English National Ballet at home
March 4, 2021
She was a woman who lived life on the edge. Caught between her love for a penniless student and allowing herself to be lured into being the mistress of a rich and powerful gentleman, it’s perhaps no surprise that Manon’s story ends in the tragedy that it does. But what a journey it is: one of decadence and passion, riches and poverty, ecstatic triumph to searing regret, all to Jules Massenet’s superbly evocative score.
This film of Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet was shot at Manchester’s Opera House in 2018 for archive purposes. Not that you can tell. It’s also a privilege to be able to see it when live performances with an audience are still not possible.
A simplified version of the Abbé Prévost’s story, Macmillan made his dramatic ballet in 1974. using, not the music that Massenet music wrote for his opera on the same theme, but a variety of other works. With its array of compelling characters, it stands the test of time well.
Having established the somewhat seedy demi-monde of Paris, Macmillan gives the convent-bound Manon an entrance that is feathery light. Alina Cojocaru is all twinkling bourrées, her plain, white dress radiating naïveté as she dances with Jeffrey Cirio as her brother Lescaut, who in contrast is given thrusting poses and sautés. It’s not long before her unscrupulous sibling effectively sells his sister to the wealthy Monsieur GM (James Streeter), however, before she escapes with Joseph Caley as the penniless student des Grieux.
When Lescaut and Monsieur GM catch up with Manon, she’s tempted by the riches and fine clothes on offer. A pas de trois is superbly sinuous. At one point, Lescaut holds her feet, and GM her outstretched arms, and they swing her back and forth, at once seductively lulling and lascivious as she becomes merely a possession to be haggled over.
When Manon makes her entrance with Monsieur GM at a party where the ladies of the night are being paired off, MacMillan shows how she is being pulled in two directions, the action freezing as she dances seductive solo, Monsieur GM on one side, des Grieux on the other, accompanied by delicate pizzicatos in the strings. When the action resumes and they take it in turn to admire her, she is lifted and turned between them, at one point being flung forward like meat, delicacy of the accompanying strings and flutes belying the sordidness of the scene.
There are more impassioned pas de deux as only MacMillan could make as the story unfolds. Manon insists on fleecing Monsieur GM before she and des Grieux can escape but needless to say it goes horribly wrong as her student lover is caught cheating and wounds his adversary in the ensuing fight. When the authorities catch up with them, Monsieur GM shoots and kills Lescaut and Manon is arrested as a prostitute. It’s heady stuff and MacMillan at his dramatic best.
Deported to the Americas, followed by des Grieux pretending to be her husband, Manon arrives shorn of her locks and bereft of her finery. However, her troubles are not over. When her lover intervenes as one of the guards takes an interest in her, Macmillan creates a marvellous moment as, one arm each, she s pivoted between the two men. Having been dragged away and now barely strong enough to struggle, Manon is fondled, pawed and possibly worse by a guard until des Grieux rushes in and stabs him. Fleeing to the swamps and haunted by recollections of her brief life, there’s time for one last, romantic pas de deux, before she dies leaping into des Grieux’s arms.
Manon is a complex story with equally complex characters. Manon herself is a puzzle for the dancer. Is she no better than she should be, the agent of her own downfall by her lack of morals and greed? On the other hand, her brother, a pander, is hardly any better. Is she a woman making her way in a harsh world as best she can only to be betrayed by the men around her?
Either way, she comes to a sticky end and, however you approach her, it is a satisfyingly meaty role to tackle. Alina Cojocaru does it full credit. Joseph Caley is no less impressive as des Grieux.
Also of note is that this must also have been one of the outstanding Jane Howarth’s last performances as the Procuress before her retirement in 2020; and no classical ballet production at English National Ballet would be complete it seems without the redoubtable Michael Coleman, here appearing as the old man.
Gavin Sutherland conducts the English National Ballet Philharmonic with his usual aplomb, rightly receiving a huge hug from Cojocaru at the end.
In spite of the grimness of the last few months, this production from the ‘before times’ holds out every hope that the recovery will be strong and well worth waiting for.
English National Ballet in Manon is available to rent online. Visit ondemand.ballet.org.uk for details.