Like it or not, provincial ballet audiences love a story they can hum and any director planning to tour a swan-light, sugar plum-free menu has always done so at their peril. Tchaikovsky isn’t compulsory: a really well-known story, however undanceable, can usually do decent business (Northern Ballet’s extremely silly Three Musketeers is a reliable granny-magnet). But less familiar titles can be box-office poison — as English National Ballet is forever discovering.
When the former Royal Ballet star Tamara Rojo took over in 2012, she immediately set about breaking down the vanilla tastes of ENB’s regional fanbase with a lavish new production of Le Corsaire. The 1856 pirates-and-slave-girls romp had everything the once-a-year balletgoer demands: tutus, toe shoes, tunes. But it played to shockingly thin houses. Last year’s La Sylphide fared slightly better and Akram Khan’s Giselle lured a more contemporary dance crowd. Buoyed up by these promising signs, Ms Rojo decided to risk a three-city autumn tour of Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon to Manchester, Milton Keynes and Southampton, blithely disregarding the fact that ENB had already made an unsuccessful tour of the ballet in 2008. Sales have not been brisk. Pearls? Swine? Possibly, but words like ‘hope’ and ‘experience’ also limped sadly to mind when the ballet opened its heavily discounted run at Manchester Opera House last week.
All the sadder because this is a really terrific revival: handsomely staged, meticulously rehearsed and vividly danced. Mia Stensgaard’s tourably flatpack sets (borrowed from Royal Danish Ballet) are a triumph of understatement: a few sliding panels, a chandelier, a puff of smoke and we can imagine ourselves in a bedroom, a salon or a swamp. Luxury coaching from Anthony Dowell, Dmitri Gruzdyev, Irek Mukhamedov, Viviana Durante and veteran MacMillanist Gary Harris has guaranteed fine performances at every level.
James Streeter was on goatishly good form as Manon’s sugar daddy, Fabian Reimair was suitably disgusting as her rapist gaoler and Daniel McCormick stood out among the three lords a-leaping. Jeffrey Cirio made a strong debut as the heroine’s pimping brother although many of the gags in the drunken duet fell flat thanks to directionless lighting and a focus-pulling corps of prostitutes dressed as dayglo marshmallows.
The ballet’s crowd scenes are so packed with character and incident that MacMillan freeze-framed the ensemble for Manon’s private dance for Monsieur GM (set to Massenet’s seductive ‘Scènes pittoresques: Air de Ballet’, sweetly played by the ENB Philharmonic), but last Wednesday’s star had no trouble holding our attention.
Alina Cojocaru first sketched Abbé Prévost’s lovely, light-minded heroine for the Royal Ballet in 2003 at the age of 22 (going on 12). Her innocent bloom suited the fresh-faced, convent-bound schoolgirl but it was a while before the Romanian star got the measure of Manon’s willingness to capitalise on her own allure. Fifteen years later, she is complete mistress of the role and lets us see every stage on the road to perdition.
Cojocaru’s Act One entrance is still a breath of clean air but we sense how alive she is to possibilities as she rapidly learns to appreciate the hideous gulf between love in a garret and a diamond collar/nice fur coat. By the time she hits Madame’s hôtel particulier, she is every inch the grande horizontale, wriggling through Massenet’s ‘Ouvre tes yeux bleus’, passed from hand to sweaty hand under the proprietorial gaze of Monsieur GM. Though not blessed with pretty feet — her shoes have the look of mummy-wrappings — her light, fast pointework blinds you to their faults.
Cojocaru’s Covent Garden Manons were always shared with Johan Kobborg whose Des Grieux used to haunt the brothel scene like a reproachful ghost, real tears pouring down his cheeks. Her partner last week was ex-Birmingham Royal Ballet signing Joseph Caley whose acting is rather more low-key (as a standing-room punter once said of the great Igor Zelensky’s Des Grieux: ‘He’s got two expressions: confused and very confused’).
Fortunately, Prévost’s hapless young seminarian is a character best conveyed through the choreography. Caley, schooled by the role’s creator Anthony Dowell, calibrates his dancing to show us Des Grieux’s moral decline. His pussyfooted Act One solo was sculpted with chastening clarity but three acts with a girl like Manon take their toll. By the final duet the pair are taking a wrecking ball to the old classical certainties, promenades, finger turns and fish dives accelerated and twisted to a darker, dirtier purpose. Southampton doesn’t know what it’s missing.