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English National Ballet


by David Mead

January 2, 2009 -- London Coliseum

English National Ballet’s staging of Kenneth MacMillan’s sweeping story of the rise and fall of Manon, an 18th-century Parisian courtesan, has given long-time principal dancers Thomas Edur and Agnes Oaks the chance to take time away from the company’s regular diet of the classics, and get their teeth into something rather more down to earth.

Towards the end of 2008, Oaks surprised everyone with the announcement that this was to be her last season.  Like Edur, she has always been known as a classicist.  The prime reason she has given for retiring is that she is now 38, and has danced enough “Swan Lakes” and “Sleeping Beauties”.  Fairy-tale princesses are one thing; Manon is something else entirely.  Here, at last, is a role and a character with plenty of depth and scope for her to mould and truly make her own. 

As ever, Oaks was technically assured but what made her performance special was the way she showed us all Manon’s guile and sexuality.  She gave us a character we could really believe in.  She was clearly enjoying herself playing the innocent, leading the men on and enjoying being seduced.  But equally, she never let us forget that she was also supremely confident, and fully in command of everyone and everything -- at least until her denouement in the swamp.

Edur, on the other hand, was somewhat disappointing as Des Grieux.  He has always been one of that rare breed of male dancers who can put some believability into the princely roles of the classics.  His partnering with Oaks in MacMillan’s complex and intimate pas de deux was as secure as ever, but as a soloist, he seemed uncomfortable with MacMillan’s choreography and unsure in the role.  It was an oddly cold portrayal, with his feelings for Manon, and any sense of rejection, often strangely hidden.

Elsewhere, the rest of the company did Deborah MacMillan and Artistic Director Wayne Eagling proud.  Dmitri Gruzdyev gave an assured and appropriately seedy performance as Manon’s corrupt brother Lescaut.  Anthony Dowson was a nicely nasty Monsieur GM.

While “Manon” has been a stalwart of The Royal Ballet’s repertoire since its premiere in 1974,  English National Ballet, as primarily a touring company, is at last giving other parts of the country the chance to see the work.  That they are able to do so is due largely to their use of Mia Stensgaard’s minimalist yet stylish designs, originally created for The Royal Danish Ballet.  Although the set may be a little grey and bare for some, especially when compared to The Royal Ballet’s rather more elaborate and colourful Georgiadis production, it still engenders plenty of atmosphere.  The lack of clutter adds to the sense of space, especially in the final scene in the Louisiana swamps, depicted so simply yet so effectively by nothing more than a mist.  And most importantly, it helps highlight the intricacies of MacMillan’s choreography and ensures that the action, and there is plenty of it, doesn’t get lost.

Although the set clearly indicates a time and place, Stensgaard has allowed herself rather more latitude with her costumes, which have a more timeless feel.  Many of the women’s dresses appear rather more modern than one might expect.  As with the set, blacks and greys are to the fore, the big exception being the Act II party, where for once, she really lets rip with a series of dazzling colours.

The Orchestra of the English National Ballet was conducted by Timothy Carey.

“Manon” can be seen in 2009 at the New Theatre, Oxford (April 21-25, the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff (April 28-May 2), and at Parma and Modena in Italy (May 9-14).

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