writers on dancing


"Manon"—Still Dull, Despite Guillem

Royal Ballet
Covent Garden Opera House
February 3 – March 1, 2005

by John Percival
copyright © 2005 by John Percival

Kenneth MacMillan’s two most popular ballets, and therefore the most often performed, are “Romeo and Juliet” and “Manon”. Too bad that I find them both boring for the very qualities the general public seems to like: too big, too operatic in structure, lots of steps but not enough truly expressive dance. “Manon” is less derivative than the heavily Cranko and Lavrovsky influenced “Romeo”, but it worries me to see so much of its three substantial acts taken up with pointless divertissements for a cast of whores and their customers and hangers-on. Each section of the ballet begins thus, in contexts that seem to me theatrically unrealistic and therefore unbelievable. What are we to make, for instance, of the long sequence in “Madame’s” house (i.e. brothel) where Manon is partnered in turn by all the male guests, implying that she has become a common prostitute, whereas elsewhere in that scene it is clear that Monsieur G.M., having bought her as his mistress, demands exclusive rights?

Not that the original story by the Abbé Prévost has any appeal for me anyway, although I know I’m in a minority. Consequently I find the ballet not so much a tragedy as a kind of sentimental farce. It is not helped when—as also in other ballets this season—blackouts or curtains come too soon before the end of a scene. The music, selected and arranged by Leighton Lucas and Hilda Gaunt from operas, cantatas, orchestral suites and songs by Jules Massenet (but not his “Manon” opera), contributes to that effect. It’s catchily rhythmic, often surprisingly cheerful, but it isn’t the stuff that dramas are made of – all the more so under the plodding direction of Martin Yates: I’m amazed that he has convinced seven ballet companies to use him, besides many opera and symphony orchestras. Nicholas Georgiadis’s scenery and costumes work well—overpowering sets but quick changes—although the variant he designed for the Paris Opera Ballet struck me as an improvement when I saw it a while back.

However, audiences love the work, and dancers seem to enjoy camping up the characters, so who am I to complain? I can just not go to it, and nowadays that’s what I generally do, but in our gratifying mainly Ashton season I supposed I ought to take a token look at his successor’s ballets. Are they as far inferior as I remembered? For me, yes.

There are three casts this season, and I will not complain at catching Sylvie Guillem in the title part. Her dramatic skills have always matched her technical brilliance (although many British critics used to think otherwise), and she brings out every tiny detail. The glee with which her Manon realises the power she has over the men who lust after her is especially enticing. Jonathan Cope was her lover, Des Grieux. He managed pretty well the hero’s slow soft solos, partnered securely, and although acting has never been his strong point, he made something of the character. The other leading role, Manon’s dissolute brother Lescaut, went to a newcomer, the highly gifted young Thiago Soares, who conveyed an apt smugness in the character’s love of money, manipulation and sex. Mara Galeazzi, unfortunately, missed the edge that is needed by his mistress (the role originally danced by Monica Mason, now the Royal’s director), and Anthony Dowell similarly made little effect with his fussy, round-faced account of Monsieur G.M. (What a let-down after the way he used to play both the male leads.) There’s an awful lot of argie-bargie for subsidiary characters, listed, with some very ill-defined distinctions, as courtesans, harlots, gentlemen and clients. Their activities didn’t make much sense, but I recall that was always the case, so I fear that the blame must lie with the choreographer. And now I don’t have to sit through it again, even though some excellent dancers are appearing in other performances.

Photo 1: Sylvie Guillem as Manon, Jonathan Cope as Des Grieux in Manon; photo Bill Cooper.
Photo 2:  Darcey Bussell as Manon; photo Bill Cooper.

Volume 3, No. 5
February 7, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by John Percival


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last updated on February 7, 2005