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Dance Manon, Royal Opera House London

Masterpiece of modern ballet gets an assured revival

“THERE is a class system, an old-boy school to which I’ve never belonged and never will,” the late Kenneth MacMillan once said, and in his career Manon's choreographer pushed for expressionistic, passionate and dark performances which were often counter-intuitive to classical training.

It was a controversial approach which even the Morning Star, quoted in the Royal Opera House programme, didn't appreciate in its 1974 review.

MacMillan has been criticised for reducing Manon to a “nasty little diamond digger” and indeed the amoral nature of the heroine is more unusual in classical ballet than opera.

His attraction to making a ballet from an 18th-century novel and Massenet’s subsequent opera was no doubt down to the ambivalent moral centre of Manon Lescaut, in which virginal ingenue Manon (Sarah Lamb), en route to a convent, is met by her brother Lescaut (Ryoichi Hirano) who sells her to the highest bidder, a Monsieur GM (Christopher Saunders).

Lamb dances with a delicate fragility, deliberately inhibited in movement and expression. Falling in love, she escapes with the young impoverished student Des Grieux (Vadim Muntagirov) and in the bedroom scene with him, Lamb’s uninhibited, assertive sexuality and joyous facial expression show the transformation from youthful ingenue to sensual woman.

The bedroom pas de deux, passionate and moving, sees the intertwined limbs of the couple organically fused, with Muntagirov a perfect partner for Lamb. Their mutual attraction contrasts with the subsequent scene when Monsieur GM returns to claim her.

Their dance is in perfect counterpoint to what has gone before, as Saunders’s imposing figure looms large over her diminutive frame. As he paws at her fragile limbs, she does indeed — an irresistible pun — look like a lamb to the slaughter.  

Despite her attraction to Monsieur GM’s wealth, Manon once again renews her love for Des Grieux. They cheat Monsieur GM and the ensuing conflict sees Manon deported as a prostitute to the colonies.

In a harrowing dance, where she is raped by her jailer, she tears off the jewelled bracelet from her arm in a seeming rejection of the fateful materialism which drew her to this end.

Her final death scene and pas de deux in the swamps of Louisiana with lifts, throws and trembling en pointe is a mesmerising tour de force by Lamb and Saunders.

Runs until November 9, box office: roh.org.uk

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