The Shaolin monks are no strangers to the stage. Their home in Dengfeng is a major stop on the Chinese tourist trail and their lives of quiet contemplation (and shouty martial arts practice) are regularly punctuated by spells on the international circuit with Kung Fu extravaganzas like Wheel of Life and Shaolin Warriors. Quite how they square this six-shows-a-week-plus-matinees life with the whole monk ethic is a question for their Abbot or, just possibly, their agent (Shaolin Intangible Assets Management Co. Ltd. Yes, really).
But they put on a very good show, the best of which is Sutra, devised by Belgo-Moroccan dancemaker Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and performed in an installation by Turner-winning sculptor Antony Gormley.
The 60-minute piece premiered at Sadler’s Wells in 2008 and has been regularly revived ever since in theatres from Macao to Montreal. It has worn extremely well, largely thanks to the acrobatic ebullience of the 19 monks (one thinks of Peter Cook and the leaping nuns of St Beryl) and the brilliance of Gormley’s simple-seeming design.
The silver-grey box set is furnished with 21 coffin-sized crates which are manhandled into ever-changing configurations by the holy hard men of Henan. Meanwhile, dancer Ali Thabat, the sole layman in the set-up, lurks downstage right like a puppet master manipulating a scale model of the set aided by a junior monk who tries (but fails) to mimic the gymnastic stunts of the main ensemble.
The finale lets the monks show off their martial arts skills with much tumbling and stave-twirling, but even their best tricks would become monotonous after 60 minutes without Gormley’s inspired carpentry which evokes a dazzling succession of beguiling (or troubling) thoughts every time a box is moved. The simple shapes conjure a prison, a hive, a capsule hotel, a giant henge or a shrinking iceberg. Controlled collapses create dominoes and ziggurats or cause the long shapes to open out in a Busby Berkeley blossom of stripped pine that cries out for a crane shot.
Cherkaoui is an extremely busy man, directing plays and operas and working with any number of ballet companies (Paris, Flanders, Dutch National and others). A Covent Garden commission was only a matter of time and a new one-act work will prèmiere at the Royal Opera House next May.
Meanwhile the Royal Ballet has embarked on a run of Kenneth MacMillan’s 1974 Manon, set to a cut-and-paste of Massenet melodies and adapted from Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel about a young theology student whose passion for a lovely but light-minded girl leads them down the primrose path to prostitution, transportation and death. The latest revival hit the ground running: cast to the hilt and strongly danced and played at every level.
Federico Bonelli, now in his late thirties, still has the boyish looks and silky finesse needed for the slightly wimpish hero. His Act I solo, a choreographic love poem packed with obsessive-compulsive footwork and sumptuous arabesque fondues, reads like a pastiche of textbook technique (the role was written for arch-classicist Anthony Dowell).
Manon is undoubtedly a star vehicle but there are plum roles at all levels. Alexander Campbell was clubbable if slightly ingratiating as Manon’s pimping brother Lescaut. One misses the ruthless streak that dastardly dance actors like Stephen Wicks and Irek Mukhamedov displayed in David Wall’s old role but Campbell’s toe-twiddling opening solo was as crisp as his cuffs and he had fun with his drunken duet in Act II. Claire Calvert with her brazen jump and teasing pointe work was on superb form as his long-suffering mistress. James Hay will debut as Lescaut at the end of this month but made the most of the beggar chief’s firecracker solos.
Even the humblest figurant has a back story, turning the stage into a Hogarthian melée seething with drama and interest. The brothel scene is so crowded with incident that MacMillan is obliged to impose a freeze-frame, allowing us to focus on the main event: Manon herself, Francesca Hayward.
In only her third attempt at the role Hayward wafted into the grimy Paris inn yard like a fragrant breeze: pretty, innocent (for now) and quick to realise that her youth and loveliness are a highly desirable commodity. By the time we see her in Act II she has learned to calibrate her charms in the cynically judged private dance for her new sugar daddy, a sensuous wriggle running through her torso as a promise of future delights. Moments later, she is luxuriating in the admiration of every man in the room, passing from hand to wandering hand like Zizi Jeanmaire working a stag line.
It’s usual at this point to say something piously hashtaggy about MacMillan ballets abusing women but Manon is emphatically the author of her own destiny. The hapless tarts in the tumbrels are victims but Manon has options and it is her bad decisions that spin the plot: she’s the one who steals the old gentleman’s wallet; she’s the one who wants the diamonds and furs.
You can’t have melodrama without suffering and MacMillan’s male characters — Romeo, Rudolf in Mayerling, the Foreman in The Judas Tree — don’t exactly get off lightly. Poisoned, shot, hanged or just left alone with a corpse in the fever swamps of Louisiana: the ballet stage is no place for sissies.
Louise Levene’s fourth novel, Happy Little Bluebirds, is published by Bloomsbury on 17 May.