Manon: ‘The Dream Team’, Royal Ballet, November 2014

My ballet odyssey began with the Royal Ballet’s Manon, in Belfast, with the star-billing of Darcey Bussell and Igor Zelensky. Many years later and in Manon’s 40th year, (a particular milestone that I happen to share with the questionable lady), I was beside myself with excitement when searching the programme and seeing written beside casting of Manon – Bolle/ Yanowsky, the ‘dream-team’ pairing. I cannot hide my admiration of Mr Bolle as he is without doubt my favourite male ballet dancer. He is a gift to ballet audiences the world over, especially with his ‘Roberto Bolle and Friends’ touring the globe, I would love to ask when is it coming to the UK? Mr Bolle is known for his Princely stature and divinely clean lines that made me, for the first time, deeply understand why male ballet dancers wear tights, to show these lines to their full advantage, drawing the eye to where a ballet dancer’s art really lies, through the legs and feet, to tell complex stories by means of their bodies alone. Zenaida Yanowsky is a shining jewel of a dancer one at the full height of her powers and maybe challenging as not always lauded as much as some of RB Principals but so much to be admired for. Just over ten years ago, Roberto and Zenaida danced the Black Swan Pas-de-Deux for the Queen’s 50th Jubilee, in the ballroom of Buckingham Palace, so when the news came earlier in the week that Roberto had a hand injury and was not able to dance the first night, there was an extremely anxious wait to see if the dream-team would dance. They are very, very good together with the stature and grandeur to take on and convince in the difficult solos that are pivotal in each act of Manon. It was with great joy that on the Friday, that Roberto posted a Twitter photograph of Zenaida and himself, in rehearsals, my Bolle Weekender was back on.

There have been many interpretations of Manon over the 40 years, from scheming gold-digger to naïve butterfly who gets caught in the middle of arch-manipulators, as this is later in Zenaida’s career and she has the weight of experience from the corps up to Principal, she has a rounded understanding that Manon is probably the sum of all of these parts. She begins as a coquettish flirt, soaks up the adulation and gifts from the men around her, including her young lover, Des Grieux, her brother, Lescaut (played by Carlos Acosta, debuting in this more character-driven role) and Monsieur GM. What woman wouldn’t bask and over-estimate her power with such men at her beck and call and this is what I took out of this performance that Manon was shaped by her circumstances, naïve to her position and could not fall back on money, family or her gender, which was her hubris and nemesis. Zenaida has full power of her dancer’s body that is so mellifluous but also controlled when the role demands and fearless in most of the lifts. She is a supreme dancer and one that draws the whole audience in, as one audience member put it, “I have seen Manon about 40 times and she (Zenaida) brought out something that I had never seen before, I loved it, is was fantastic”.

This run of Manon has been marked by something of a change-over at the Royal, with the next generation of, perhaps, Principal artists, Melissa Hamilton and Francesca Hayward performing the coveted role for the first time. It also marked Carlos Acosta’s debut in the role of Lescaut. It is no secret that Carlos’s ballet career is reaching a dramatic conclusion as he has already announced his retirement, so these performances are to be cherished. I think he is developing more the character side to his dancing and who knows what will be next for the Author-Actor-Producer-Choreographer but let’s hope that his talents will be shared in the ballet world, especially maybe coaching male dancers from under-privileged or non-traditional backgrounds. For now, in the role of Lescaut, he sells his sister to the highest bidder to Monsieur GM but as Carlos plays Lescaut more as a scoundrel than out and out black-hearted villain it could charitably be construed as providing security to orphaned, penniless sister and just happened to be the means of his own security! It is maybe not the Lescaut that MacMillan imagined but it is a natural interpretation and maybe for a society that cannot imagine that someone would sell a beloved sister for purely personal gain and it was probably a state more natural for a big personality such as Carlos Acosta. However, when Lescaut is doing the dirty deal for Manon’s soul, she is trying to find hers with Des Grieux. Des Grieux is infatuated from the moment he sees her, he offers his love and only wishes in return for her to launch herself into the infatuation. He displays this in a first act solo that is breathtaking in its pure simplicity of lines and balances in arabesque. I see Des Grieux as a romantic poet or writer, one that loves much through the pages and also expects the same of life but does not have the finances to support such fantasies. He might have thought that he had found someone to share his romantic love when Manon is wooed and joins him in this dance of love. Zenaida is such an intelligent dancer, she has control of an expressive body, it does not matter where in the auditorium you sit and does not the benefit of cinema close-ups to interpret what she is conveying. The genius of Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography and as stated by Tamara Rojo, is that it perfectly projects the story, she says that the dancer does not have to act, it is all in the steps, although it takes an exceptional dancer to interpret and add the nuances which make us loathe and sympathise and love her, all at the same time. Zenaida Yanowsky in the role of Manon layers expression through a mellifluous body and arms but shows an increasing level of control, she goes from melting into first love, then quickly betrays and seduces, naïve and spoilt, into the black and gold, bejewelled, sensual woman of Act II through a pas-de-tois wrapping her body and twisting her legs round Mosieur GM and Des Grieux, fully complicit in the pact, she can no longer hide behind naivete. Des Grieux is himself somewhat complicit, also sharing in the wealth, however reluctantly. She has no protector, not even from the worst of her own personality.

