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by on 18 January 2019

Decadent Dangers of the Demi-Mondeballet-shoes201109281431409202


by Kenneth MacMillan, music by Jules Massenet

English National Ballet at the London Coliseum until 20th January

Review by Mark Aspen

Power, money, sex, the primordial drivers of the human psyche. If you play with fire, don’t use these as your toys. This is the moral of Manon, the ballet retelling of Abbé Prévost’s story of tenderness versus lust. In its reimagining of Kenneth MacMillan’s 1974 version, the English National Ballet’s production is an exquisitely spirited piece of storytelling.


Manon’s Coliseum production was germinated by the Royal Danish Ballet. Its crisp design by Mia Stensgaard counterintuitively uses the clean simplicity of twentieth century Danish style to portray the baroque of eighteenth century Paris, yet without any loss of period veracity. So panels slide to reveal the arrival of barouches and landaus bringing the wealthy to the fashionable salons. It is a Paris where, between lush luxury and bleak poverty, there floats a seedy demi-monde.

But to the young, adventurous and inquisitive Manon this is an exciting world where a frisson of danger may be the harbinger of many opportunities. Begoña Cao opens up an eloquent exposition of the contradictions of Manon’s character, swinging from caprice to caution, from romance to reason, licentiousness to licence. She pushes the boundaries of her allure in one direction after another, for she has an almost intuitive skill in flirting: the eyelids flicker, she floats off in a series of bourrée en arrière, a sudden turn …


Nevertheless, manipulating the man’s world of pre-revolutionary France is fraught. Here women may be seen merely as chattels, witness a caged cart of tarts drawn through the crowds at the beginning of this ballet. Manon’s brother, Lescaut, has no compunction about cashing-in on the assets of his young sister by pimping her to the highest bidder, at first an Old Man (in a comic cameo by Michael Coleman), but soon to be trumped by the wealthy and ruthless Monsieur GM. No-one could argue that Lescaut is not a slimy sleazebag and Ken Saruhashi is compelling in his characterisation of Lescaut as depraved, ill-mannered and arrogant. Saruhashi’s precise and powerful performance portrays the cocky confidence of the corrupt fixer. Percussive jetés battus and highly defined movements speak of Lescaut’s misplaced self-assurance, whereas Saruhashi’s drunken dance as Lescault has hit the bottle injects a moment of comic relief. Maybe ruthlessness has a dark attraction, for Lescaut has a loyal mistress. Crystal Costa’s interpretation is charming and vivacious, with beautifully adept solos. One feels she is too good for the likes of Lescaut.


A monopoly in wickedness is not however held by Lescuat: try the domineering and volatile Monsieur GM. Here is a man not to be crossed. Whatever he wants he buys, with money, or … well, there’s the boys. Junor Souza cuts an imposing figure as a truly menacing Monsieur GM and, in a dangerous mix, he is both short tempered and vain. He struts like a peacock exuding an air of invulnerability. However, it is Manon who is the bird he wants to catch. Manon knows she is a bird flying into a gilded cage, but if the choice is hungry penury or comfortable courtesanship it is worth the risk. Cao shudders as she portrays Manon accepting GM’s furs and diamonds: a shudder of horror or of excitement? In a voluptuous pas de trois, she luxuriates in the risk she is taking as Lescaut and GM pass her back and forth. Equally in the later brothel scene, she clearly enjoys the power of her own allure as she is passed seductively from man to man, drifting in Massenet’s quasi-oriental musical sway. As she is lifted and lowered, we see it allegorises her adoration and inevitably her eventual degradation.


Nevertheless, Manon has found true love, love with the scholarly and serious student Des Grieux. Aitor Arrieta paints a picture of the innocent abroad as Des Grieux wanders into this stewpot of sleaze. But for him, and for Manon, it is love at first sight. He, literally and figuratively, sweeps her off her feet, and we are treated by Cao and Arrieta to a gorgeous series of pas de deux that are variously playful or erotic, but always with the urgency that comes with being in love. Arrieta’s performance speaks tenderness, Cao’s an unwonted vulnerability, but always with a sense of joy. This joy has a crowning moment as, when Des Grieux has just left, she leaps ecstatically onto their bed. However, when he returns, Manon has been abducted by GM. Arrieta’s display of DesGrieux’s anguish is palpable.

Des Greux though has some spunk, and is off to the chaos of Madame’s house of ill-repute, with its dissipated debauchery of its clients and catty wantonness of its harlots. Here the cock-a-hoop Monsieur GM is showing off Manon as his prize. Stensgaard’s restrained exoticism is evident in her caustic pastels contradicting the gaudy spirit of the scene. The corps de ballet populates this scene of frenzied decadence. The atmosphere is incendiary and finally ignites when Des Greux beats Monsieur GM at baccarat and runs off with the winnings and with Manon.


Still, we all know that this will end in tears. Des Greux’s aborted arrest by Monsieur GM and his subservient constables gives a great show of athletic fencing, culminating in the fatal shooting of Monsieur GM. Unjustly though, it is Manon who is captured, tried and sentence to deportation. Dao’s transparent rendering of Manon’s abject dejection is heart-breaking. Shorn, grey and heavy-headed she is the antithesis of the former self. The faithful Des Greux has followed her to New Orleans, but too late to rescue her from the licentious intentions of the The Gaoler, forcefully danced by Daniel Kraus. The Gaoler knows who is in control and his violation of the weakened Manon is sickening. Des Greux wreaks lethal vengeance on The Gaoler and, only just in the nick of time, they make their escape.


It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire of the Louisiana swamps (impressive superfog from the Coliseum’s techies!) where “the past flashes before her eyes” as the enfeebled and exhausted Manon succumbs to the vicissitudes of the tropics. The final moments of the ballet, the passion of Manon’s death, are visceral.

The dancers are indisputable fantastic storytellers, but a co-star is Massenet’s music so beautifully delivered by the English National Ballet Philharmonic under the controlled and consummate baton of Orlando Jopling with such balance and grace.

The delicacy of Massenet’s score contrasts bitingly with this story with no happy ending for the damaged Manon. She plays with fire and loses. We may reflect, which of those three toys is the most damaging, power, money, or sex?

Mark Aspen
January 2019

Photography by Laurent Liotardo

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