English National Ballet


Photo by Patrick Baldwin

Ballet in 3 Acts

Choreography: Kenneth MacMillan

Music:  Jules Massenet

Conductor: Timothy Carey

Design: Mia Stensgaard

Lighting: Mikki Kunttu

Staging: Monica Parker

London Coliseum

3 – 10 January 2009









A review by Barry Grantham for EXTRA! EXTRA!


To a large extent the English National Ballet opening programme at the Coliseum supplies all that could be hoped for in an evening at the ballet; a single work in the traditions of the Petipa/Tchaikovsky ballets, with accomplished dancing, innovative choreography, music, colour, lights, pretty girls on point, and strong men leaping about.  Hard to believe that on its opening night some thirty years ago Manon caused such division among the balletomanes.  It split the public into two warring factions - the Ashtonites and MacMillanites.  For the record I myself came down firmly with MacMillan and his innovations; now perhaps my admiration is a little more qualified.    But let us leave the past for the moment and consider the present production. Above all MacMillan has provided a challenging and defining role for the Ballerina and Miss Agnes Oaks rises to the challenge superbly.

Like the roles of Giselle and Odette the part demands a great deal more than technique, in which Miss Oaks is in no way deficient. It is a question of interpretation and presence. In a role that ranges from the irresponsible coquette of those first scenes in the Paris of 1700’s, to the wretched despair of her death a few years later in the swampland of New Orleans, Agnes Oaks is that woman.  She first enters on the scene and all eyes are upon her. She is beautiful and knows she is beautiful. She is desired and wants to be desired. She knows her power, and she wants to try it out and she expects every man to pay her homage.  So she flirts with all.   She is entirely unselective; the handsome soldier, the rich aristocrat, the burly major-domo, the decrepit octogenarian, or the young cadet.   She plays to every male and to every male she is infinitely desirable; the curve of her neck, the softness of her arm, the delicacy of her hand and the elegance of her adorable ankle. She casts her spell over a young student Des Grieux played by Thomas Edur. And he falls madly in love with her.  The programme synopsis tells us that she loves him back – though from Miss Oak’s subtle interpretation, I doubt she is really capable of love, and that is her tragedy.  Her thoroughly despicable brother Lescaut, played by Dmitri Gruzdyev thinks there is money to be made out of her and arranges for her to become the mistress of an elderly aristocrat. Although quite flattered, with even his attentions, she thinks it would be more fun to run off with the good looking Des Grieux, and to add insult to injury in the old man’s own carriage. Another admirer is however a greater draw, the wealthy and powerful Monsieur GM (the impressive Antony Dowson) who showers her with fur coats and jewels. Des Grieux is persuaded by brother Lescaut to enter a fraudulent card game with Monsieur GM, but the scam is discovered. Lescaut is eventually shot and poor Manon sent with other prostitutes to help populate the French colony of New Orleans. Des Grieux follows to protect her, but things go from bad to very much worse – and there could hardly be anything much worse than to die in a desolate treeless swamp in the New World.

The final pas-de-deux of Des Grieux and the dying Manon, is a major highlight of the ballet and a true master moment of MacMillan’s work.  This final number is superbly rehearsed and danced by Agnes Oaks and Thomas Edur as Des Grieux, a handsome and likely hero, a good dancer and a superb partner. They are together again for three or four earlier pas-de-deux, reflecting their relationships at different points of the story - all showing MacMillan’s mastery.

Photo by Laurent Liotardo

Very skilled also is a comic pas-de-deux with a drunken Lescaut.  Dmitri Gruzdyev is a very strong and pleasing dancer executing really difficult sequences with apparent ease – The only problem is that he is rather inappropriately likeable for the role.

Earlier, I gave a hint that I was not entirely won over by the choreography. MacMillan really is not terribly inventive when putting together or inventing actual steps. Mostly it is just classroom enchainement strung together and not always appropriate to the dramatic requirements. The beggar boys in the opening scene hold their arms up in perfect fifth position and do classical steps with only the odd cartwheel thrown in as characterization.  And those sad waifs more like the orphans from Jane Eyre than ex- prostitutes from the street of Paris.    

There is a wonderful scene in the middle of Act II , when Manon flirting with every man in sight, dances with each in turn.  Here, this is really good choreographic invention  - then I realized – it was still pas-de-deux -  or in fact series of pas-de-deux.

The set and costumes  by Mia Stensgaard are hired from the Royal Danish Ballet, and even before I knew this I was struck by the similarity to those typical of  jolly Bournenville Ballets in which that company specializes- perfect for Napoli but rather too jolly for this sombre tale

The orchestra under conductor Timothy Carey played well and sympathetically, though I can’t say I warm greatly to the musical selection from Massenet Gems (oddly enough, not including anything from his Manon Lescaut Opera.

Oh yes, lighting by Mikki Kunttu is excellent –

Photo by Patrick Baldwin

Dates:    Sat 3rd Jan to Sat 10th Evenings 7.30pm,
Tue.6th.Thur 8th Sat 10th Jan  Matinees 2.30

Venue:    The Coliseum, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4ES

Box Office: 0871 911 0200       www.ballet.org.uk

Tickets:  £10 - £80  Ring box office for concessions.







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