Lescaut’s Mistress is danced by the ever wonderful Laura Morera who is another Royal Ballet gem in characterful roles, like that in Don Quixote, she is long-suffering as the Mistress, slapped and pushed and sent out to earn her keep. Morera goes from languid to dazzling turns as her costume billows out beautifully to accentuate her fast turns. However, Manon steals everyone’s attention, arrayed in a much more mature and stunning black dress adorned with gold threading and dripping in jewels. Des Grieux is a reluctant participant, maybe by being in such a place there is the hope that his infatuation will be directed elsewhere in a place where the beauty of the day is arrayed but all eyes are on Manon. This must be one of the ballerina’s key moments, she must make the audience believe that all these fashionable eyes turn to her, she is the most desirable woman in Paris. Des Grieux is rejected and Manon inflames his passion by dancing provocatively in a stunning dance of sensuousness. She is the one that commands the attention of everyone and this must take a dancer with depth and maturity in her performance to transform herself and to give us a dance of real beauty and be fearless in the portrayal, as this must be the point where the audience must most loathe and love Manon. Zenaida Yanowsky commands the stage and the attention of everyone in the Royal Opera House, she uses her intelligence as a dancer to draw everyone in as she is lifted from one smitten male to the next, completely confident in her position as the consummate Courtesan. She her expressive body and long legs to display her full prowess. Zenaida’s technique and expression is fluid but she has mastery, in the pinnacle of Manon’s powers, she is lifted to stand, high above everyone’s heads and then swallow dives to the floor, head-first, at her most confident and that her retinue will come to her rescue and is an act of supreme bravado. Many female dancers have performed this dance but there was an audible gasp of delight from the audience as Zenaida fearlessly free-falls to the stage and swoops gracefully and is carried high again by her adoring male attendants. It is a show-stopper and inflates Manon’s position to its full height as Tamara Rojo commented, “the genius of Kenneth’s (MacMillan’s) choreography is that you don’t really have to do anything, just dance, as the story is in the steps”.

Des Grieux finally grabs Manon and once more declares his love, when she witnesses his dance of despairing love, she relents and comes to his side saying that they need to get as much money out of Monsieur GM and the plan is to cheat at cards. Des Grieux is no deviant and is easily found out in his cheting, after a sword fight and who doesn’t love a sword fight?, Des Grieux injures Monsieur GM and the pair run off. The re-united lovers dance from their souls, with the taint of doom around them, the ‘Bedroom Pas-de-deux’ is full of the abandon that they have finally given themselves to each other as there is no turning back. As our hearts are racing at this spectacular display of newfound love, Monsieur GM breaks in with Lescaut handcuffed and Gendarmes to arrest Manon as a prostitute. Des Grieux tries to escape with Manon but as the Gendarmes, under the instruction of Monsieur GM, to complete his revenge, level guns at the pair, only for Lescaut, in his only caring and heroic act towards his sister throws himself in front of the pair and is struck down. Des Grieux tries to pull Manon away but she runs to the side of her dying brother and is taken to jail. We are stung by the turn of events that begin with Lescaut comically drunk and ends with his demise. Most of the audience are less sympathetic to his downfall than Manon who still clearly loves him and the familial bond wins over that of her lover or her own wellbeing. Des Grieux probably gives up too easily in trying to drag her away and lets her break from his grasp or maybe he sees that he is second in her affections again and he abandons her to her fate, that of being shipped to the New World penal colony of Louisiana. However Des Grieux, the ever-faithful, mostly, is back by her side as she disgorges from the penal ship but we see the beginnings of illness and the chill of death around Manon.

