LAST EDITED ON 09-Apr-00 AT 11:12 PM (GMT)
I guess anybody who writes down their thoughts on dance for others eventually gets to a point where they wonder what on earth fresh there is to say! It almost seems like one ought to get it down to a proforma to be filled in... Manon again - here is a link to where I said how much I like it, here is a link to the plot, here is a link to the history, here is a link to great performances etc etc leaving only a few words to be spelt out about the dancers one saw.
But that would seem so disrespectful of Manon and the other great ballets that keep coming back and that the broader public love. In fact I think Manon and La Fille mal gardee are probably very rare in the UK in that they have become guaranteed box office despite not being 19th century classics. One would also add Romeo and Juliet but I see that as a piece that sells all around the world like the 19th century ballets. Not that Fille and Manon cannot be seen elsewhere and Manon has just gone into the Kirov repertoire and will also be put on in Germany later in the year.
The attraction for me is both the music - sadly not available on CD because the Massenet Estate don't seem to allow it - and the various pdd and pdt. Somehow you never seem more than a few moments away from some of the greatest dramatic dance for two. And while in Romeo and Juliet I do flag at times in all 3 acts, in Manon only the beggars' dance now seems to grate: and then only a little!
The other thing I adore about the RB Manon is the character side, particularly in the Act 2 brothel scenes. There is so much going on and even having seen it dozens of times I still find myself noticing fresh things. It is a jewel of a ballet and while I feel a little sanguine about many of the classics coming back season after season that is not the case for Manon (or Fille for that matter)
Casting has been tricky in the current run. Irek Mukhamedov was injured and unable to make the opening night with Viviana Durante. For many this has become the couple to see dance Manon and an earlier review attempted to say why. Instead Durante's Des Grieux was Jonathan Cope - much taller than she and they have not really ever danced together. In the circumstances everybody thought they looked far better then we all imagined - if you like it was a triumph of professionalism over the public's worst fears when a favourite is not there.
The astounding thing was the quality of Durante's dancing. She is rather quicker than she used to be and now uses her feet even more expressively. Every time I think she is at the height of her powers she seems to go up another notch. And I still feel Manon is so absolutely her, though she needs new partners. Sad then that she seems to have burnt most if not all her bridges with RB and few expect to see her dance with them again - though there remains perhaps a flicker of a chance.
Lescaut (Manon's brother) is a central part of the action and difficult to cast given that the boys who left to join Kumakawa's company in Japan were the ones who primarily performed it. Nigel Burley, who joined the Royal from Australian Ballet (AB) last year, knows the role and got the opening night. Sadly he seemed totally out of it and many fans - but not all - were a bit hound-dog about it. All the usual little asides and nuances were not really there and somehow his version seemed to belong elsewhere, which I suppose it did, given the AB angle. But how things can change and views were rapidly revised in the light of subsequent performances - it has been a joy to watch as he meshes in with the production and his mistress - the excellent Christina McDermott. But Burley clearly does not know his own strength - on the opening night he bumped his Madame (the fragrant Genesia Rosato) to the floor in their drunken dance. She looked rather stunned for a half a second or so!
Guillem and Cope danced the second performance though Irek was still injured and this time unable to do Lescaut - Nigel Burley stood-in and wowed us all. If Manon in the 90's was Viv and Irek then Manon in the new millennium is Guillem and Cope and a substantial number of people prefer them. Indeed seeing Durante and Irek dance now is a very different affair from that which originally captured the public's imagination - mainly because Irek is slowing up and for me his acting is now overly exaggerated. It's not meant to be disrespectful - you can't stop time. And the many of us who always book to see them, see them in the context of what was as well as what is. New people might well wonder quite what some of the fuss was about especially with Irek recovering from injury.
Guillem's approach to dramatic works is very Christopher Gable - she thinks much about the real motives of people and must have read 'An Actor Prepares', or whatever it's called, more than once or twice I think. There is a richness and naturalness to her characters and she seems to keep adding new layers. Durante by comparison seems much more instinctive in her grasp of the role.
Guillem and Cope's last act pdd - the swamp one - is an amazing experience as all caution is thrown to the wind. Guillem is thrown so high and fits in so many twists the audience collectively draws breath. Thank goodness Cope is so reliable as a partner for her. But it's easy to overlook Cope's solos and his own contribution to the night - he looks magnificent in the first solo and is so sure footed. He cuts both an imposing and yet a very human figure on stage.
The third cast I saw was Leanne Benjamin and Bruce Sansom. There Lescaut was Ricardo Cervera making his debut in the role. He did well in the drunken pdd with Gillian Revie and they both brought new and welcome thoughts to it. But throughout the night he suffered from badly fitting costumes. He is slighter than many who dance the role and continually seemed to labour and look less than 'cool' in his clothes. It reminded me of school where one's blazer always seemed to be too large on the basis that one would grow into it. Bruce suffered as well though to a lesser degree. But the result was that I was in guffaws during their fight at the end of the first act - just like back at school, it seemed a bit of scrap between two lads both in clothes two sizes too large.
I think this is one of the very few times I can recall the RB wardrobe doing a less than excellent job. The more so because much of the production has been re-costumed. While some changes have been made by and large they are faithful to the originals. A bit of a lost opportunity because personally I would love to have seen the act 1 colour scheme changed - I think it looks rather dated, if admittedly quite handsome.
The Benjamin Manon is not what one expects. Given she is so good in the MacMillan repertoire and often such a racy siren, her Manon is amazingly retrained and girl-next-door. She seems to get swept along by events rather than really cottoning on quickly to the power she has and which is more central to the Durante and Guillem versions. Unprepared it seemed to carry more power in some respects, but it would be nice to see her dance the role some more both for us to appreciate it more and for her to grow into it as well.
Bruce Sansom looked very good in the solos and partnered diligently but with so few performances it must be difficult to strike up the closeness of the other couples. At the end Sansom looked amazingly happy and beamed to the audience. One part of me was saying how charming while the other said that the couples that most impress in Manon both look absolutely shattered at the end of the performance and take a few minutes to come down.
Two roles not mentioned yet are Monsieur G.M. and the Gaoler. On the former I'm now starting to warm to David Drew's interpretation. Derek Rencher (now retired) stamped such tremendous authority on the role, and Drew is starting to get to that point too. On the Gaoler front Tuckett is now my favourite and takes the fight with Manon to new depths or heights of reality, depending on your perspective. And I'm such a fan of his character acting in other roles, particularly in act 2 of Manon - he never steels the show, but those in the know always keep a beady eye on his antics.
Lastly I have to congratulate Hubert Essakow, Jonathan Howells and Yohei Sasaki as the three Gentlemen for the Benjamin and Durante performances. Their dance was spot on for timing and they did everything so well in unison. What a difference it makes and in this respect one was reminded of Kirov quality even. More please.
And thank goodness there are some more Manon's to look forward to in the summer!