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English National Ballet


by Melissa M. Watson

January 3, 2009 -- London Coliseum

There should be an award for best dramatic actress of a ballet. If there were, then Fernanda Oliveria would win it hands down for her portrayal of Manon. Even during the applause when everyone was all smiles and back to life, Oliveria seemed to have a bit of trouble coming out of character, still portraying a broken prostitute who could no longer take the hardships of life. You could almost feel her pain.  Oliveria has a career as an actress should she ever tire of ballet, but let’s hope that never happens, because it would be a loss to the artform.

”Manon”, the ballet is taken from the novel Manon Lescaut by Abbe Prevost and is the tale of a beautiful French girl who is adored by every man she meets. This particular tale is a battle between three men, all from different classes, who desire Manon. Manon marries for love demonstrated by romantic and sweet dance scenes and a set consisting of an 18th century four-poster bed with drapes. Unfortunately, as we find out all too soon, in life, one cannot live on love alone, and Manon is swindled away from her poor husband by greed to become the mistress of an older man.  –The ballet suggests a sex or rape scene, but it is never vulgarly shown, merely suggested through the interpretative dance.

The story of this ballet is easy to follow and understand. I was a bit worried with a 2-hour and 40-minute run time, but I was not bored for one moment. I was captivated by the set design, the costumes, and the acrobatic dancing.  “Manon” is a well-rounded ballet with vivid storytelling which takes you through a gambit of emotions from sorrow all the way through to laughter. I do not recall ever laughing out loud in a ballet before, but with the prostitutes fighting over crotchety old men and Dmitri Gruzdyev portraying Des Grieux, the drunken courtier of Manon, the audience and I could not help ourselves.

This production is very special because the dancers have had the opportunity to be coached by the original principals of MacMillian’s “Manon”, including Laura Connor, Dame Antoinette Sibley and David Wall. The set is 18th Century French bohemia, with costumes to match. The performance captivates and takes you out of your seats and into a romanticized brothel. The dance itself is quite modern but stays true to classical technique at the same time.

This is the best performance I have seen at the Coliseum! It is not often that I would sit through a ballet more than once, but with Oliveria as the lead I would see it over and over again. While the late Sir Kenneth MacMillian may be the genius behind the inspiration of the production, this performance really belongs to Fernanda Oliveria.

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