a bit of a shock. The courtyard at the inn in Act I is depicted by a single panel at the back, for example, and Des Grieux’s apartment is just a writing table and a bed. Yet, they are effective and do allow the attention to focus on the dance, which more than fills in any gaps. The one place the designs do fall down somewhat is at the end, the closing scene played out in a sea of dry ice. It feels more like some eternal realm than Louisiana swamp. It does lay the searing emotion bare, though.

The costumes are gorgeous from Manon’s gowns through Monsieur GM’s finery to the ragged prisoner outfits of Act III. The most gaily coloured come in Act II where the prostitutes’ costumes, a rough-edged take on the classical tutu, have all the hues of a bunch of Quality Street wrappers.

You will struggle to find a finer evening at the ballet this autumn. Manon is a super story, superbly told.

Manon is at Milton Keynes Theatre to October 27, then at the Mayflower Theatre Southampton (October 31-November 3) and the London Coliseum (January 16-20, 2019). Visit www.ballet.org.uk for details.