After a long run of Nutcracker and then Swan Lake, the dancers of English National Ballet now sink their teeth with relish into the teeming, venal and corrupt world of eighteenth-century France as portrayed in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon. It’s a strong cast with Alina Cojocaru as Manon, the skittish, charming heroine wavering between her love for the young Des Grieux and the worldly temptations of the jewels of the rich old Monsieur G.M. who she is propelled towards by her venal brother Lescaut. The production has been staged with care, bringing in notable practitioners of the roles such as Anthony Dowell, Viviana Durante, and Irek Mukhamedov to coach the principals. It’s not just them: the entire cast is committed to the MacMillan idea of everyone having their own character and story, and the result is a richly detailed picture of the conflicts between poverty and wealth, love and lust. Life choices for women are cruelly constrained here.
Cojocaru enters as an innocent, insouciantly accepting adoration as her due without thinking of the consequences. But her learning curve is to be steep. She is very much under the influence of her brother Lescaut, here danced with venomous sharpness and ferocity by Jeffrey Cirio.
The work begins with him, and his first solo, crisply delivered, really told us about him as a person, his cocksure arrogance and ambition. He made much out of his interactions at the inn with the beggar chief (Noam Durand). An entire backstory is implied, they clearly know each other and have been up to no good before. Lescaut rapidly latches on to the wealthy Monsieur G.M. as a potential route to riches, and his nasty, vindictive streak soon manifests itself in his ill-treatment of his mistress (alluring Katja Khaniukova). Cirio really relishes the role, flinging himself perilously (yet still elegantly) through the air in the drunken dances of Act2.
Joseph Caley is Manon’s would be lover, a naive Des Grieux. In Act 1, he grins like a man who can scarcely believe his luck at encountering this amazing woman and finding his feelings reciprocated. He showed attractive smoothness and control in his tricky opening solo where he declares his love. In the testing pas de deux he was a caring and reliable partner for Cojocaru. He didn’t seem quite so sure of his way in Act 2, where it took a while to develop the despondency of the deserted lover, but ultimately he built up a fine head of desperate steam.
James Streeter’s Monsieur G.M. is a fabulous creation, privileged and contemptuous, with a cruel streak. He thinks he is a connoisseur of female flesh, constantly appraising the legs on offer. In the inn he wields his fine handkerchief like a weapon to keep away his inferiors. Secure in his status, he initially pays no notice to Des Grieux in Act 2 that he hands him an empty glass as if to a waiter, and Caley politely carries it away.
It’s the scene where Lescaut brings G.M. to buy Manon with jewels and furs that exposes most about the protagonist’s characters. Some Manons are more easily won over than others. Cojocaru is obviously initially flattered but then she’s used to being adored: it takes a little while to sink in what the deal involves. The trio with Lescaut winding Manon around and over a Monsieur G.M. quivering with lust makes it very clear what that is. She assents, but a little pang of regret is evident in a tender touch of the pillows on which she so recently shared with Des Grieux.
Clean and uncluttered designs by Mia Stensgaard mostly work well, throwing the focus more on to the dance itself rather than any lavish surroundings. Costumes for Acts 1 and 3 worked best. In Act 3, it seemed entirely right that des Grieux was dishevelled and grubby after the voyage. The beggars at the quayside in Act 3 gave a sense of coming full circle, we started with beggary, and we return to it. However, there are some odd choices in the brothel scene, where Manon is wearing white. The colours of the tarts outfits here clashed and their skirts were too short. This doesn’t fit the choreography; you can’t hike up your skirt to show a leg when the skirt is so short already.
Cojocaru’s Manon always seems to be improvising, thinking she can charm her way out of any situation until she reaches Act 3, transported as a prostitute to Louisiana. When the gaoler (Fabian Reimair, coolly repellent) comes to claim her, she knows what he’s after but can’t get out of this one. Something in her has changed though. After Des Grieux stabs him, she seizes the knife: she’s ready to strike a second blow if he isn’t dead. There was a spark of anger and resolve there, after so much mistreatment at the hands of men. But the energy evaporates rapidly in the swamps and in the final last desperate pas de deux. Here Cojocaru and Caley set aside any caution and she flings herself at him, an ember blazing up one last time before it is extinguished.
Though there were outstanding performances from the principals, this was very much a company achievement. Gavin Sutherland in the pit leads the ENB Philharmonic through a tender account of the Massenet and everyone on stage lived every minute. There are points when it could be turned down a notch: in Act 2 the dance of the two competing courtesans is overdone, verging on the Trocks territory. But this is a minor quibble. The audience was wildly appreciative, and rightly so.