Billed as a ‘lusty tale of doomed love’ we gather in the heavily gilded, Edwardian splendour of Manchester’s Opera House for English National Ballet’s revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon.
Currently on a national autumn tour, Manon was created by MacMillan in 1974 and is rarely performed outside London. This three-act ballet, accompanied by a haunting score composed by Jules Massenet and performed live by the English National Ballet Philharmonic, is adapted from Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel.
Manon tells the dramatic tale of a young penniless student named Des Grieux, played by Hull’s Joseph Caley, who meets Manon, performed by Alina Cojocaru, in the courtyard of a busy inn. For the couple it’s lust at first sight but the course of true love never did run smooth as her brother, Lescaut, auctions her off to the wealthy Monsieur GM. She is torn between two lives: privilege and opulence or innocent true love.
MacMillan’s full-blooded ballet of love, decadence, set in 18th century Paris, offers a feast for the eyes. The stage is brought to life with delicate dancers in bright cabbage-green tulle, aristocrats draped in ruffled shirts and silk waistcoats and beggars, courtesans and harlots in corseted costumes. The production uses stark Scandinavian minimalism, created for the Royal Danish Ballet, to evoke the staging, which accompanies each act – an inn, a gambling den and a desolate Louisiana swamp.
Famous for its expressive choreography and dramatic challenge, Manon features some of the most demanding and fulfilling roles in ballet. Macmillan’s choreography is expert and the muscular male leads, particularly Jeffrey Cirio as Lescaut, stand out. Joseph Caley’s incessant smiling is a little cloying but he can be forgiven as this is the first time he has performed this role and his natural chemistry with his lead shines through.
The audience feels every emotion our ruthless heroine Manon expresses – from basking in desire, to devastation and sorrow. This passionate tale is told through the couple’s relationship and the choreography focuses on the pas de deux, danced at key moments to mark Manon’s downfall. This particularly comes to the fore when the couple fall in love in act one, when this passionate segment best illustrates how captivating our heroine is.
The stage is alight with many stories to tempt the audience, sub plots happen on the left and right hand sides – gamblers arguing, pimps hustling and carousing couples. But your eye is always drawn to Manon, who conveys lust, excitement and fear through the slightest movements as she lights up the stage. The flaws of Manon’s character make her one of the most coveted roles in the classical repertoire and each ballerina has a different approach.
This romantic tragedy, with the backdrop of the grandeur of Paris, the many levels of French society and the contrast of pure and calculating characters make this a wonderful autumnal treat and perfect for experienced and novice audiences alike.
Main image: Rina Kanehara in Manon. Photo by Laurent-Liotardo.