Standard YouTube Licence
Royal Ballet Manon 3 Nay 2018, 19:30 Royal Opera House (streamed to cinemas)
Although Manon is probably Sir Kenneth MacMillan's most popular ballet after Romeo and Juliet I have yet to see it live on stage. I have seen a recording of it once before in the cinema (Manon Encore at the Huddersfield Odeon 20 Oct 2014).
I missed the ballet when it first appeared in 1974 because I was at graduate school in Los Angeles but the reports that I read in the British press to which my university subscribed were not particularly encouraging. As Wikipedia reports:
"Critical responses to the opening night performance were mixed. The Guardian newspaper stated, "Basically, Manon is a slut and Des Grieux is a fool and they move in the most unsavoury company", while the Morning Star described the ballet as "an appalling waste of the lovely Antoinette Sibley, who is reduced to a nasty little diamond digger". The opening night audience gave the ballet a standing ovation."I doubt that they would have put me off as I often find myself in disagreement with ballet critics. I think it is more a question of inertia. I don't live in London. My time and means are not unlimited. There has always been something I have wanted to see more. Right now, it is Liam Scarlett's Swan Lake.
I leaned a little bit about the ballet from Dame Antoinette Sibley in an interview that she gave to Clement Crisp at the Royal Ballet School in 2014 (see Le jour de gloire est arrive - Dame Antoinette Sibley with Clement Crisp at the Royal Ballet School 3 Feb 2014). Dame Antoinette produced a copy of the book by Abbé Prévost which Sir Kenneth had sent to her and she read from his note in the cover. Kevin O'Hare mentioned that story in an interview that he gave to Ore Oduba and Darcey Bussell before the show. The libretto does not follow the novel exactly but it is close enough in essentials.
MacMillan created some striking choreography for this ballet. Vadim Muntagirov who danced Des Grieux referred to lifting the ballerina behind his back. Particularly memorable, in my view, was a pas de trois in the first act in which Sarah Lamb (as Manon) appeared to be contorted into positions from which I feared she would never recover. More contortions in the party scene at which Manon's brother, Ryoichi Hirano, who is very drunk, attempts to dance with his mistress.
One of the advantages of watching ballet in the cinema are the closeups of the dancers' facial expressions. For the first time I appreciated Lamb's genius as an actor. She expressed every emotion, every state of mind, almost every thought through her eyes. The character that she dances is not a nice woman. Greedy, capricious and deceitful, she richly deserves her comeuppance, yet she somehow wins the audience's sympathy. What greater proof could there be of her dramatic qualities.
Tall, slender, athletic, dreamy, passionate and at times explosive, Muntagirov is exactly as I would imagine Des Grieux. Also impressive were Gary Avis as the louche aristocrat who first makes and then breaks Manon, destroys her brother and disgraces her brother and Yorkshire's very own Thomas Whitehead as Manon's thuggish and lascivious gaoler.
Anyone who has seen his Romeo and Juliet will agree that MacMillan does fights better than almost any other choreographer. There is one good sword fight in Manon in the second act but the knife fight in which Des Grieux dispatches the gaoler is particularly exciting.
The sets and costumes were designed by Ncholas Georgiadis who also designed the sets and costumes for Romeo and Juliet. I am sure that on the stage they must have been magnificent but except for vines of the mangrove swamp in the very last scene they were barely visible which is a pity.
I doubt that Manon will ever be my favourite ballet but I have resolved to see it live next time it is staged which I did not do after the last screening of this work.