The full depth of love and loss: English National Ballet in Manon

London Coliseum
January 16 (Cojocaru/Caley) & 17 (Cao/Arrieta), 2019

Joy Wang X.Y.

When Prévost’s Manon Lescaut was published in 1731 the scandal it attracted compelled the author to add (rather mischievously) that the book aimed not just to offer pleasure but to “serve as aid to moral instruction.” Afterall he added, “It does the public no small service in my view to instruct while entertaining them.”

There is no such veiled obfuscation, no pretence at moralising in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon. Perhaps that is because made in 1974, the ballet speaks to a different public and also because dance, like its novel form, shares an ethical compulsion to care, to present a character, a life in all its facets-good or bad, nice or evil. And if there are grey areas, Manon certainly falls into one of them.

Joseph Caley as Des Grieux and Alina Cojocaru as Manon in ManonPhoto Laurent Liotardo
Joseph Caley as Des Grieux and Alina Cojocaru as Manon in Manon
Photo Laurent Liotardo

Manon is about love which struggles against the pressure of reality and It leaves to us to imagine what is the original sin: Manon’s capriciousness or the system she comes against with its barriers of class, convention, gender. And depending on which dancers one sees, the answers are different.

If Joseph Caley’s Des Grieux, though beautifully danced, is a little bit of a smiling cipher, Alina Cojocaru’s Manon is in the verdant spring of her life (and Cojocaru, as a ballerina, in full command of her powers). Kittenish in her sweetness, Cojocaru brings touches of foreboding, small refrains of fate. She dances the brothel scene with a certain sprezzatura; Manon’s ambivalence lining its studied charm.

The venal gleam of Jeffrey Cirio’s Lescaut works well with Cojocaru’s Manon. It makes her into a believable pawn. He brings a phallic edge to dancing of extraordinary clarity. Adela Rmirez, Crystal Costa, Jia Zhang and Rina Kanehara form a lovely, teasing quintet of courtesans; and Katja Khaniukova dances Lescaut’s Mistress with creamy sensuality.

Jeffrey Cirio as Lescaut and Katja Khaniukova as his Mistress in ManonPhoto Laurent Liotardo
Jeffrey Cirio as Lescaut and Katja Khaniukova as his Mistress in Manon
Photo Laurent Liotardo

On Thursday night, Begoña Cao and Aitor Arrieta were no less moving. They let the first pas de deux build to its ecstatic conclusion and the turbo passion of their bedroom pas de deux was volcanic in its rapture. They are less granular but they don’t have to be, because, between them, an entire world passes in a single glance. Their dancing has the furious fizz of burning love but without, on her part at least, delusions of romantic grandeur. As Lescaut and Monsieur GM manipulate Cao’s beautiful, sensuous limbs into elliptical crescents, you see the fluttering of her heart beat against the steady drum of the rational mind. She doesn’t stop loving Des Grieux but life can be a siren’s song and it has called her to other, even if more destructive, shores.

Manon as a literary character remerges in Alexander Dumas’ Lady of the Camelias. In the book’s early pages, the narrator compares the fates of Manon and Marguerite, suggesting that, while Manon died in a desert and Marguerite in a sumptuous bed, the fate of the former was infinitely better because Manon died in the arms of the “the man who loved her with the full energy of his soul.”

If, on Wednesday night, Cojocaru and Caley who find in the idea of love a unitary impulse, seemed to agree wholeheartedly with that proposition; Cao and Arrieta, though no less convincing in the depth of their love and thus loss, also managed to suggest that the ways of the heart (and the people in whom they reside) can be more complex than that. The harrowing desperation of their final flight will stay with me.

English National Ballet’s Manon has a rather different look to that at Covent Garden. The sets by Mia Stensgaard bend towards minimalism but, combined with Mikku Kunttu’s lighting, it captures the ether like quality of memory (the book and the ballet is framed as a recount); something perhaps less rich in its decorative detail but more episodic. All the better to show off performances of this brilliance.