Manon was created in 1974 by Kenneth MacMillan to an invigorating score of collated music by Jules Massenet. This, MacMillan’s third full-length ballet, is filled with contrasting characters and superlative pas de deux, and its multi-faceted dramatic title role is one that ballerinas dream of dancing. Today, Manon is considered a major classic — a masterpiece that appears in the repertoire of 26 of the world’s top classical ballet companies. It is a welcome addition this season to English National Ballet’s repertoire.

English National Ballet in <i>Manon</i> © Laurent Liotardo
English National Ballet in Manon
© Laurent Liotardo

Abbé Provost’s novel tells the now familiar story of a young girl arriving in 18th-century Paris en route to becoming a nun – a calling she will never fulfil. Overwhelmed by the beggars who surround her as she alights from the stagecoach, she quickly recognises that she has a choice to make – a life of wealth or a life of poverty. The power of her beauty immediately draws attention and her conniving brother is all too ready to sell her to the highest bidder.

Although it’s love at first sight with Des Grieux, a penniless poet, she is lured by Monsieur GM, an older but affluent aristocrat. He encases her in a ravishing long brocade coat trimmed with fur, and places sparkling diamonds around her neck, all the while showing a fetish for her feet and legs which he strokes constantly. The fickle young girl abandons her poor poet with scarcely a look back. But after a period of wallowing in her new lifestyle and the attention she receives from men, she eventually realises that she still has great love for Des Grieux, and elopes with him. The lovers are caught and deported on a prison ship to the disease-ridden swamps of Louisiana, where Manon dies in his arms.

English National Ballet in <i>Manon</i> © Laurent Liotardo
English National Ballet in Manon
© Laurent Liotardo

The sets, designed by Mia Stensgaard, look stark compared to most other productions but perfectly fit ENB’s touring requirements. Lacking opulence, they still create enough atmosphere for each scene while giving plenty of space for the dancing. There was rather too much dry ice in the swamp scene and the lighting could have been lower for Manon’s haunting hallucinations. But fortunately the fog vaporised in time for the lovers’ final desperate duet. Stensgaard’s costumes lent elegance to the aristocrats contrasting with the beggars’ tattered rags, though the sherbet-coloured fluffy tarlatans of the giggling harlots looked strangely out of place – more like little girlies’ unicorn party ‘must-haves’.

This production shows off ENB's company to its best with everyone from its corps of beggars, courtesans and soldiers creating a believable bustling background for the noteworthy leading characters.

Daniel McCormick as Lescaut, Manon’s scheming brother, made a striking figure with a strong sharp technique to match. His drunken scene was well-played as was his humorous duet with his mistress. His dancing was impressive, and while he could have relaxed a shade more and acted more naturally, he commanded attention. Rina Kanehara had great fun as his mistress, acting and dancing well, and bringing the right amount of sauciness.

English National Ballet in <i>Manon</i> © Laurent Liotardo
English National Ballet in Manon
© Laurent Liotardo

Fabian Reimair, unrecognisable as Monsieur GM with his whitened, ageing, lined face, splendidly depicted the older man’s lasciviousness, his imposing style of walking and stance... and his eye for the prettiest girl. A man who always gets what he wants. As did James Streeter's Gaoler, well depicted with subtle authority, despite him being another nasty character.

Manon was danced by Russian born ballerina Jurgita Dronina, who trained at the Lithuanian Ballet School and has danced with many of the top international companies. She possesses a beautiful fluid, graceful technique, a lightness and joyous approach to her dancing, and she clearly defined the egocentric heroine who sought money over love. Always elegant, she never lost her line in the many complicated lifts and inside-out turnings by various man-handlers. Isaac Hernández was her young lover, Des Grieux. With a mop of black curls, here pulled back and tied with a bow, he is blessed with physical beauty and a technique to die for. His dancing looks effortless; his leaps are light and airborne although, at this performance, he had more than a few balancing wobbles in his solos. He handled Dronina as though she were featherweight, lifting her high and catching her securely before carefully returning her to earth.

The couple dance frequently together, but at this matinée, despite their many breathtaking pas de deux, there was a definite lack of sparkle evident in their inner passion for each other. Smiles galore, and an occasional ‘ah’ moment, but their intimate moments, even through binoculars, too often lacked the anticipated tingle factor.

The greatest passion of the afternoon came surging up from the orchestra pit where the ENB Philharmonic, under the baton of Gavin Sutherland, sonorously brought the Massenet music to heart-rending peaks, adding to a stunning production.

****1