Dance Sarah Frater
Manon. performed by the Kirov Ballet, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
ln March last year, the Kirov Ballet performed Kenneth MacMillan'si anon at its home theatre in St Petersburg, an event which generated huge interest.
Not only was it the first British ballet to enter the Company's repertoire, but it was staged by members of the original cast and had new sets by British designer Peter Farmer.
Unsurprisingly, London's Royal Opera House was packed when the Kirov performed the ballet for the first time in the UK, almost 40 years to the day since the company first appeared in London in 1961 (the season that Nureyev defected in Paris).
What would the Kirov, a company beloved of formality and restraint, tradition and precision, make of the ballet's naturalistic acting. not to mention all the emotional and sexual complexities the piece conveys? What would a company so good at swans make of real people?
Kenneth MacMillan's retelling of Prevost's 18thcentury story is both a period drama and a modern morality play about sex, honour and cold hard cash. It is a full-scale, full-on production with props
and pomp, swags and wags, two murders, a whorehouse, drunks, cheating at cards and much else besides.
Not that these theatrical knick-knacks get in the way of the dancing which is some of the most intense you will see almost anywhere. The love affair between Manon and the cash-strapped Des Grieux is told in a series of ecstatic duets, movements MacMillan reused and inverted to describe the flip-side of their love. One of the most chilling sequences occurs when Manon is sold by her brother Lescaut and is passed between the wealthy brothel clients like the negotiable piece of skirt she has become. Their maulings have a slow-motion, grotesque quality as they echo an earlier, loving embrace.
The Royal Ballet, on whom MacMillan created the ballet, is often criticised for dancing the piece far too often and of sleep walking through it more often than not. That may or may not be true, but the company can act naturalistically and it knows how to place the dramatic elements so they drive rather than intrude on the action.
The Kirov has had far less practice at this under-rated skill and some of the dramatic sequences, such as the beggar boys in Act I and the harlots in Act II, were unintentionally pantorninic.
This is hardly the stuff of MacMillan's ballet, a grown up piece about love and money and the fall-out that follows when you mix the two.
On opening night, the title role was performed by Svet
lana Zakharova, a tiny ballerina of immense refinement. Her fine limbs and perfect feet were well suited to the archetypal feminine that Manon represents and, although she couldn't quite shake off her Kirov formality (sonic movements were a dead ringer for Swan Lake), her acting caught the spirit of MacMillan's intent.
The moment when Monsieur G M puts the diamond necklace around her neck, a jewel-encrusted collar. Zakharova seemed to shimmer with erotic malace and her willingness to he of her back (and side and front) for pretty gems and the right address.
Sadly, you couldn't say the same for Ilya Kuznetsov as Des Grieux or Maxim Khrebtov as her brother Lescaut. Both danced perfectly, but the former was too princely and the latter too impish to convey erotic love and unrestrained avarice the characters portray.
rris may sound like nitpicking, but Manon is about the wages of sin and we are meant to see the leading characters emotionally unravel before our eyes. The final pas de deux between Manon and Des Grieux should have a desperate exhaustion, not a pretty control. The spins and lifts should become looser and more dangerous as their despair escalates. This requires a physical letting go that the Kirov is little used to. With practice it may come, and if it does, it will be an amazing to see. St Petersburg 2002, perhaps?