The corps dressed as Prostitutes provide perks of the job, so it would seem, for guards but these ladies still have spirit and ward off the predators. Lastly, Manon, disgorges, supported by Des Grieux posing as her husband, which is the only part I do find it hard to get my head around. How is this possible? I also feel that everything, up to this point, has always had the tight intimacy of being in a room and now travelling for miles, still being together and interchanging between being in the care of Des Grieux and falling into the clutches of the Gaoler who plays out the final and most heinous, albeit, he would see it as a perk of the job, whereas Lescaut is most heinous as someone who was born to protect, so this is just the bottom of a steep decline. The role of the Gaoler is small but memorable for its final acts of depravity, shocking to modern audiences, never mind to audiences forty years ago. Des Grieux finds his level of depravity and kills the Gaoler, nearly overcome, Manon drags him away for a change and, enmeshed in the swamp-laden vegetation and as her she is close to death, she drifts off and sees images of their past glories.

The doomed lovers perform their final, heart-wrenching Pas-de-deux as Manon throws herself, rather than slips, into the arms of death. It is full, for the first time after their initial attraction of that wild, abandoned love of freedom, although darkened by impending doom of death and Manon throws herself into the arms of Des Grieux for her body to go limp as her life-force is escaping captivity. This is why MacMillan is so powerful, for the grand notion of being at your most deeply and emotionally connected as death comes knocking at the door of the beautiful couple. I’m sure that particularly in this scene, there is not much acting necessary for the dancers as they have been giving a full-throttle performance from the very start, have undergone a very quick maturing and dissent to the darkest places on earth, if not the soul. The dancers cling to each other, as much as the characters they are portraying and show an absolute bond of connection Manon finds comfort, at the last, in the security of Des Grieux’s arms and then is launched high into the air and spun round, to be caught, as they embrace. This ballet takes a very special partnership, the ballerina must pretty much put her own life into the hands of her partner to be able to complete lifts of such magnitude to stun an audience into the final demise and aching beauty of throwing everything into life, even if it means an early death and a couple that discover too late where there life lies, before our eyes. Throw into this, the real human drama of Roberto to being able to perform on the first night due to a hand injury and whether there would be any detriment to the all immersing glory of the MacMillan’s final act. The injury did not in any way dim the majesty of the performance and an extra frisson of tension to this beautiful and cruel story, as it unfolds before our eyes.

Kenneth MacMillan choreographed from the heart and soul, the character of Des Grieux could have been leaping across the stage in quick succession of turns but instead, he stands slightly vulnerable, displaying the poetry in the choreography. Manon is imperious, especially in her belief that her beauty will buy her into the hearts of the fashionable and powerful and keep her there and Zenaida Yanowsky is a dancer that can portray the depths of her character, while drawing us in with crisp, clean technique. Both dancers are tremendously suited to each other and have long experience of dancing together, the evening was tinged slightly with the disappointment that both dancers are not towards the beginning of their careers as this partnership could have been a world phenomenon and mainstay of the Royal Opera House stage for the last ten years at least. Although Kevin O’Hare has shown that he is a shrewd Director and with this success, I’m sure that this will not be the last time we see this partnership on the Opera House stage and I think there would be an audience begging for Roberto Bolle and Friends to hit London and where better? I for one will scarring casting to see if Mr Bolle will be scheduled for a glorious return and although the casting was brilliant from top to bottom and had a feeling of a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity that we experienced.  The evening was also significant for all the new friends that I met, with the same passion for ballet and a certain Italian Ballet dancer  as myself and ‘Blue Raspberry’ made this lovely keep-sake memory that I will treasure for years to come (subscribe to her Youtube channel for lots more videos:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CWq_nIZXza8 (or until the next time I get to see my hero).