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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Sarah Crompton

Manon review – Kenneth MacMillan’s 50-year-old masterpiece still bewitches

Francesca Hayward and Marcelino Sambé in Manon.
‘A tender complicity’: Francesca Hayward and Marcelino Sambé in Manon. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

In 2011, at the age of 46, when she had barely danced a classical work for four years, Sylvie Guillem returned to the role of Manon in Kenneth MacMillan’s three-act ballet. She said she wanted to make sure there was nothing new she could find in this, his 1974 dance interpretation of Abbé Prévost’s story of a convent girl who becomes a courtesan and dies when her love for a penniless student overwhelms her determination to make her way in a venal world.

The richness of the ballet, together with its trajectory from rags to riches and back again, is one reason it’s performed around the world. For its 50th anniversary, its home company, the Royal Ballet, is putting a strong array of casts through its emotional wringer.

William Bracewell and Yasmine Naghdi.
William Bracewell and Yasmine Naghdi. Photograph: Foteini Christofilopoulou

Each brings something different to the tale. As the lovelorn and loyal Des Grieux, William Bracewell thrillingly finds emotional force in every movement so that each elegant extension or high jump becomes an expression of feeling. His Manon, Yasmine Naghdi, is technically astonishing, but you don’t always know what she is thinking. Francesca Hayward and Marcelino Sambé bring a tender complicity to the roles. Hayward carefully charts Manon’s journey from innocence to despair, her thoughts as quicksilver as her movement; Sambé brings easy grace and deep passion.

Then there was the pairing of Marianela Nuñez and Italian guest Roberto Bolle, experienced dancers who know how to wrench every ounce of feeling out of the story. She is like liquid, so soft and sensual; he brings star presence, acting with intensity, even if his dancing has lost some of its flow.

Marianela Nuñez and Roberto Bolle.
Marianela Nuñez and Roberto Bolle. Photograph: Andrej Uspenski/© 2024 ROH

Around them, in various casts, different dancers flicker into different lights. Gary Avis makes the corrupt Monsieur GM odious; in Thomas Whitehead’s reading he is bored by his own ability to buy everything; Christopher Saunders is just grumpy at being thwarted. Alexander Campbell finds rakish charisma and real danger in Manon’s brother Lescaut; in another cast, Itziar Mendizabal suddenly emerges to make his girlfriend a perfect picture of exasperation. Gentlemen leap, courtesans cavort, each giving their all. It’s a company triumph, night after night.

Manon is at the Royal Opera House, London, until 8 March

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