It is half a century since the first performance of Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet, Manon. Initially it was not a roaring success (but then neither was Swan Lake, so there is some sort of lesson there) as some critics were rather sniffy about the company’s leading ballerina at the time – Antoinette Sibley – playing a greedy social climber.
However, it quickly became acknowledged as a modern classic combining a thrilling story, impressive designs and beautiful music with some of the most moving and passionate pas de deux ever created. It is now in the repertoire of many of the world’s major ballet companies and the eponymous heroine, together with her lover Des Grieux and her brother Lescaut remain sought after roles by top dancers.
Manon’s driving desire is to escape poverty (the use of rags in many of the set designs is a constant reminder of the threat of destitution) and she uses the only means she has at her disposal – her beauty – to rise through society. Passed around like a trophy in the brothel scene (what would a MacMillan ballet be without ladies of ill repute?), she is a prized commodity, glorying in her own sexuality. When love gets in the way, in the form of Des Grieux, she meets a tragic end in the swamps of Louisiana, but on the journey, we are treated to several glorious pas de deux and complex solos.
On opening night Francesca Hayward danced the heroine: this Manon is aware of her power shortly after her first entrance and is all too ready to leave behind Des Grieux for the security of being a kept woman. Hayward has beautiful, speedy bourrees and her pas de deux with Marcelino Sambe become increasingly passionate as the ballet progresses. His Des Grieux is a slow-burner: the first variation (so measured, so difficult to pull off) is reserved, but his dancing gains momentum and by the time we reach the final act he really lets rip when there is nothing left but desperation and horror.
Some of the crowd scenes are a bit fuzzy round the edges – there is a lot going on and the corps dancers need to be sharper, but the principal dancers make this a standout production.
Praise must go to Alexander Campbell as a predatory Lescaut and Mayara Magri as his Mistress. She is always a strong dancer and adds her own particular glamour to the ballet. This one is not for children: there are depictions of sexual violence and at times it is rather explicit. Definitely not The Nutcracker.
Manon is at the Royal Opera House until 8th March