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Irresistible

Manon” is perhaps one of Kenneth MacMillan's most celebrated works, so it is fitting that it draws to a close a Royal Ballet season that has seen a number of performances in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the choreographer's death.

Performance

The Royal Ballet: “Manon”

Place

Royal Opera House, London, UK, April 16, 2018

Words

Rachel Elderkin

Marianela Núñez as Manon in Kenneth MacMillan's "Manon." Photograph by Johan Persson courtesy of the Royal Opera House

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From the start, “Manon” is a work that inhabits a world of decaying decadence. In Nicholas Georgiadis' design of earthy golden hues, the cloths of the backdrop appear somewhere between rags and silk drapes. It's the epitome of Manon's world, a life lived between poverty and opulence.

It's these two very different lives that influence Manon's desires and compel her to choose between her love for the young student Des Grieux (here danced by Roberto Bolle) and the wealth offered by Monsieur G.M. (Christopher Saunders).

In MacMillan's condensed version of Abbé Prévost's original story, Manon's internal struggle is swift. After the passionate pas de deux of Act 1's famous bedroom scene she quickly lets go of love—with only a little persuasion from her scheming brother Lescaut—for the jewels and fur coats Monsiuer G.M can offer.

This may be a ballet in three acts but the story itself is so quickly passed through that, at times, it becomes difficult to keep up. In consequence, the impulses that drive these characters to their tragic conclusion surge up suddenly or are missed altogether.

However, in the hands of the Royal Ballet, that's compensated for by some compelling and heartfelt performances in which MacMillan's complex choreography is executed with finesse and precision.

Marianela Núñez, who recently celebrated 20 years with the company, is one of those dancers who is always a joy to watch. She plays the part of Manon with a cool yet girlish coquettishness that transforms into an almost regal confidence with her elevated status of the second act.

As MacMillan's choreography dictates Manon is capricious and quick to fall in love, and Núñez embodies these shifting moods with apparent ease. The same goes for her execution of the physical steps, ever fluid and elegant despite their complexity. With this joyful and delicate approach, Núñez's plunge into a rag doll-like state of despair in the third act is rendered even more striking.

Together, Bolle and Núñez bring a sweet, youthful intensity to Manon and Des Grieux's relationship. Both are exceptionally precise dancers and the painstakingly slow solo which Des Grieux dances for Manon in the opening village scene is executed by Bolle with meticulous placement and control. If anything, you long for him to fill his steps with a little more passion and abandonment. By the time they reach the bedroom pas de deux of Act 1, MacMillan's potentially passionate choreography simmers with a joyful, loving excitement rather than raw, unbridled passion.

However it seems a considered choice by Bolle to play his part with an element of reserve—in the third act his restrained passion is let loose in a heartfelt portrayal of love lost. In this final pas de deux, as Bolle supports Núñez wilting frame in his arms, all the passion and pain these two characters have experienced reaches its conclusion.

It's one of those moments where you realise MacMillan's sublime ability to capture in movement the intensity of emotion that can exist between two people. His delicate, nuanced choreography hints at the loving embraces shared by Manon and Des Grieux in Act 1, but here the tone is raw and desperate, youthful excitement replaced by an intense need for one another.

It's an achingly poignant scene and as Núñez slips delicately though Bolle’s supportive embrace, his portrayal of Des Grieux's utter devastation gives vent to all the passion he earlier withheld.

The Royal Ballet deliver a precise and elegantly danced interpretation with some strong performances in the leading roles. As Lescaut's mistress, Beatriz Stix-Brunell is fabulously haughty and seductive. Lescaut, danced on this occasion by Marcelino Sambé, is lithe and energetic, as quick in action as his character is in conducting his schemes.

Saunders brings a commanding, aristocratic presence to his role as Monsieur G.M. Combined with Núñez' elegance, it's an air that gives the Act 1 pas de trois a refined and considered tone. Interestingly, it's an interpretation that returns a sense of power to Manon. Even as she is pulled between the two men she is not so much a pawn in their game but rather a young woman ready to test her power over the men beside her.

As beautifully choreographed as “Manon” is, there are moments that feel a little dated. The culmination of Act 3, for instance, is overly melodramatic. As Núñez and Bolle dance their final pas de deux amidst the theatrical rendering of a Louisiana swamp, the company fleetingly return in a whirlwind scene of past memories—a not-so-subtle device that somewhat distracts from the scene's tragic tone. Likewise, the comical pas de deux between Lescaut and his mistress during the frivolities of Act 2 teeters on the edge of slapstick. However, the playful partnership and easy charm of Sambé and Stix-Brunell just about manages to resist that tendency.

In spite of these quips there is no doubting the brilliance of MacMillan's choreography. 25 years after his death the solos and pas de deux of “Manon” remain some of the most beautiful and complex evocations of human relationships and desires. The choreography is intricate and challenging but what is most striking, at least in the hands of Núñez and Bolle, are the moments of pause. As they hold each others gaze it's as if they are caught in silent conversation and it's those moments that take MacMillan's movement beyond the steps and fill his choreography with the intense emotions so key to this work. By the time we reach the closing duet it's as if all those words, both enacted and unspoken, pour into MacMillan's choreography and paint a final, lasting portrait of love, desire and devastation.

Rachel Elderkin


Rachel Elderkin is a freelance dance artist and writer based in London. She is a contributor to The Stage and a member of the UK's Critics' Circle. She has previously written for publications including Fjord Review, Exeunt, British Theatre Guide, londondance.com, the Skinny (Scotland) and LeftLion (Nottingham) where she was Art Editor.

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