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Kenneth MacMillan English National Ballet Opera House, Manchester 17 October 2018 to 20 October 2018

The Corps de Ballet in English National Ballet's exuberant Manon
The Corps de Ballet in English National Ballet's exuberant Manon

Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon is that rare thing, a modern classic in classical ballet form. First created in 1974, it was quite daring for its time. Sexual love and sexual abuse are portrayed through more than just a few swooning moves in pas de deux – indeed, Wayne Eagling, the ENB artistic director who introduced it to the company (and brought it to the Manchester Palace Theatre 10 years ago) thought it was probably unsuitable for under-14s.

But its innovation went further than that, as it doesn’t have much of the stop-start structure of many classical ballets, where the skills displayed in a particular sequence can be applauded, and the dancers break out of character, before anything moves on. This was a story-telling ballet, for all its opportunities for bravura performance.

The story is that of Prévost’s Manon Lescaut – about a student who falls in love with a good-time girl only to see her whisked away from him by the lure of luxury and a sugar-daddy’s money: he wins her back at terrible cost, as they are both sentenced to deportation to that unholy wilderness, America, where they die.

It has formed the basis of a number of operas, most famously those by Massenet and Puccini, but as early as 1836 Michael Balfe had huge success with it on the British stage in The Maid of Artois.

MacMillan’s version uses music by Massenet, but not from the opera. Instead other works, operatic and more, are plundered for the lush, romantic, danceable music they contain. MacMillan’s original Royal Ballet production had lavish sets by Nicholas Georgiadis, but ENB, opening in Manchester this week on a tour which also goes to Milton Keynes and Southampton, use the ones made for a later Royal Danish Ballet production.

Getting it on to the Manchester Opera House stage, rather than the Palace’s, may have been a bit of a problem, and some of the ensemble numbers looked slightly cramped, but the costumes are lavishly brilliant and the dancers overcame the spacing issues with great ingenuity. They are a big company of immense technical expertise, and it’s good that Manchester gets to see them in addition to those who come to The Lowry.

The principal roles were danced with utter assurance and supreme skill. Alina Cojocaru is a wisp of a girl and floated through the title role with uninterrupted grace, partnered by Joseph Caley (until last year a Birmingham Royal Ballet principal) as Des Grieux, the ardent young lover and hero in every step. MacMillan made some wonderful partnering for these two, all grace and fluidity though technically very demanding, and they were wonderful to watch.

There is a second female principal role in the story: Katja Khaniukova danced Manon’s brother’s mistress with such precision and style she could have stolen the show. And the brother (known simply as Lescaut) was performed by the young American Jeffrey Cirio, whose initial entrance with its massive jumps, and later clever acting-drunk, were sheer delight.

Jane Haworth made a nice job of the ageing Madame, and the evil ‘Monsieur GM’ (the bad guy) was given some menacingly sleazy touches by James Streeter, all the more effective for their understatement.


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