The story of Manon is unequivocally French, whether judged in terms of her literary awakening in the Abbé Prevost’s eighteenth century novel; operatic debuts, composed, first, by Auber (1856) and, more lastingly, by Massenet (1884), both of which predated Puccini’s masterpiece; and Manon’s first steps in ballet also came on a Parisian stage, in 1830. And, yet, any consideration of Manon in ballet, today, can only concern the richly inventive choreography of Sir Kenneth MacMillan: one of a fistful of works that have come to define British ballet.  

Hungarian National Ballet in <i>Manon</i> © Szilvia Csibi
Hungarian National Ballet in Manon
© Szilvia Csibi

Nowadays, as companies become increasingly international, the ageless neoclassicism of MacMillan’s Manon is integral to the melting pot of great choreography that now represents the globalisation of ballet. This internationalism came relatively late to Budapest but – under Tamás Solymosi’s passionate, modernising leadership – Hungarian National Ballet is in the fast lane, heading towards the world elite. In just six years, the 120-strong company has gone from being entirely Hungarian to a relatively even mix of dancers from home and abroad.   Solymosi has also diversified the repertoire; introducing Manon, which premiered last year; and a new version of Anna-Marie Holmes’ Le Corsaire, which opens later this month. 

Aliya Tanykpayeva (Manon) © Szilvia Csibi
Aliya Tanykpayeva (Manon)
© Szilvia Csibi
It is to Maina Gielgud’s credit that the clarity of fine detail is ever-present throughout her staging, delivering believability in finely-nuanced characterisations, not just in the principal roles but throughout the myriad beggars, “gentlemen”, courtesans and convicts that crowd the stage in the opening scenes of each act. This production benefits from excellent new sets and costumes, made in Budapest workshops to the design specifications of the late Nicholas Georgiadis. 

Just as these sets and costumes exude authenticity, so the performances gave this Manon a depth of achievement no less than I would expect from The Royal Ballet. At every level, from the uncredited rat catcher to the cheery Madame (Marianna Venekei), every member of this exemplary cast – not forgetting a superb orchestra – contributed to a memorable performance.

The title role is heavily laden with expressiveness, containing more than a half-dozen iconic partnered dances, including a whole love story told in four duets; a manipulated dance by eight men; and a rape. Aliya Tanykpayeva came to Hungary from Kazakhstan via stints as a principal dancer in Vienna and Zurich. Her Manon was amoral but with a guile born of desperation to avoid the captivity of convent or gutter.  

Tanykpayeva captivates her audience with wide eyes and a palpable strength of expression.  She is a story teller, amplifying her narrative to the far reaches of the auditorium, in gesture and movement that is often thrilling, always absorbing: the soft plasticity of her back; wonderful arched feet; the elegant use of head and shoulders; and in her unwavering attention to MacMillan’s exploitation of the erotic potential of the upper arm. Tanykpayeva brings a particular sense of abandonment to highly physical duets and, especially, in the iconic brothel scene, when she is passed around eight men in that arresting chain of lifts and supported falls.  

Monsieur G. M. (Alekszandr Komarov) , Manon (Aliya Tanykpayeva) and Lescaut (Ievgen Lagunov) © Szilvia Csibi
Monsieur G. M. (Alekszandr Komarov) , Manon (Aliya Tanykpayeva) and Lescaut (Ievgen Lagunov)
© Szilvia Csibi

As Des Grieux, Dmitry Timofeev provided the security in those duets that enabled Tanykpayeva to be free to dance as if without caution. It is Timofeev’s character that has the first major challenge in the awkward, adagio solo with which Des Grieux declares his love to the seated Manon. Get it even slightly wrong and it sets an uncertain tone; but Timofeev nailed those tight turns and long arabesques with aplomb. He also held our attention during Des Grieux’s long periods in the background.

Jessica Carulla Leon deserves an award for bravery. As Lescaut’s mistress – a character invented by MacMillan – she damaged an ankle early in her opening solo but not only continued to complete the dance without disturbance, but finished the act with the audience unaware of her injury. Having danced the role on the previous evening, Karina Sarkissova was called from home to take over without any noticeable extension to the interval. It was a great example of teamwork and efficiency and, if anything, Sarkissova gave an even more impressive performance than at her scheduled show. 

Aliya Tanykpayeva and Dmitry Timofeev © Szilvia Csibi
Aliya Tanykpayeva and Dmitry Timofeev
© Szilvia Csibi

Ievgen Lagunov made a fine job of the disreputable brother, Lescaut. He didn’t overkill the comedic potential of the drunken solo, dancing the duet with Sarkissova remarkably well considering they had only a few minutes’ notice of this new arrangement. Alekszandr Komarov essayed an especially loathsome Monsieur G.M.; a powdered popinjay with the morals of a sewer rat.

I also saw an alternative cast in which Tatiana Melnik gave another strong performance as Manon, managing somehow to retain an aura of chastity even when selling herself for jewels. Her Des Grieux was a young and impressive Hungarian dancer, Gergely Leblanc, who has a very bright future. Iurii Kekalo gave a more brutal account of Lescaut and Levente Bajári was a Monsieur G.M. with a permanent bad odour under his nose.