English National Ballet
Milton Keynes, Milton Keynes Theatre
24 October 2018
This performance of Manon was a rich and detailed makeover on the face of a much-loved friend. Everything seemed newly-minted, fresh and alive in a production that ENB has rented from The Royal Danish Ballet and then enhanced through its own inspired renovation. It has absorbed newly-nuanced interpretations that reassert the contemporary relevance of Kenneth MacMillan’s adaptation of this eighteenth-century tale of tragic downfall, brought about by the cardinal sins of lust, envy, greed, pride and wrath.
Mia Stensgaard’s designs, ideal for touring, are evocative of each setting without detailed elaboration, creating a minimalist journey from the courtyard of a busy Parisian inn to the New Orleans quayside; even the claustrophobic heat of the Louisiana swamps is effectively achieved with little more than some atmospheric, theatrical haze. The makeover effect is also partly due to Stensgaard’s costumes, with the only concerning aspect being candy-coloured, bonbonniere puffed-tutus worn by the prostitutes (this was one of few times I found myself yearning for the Georgiadis equivalents in The Royal Ballet’s production).
Jurgita Dronina brought a richness in depth to her portrayal of Manon, accentuated with such feeling and expression that a profound dramatic impact was always firmly integrated into her dancing. She conveyed the reason for every movement and the text for her character could not have been better articulated in words. We felt the lightning bolt of love in her first encounter with Des Grieux (MacMillan repeating that seismic moment of intense intimacy within a crowd that he first achieved in Romeo and Juliet); the compelling lure of envy and avarice for a better life offered by her debauched procurer, Monsieur G.M; the inner pain of abandoning Des Grieux; and the joyful decision to ditch the riches by plotting their reunion. It was a decisive and – in some ways – ground-breaking performance.
Isaac Hernández is an archetypal Des Grieux, a lyrical danseur with the range of gifts to deliver a quintessential performance in one of MacMillan’s great male roles. These dancing qualities are nobly enhanced by a youthful handsomeness that – together with his portrayal of Des Grieux’s essential naivety and honour – make him an exemplar in this role. The chemistry between Dronina and Hernández was often electric with passion in their duets, in the intimacy of their kiss, culminating in the tragic despair of that anything-but-death-defying finale.
34 minute video of Isaac Hernández and Jurgita Dronina in Manon rehearsals, being coached by Irek Mukhamedov and Viviana Durante.
These central performances were surrounded by others of equal weight. Two male stalwarts of the company were virtually unrecognisable in their characterisations of the villains in this tale: G.M, the dandy, white-faced popinjay who “buys” Manon becomes a perverted portrait of evil through Fabian Reimair’s inspired performance. And it was so hard to believe that mild-mannered James Streeter was the rapist Gaoler that my companion asked if he was a member of the orchestra when we bumped into him on the way home! This was tremendous acting by both men.
As for the actual orchestra, well here was another triumph for the English National Ballet Philharmonic under the baton of ENB Music Director, Gavin Sutherland. The architecture of Milton Keynes may be sterile, but the city has a theatre, which – though suffering the same concrete blandness – has exceptional acoustics; and the memorable Massenet melodies seemed as fresh as the revitalised production they embellished.
Ken Saruhashi was convincing as the avaricious, chauvinistic lad-about-town, Lescaut, equally at ease with conning an old man (a suitably doddery performance by legendary character artist, Michael Coleman) as he is with pimping his sister. Crystal Costa was delightful as Lescaut’s Mistress and the quintet of courtesans (Tiffany Hedman, Anjuli Hudson, Rina Kanehara, Adela Ramirez and Maria José Sales) were so expressive as to be serially focus-pulling throughout the crowded scenes that opened the first two acts. The way they chased rolling coins when G.M erupts into violence, on discovering that Des Grieux has cheated him at cards, was hilarious, including the vivid image of Hedman headlong on the floor, one arm stretching out beyond the upturned table to grab this filthy lucre!
A plethora of similar minute detailing brings a richness to Manon that makes every viewing so worthwhile. This complexity was part of the MacMillan genius and his legacy is splendidly and stylishly celebrated in this production. English National Ballet can once more reflect triumphally on another significant success. They keep rolling in! It is just a pity that empty seats on this opening night meant that more of the good people in the MK region were not there to see it.