If you like the BBC’s Les Misérables, you’ll love English National Ballet’s Manon. Manon, in Kenneth MacMillan’s telling, is The Glums in tights. Alina Cojocaru dances Manon, an 18th-century courtesan in Paris, pimped by her brother Lescaut (Jeffrey Cirio). She falls for Des Grieux (Joseph Caley), young, handsome, penniless, love’s young dream, and is later ensnared by the older, richer, crueller Monsieur GM.
Cojocaru is sublime. ‘That’s her!’ whispered my neighbour in the stalls as Manon fluttered through the crowd at the inn. With Des Grieux, Cojocaru is sweet and expressive, tender and teasing. As Monsieur’s mistress, in diamonds and furs, she dances with quiet power and cold command. In the fateful final act, sent on a prison ship to New Orleans and lost in the Louisiana swamp, she is faint and unsteady, her body quivering and frail. What a rise, what a fall, what an actress.
As Des Grieux, Caley is dreamy, though a bit of a dupe. Shades of Hugh Grant in his Four Weddings heyday. But you cannot fault his dancing: strong, controlled, a still point in Manon’s storm. Cirio’s Lescaut is a star turn. His drunken routine in the brothel —hiccup! — is a rare moment of light relief. He swigs, he stumbles, he stifles a burp. He drags his mistress (Katja Khaniukova) across the floor. She is perfectly poised; he totally pissed. Khaniukova, all sway and sashay, completes a fine cast.
The scene where Manon is passed from man to man in a house of ill repute unsettles in its subtlety. Cojocaru dances with languid detachment, almost in a trance, as if she has had to put her mind elsewhere while her body is lifted and carried and pawed. It is a misstep, then, in the third benighted act, to have Manon forced to, as the tabloids put it, ‘perform a sex act’ on the port gaoler. There is a great deal more graphic thrusting than there needs to be, making the scene horrible to watch. Not so much a case of #MeToo as simply #TooMuch. One nasty moment aside, this is a superlative production danced with heartbreaking grace and pathos by the four leads.
The Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre reopened last week after a fine refurbishment by architects Stanton Williams. It is a triumph. The rake is perfect, the seats pleasing and the walnut wood almost glowing. The ribbon-cutting performance was TRIO ConcertDance, a three-hander for dancers Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo and pianist Bruce Levingston. Much has been made of Ferri’s retirement — now abandoned — and of her remarkable return to the stage. Ferri isn’t extraordinary for 55, she is extraordinary full stop. In the intimacy of the Linbury, so close you can see every nerve and sinew, Ferri dances with a contained fierceness. She is strong, spare and thrilling. The six short dance sequences are strikingly lit. Ferri and Cornejo appear almost sculptural: now still as a Caro, now swinging like a Calder. Most successful are the sinuous, sensuous passages choreographed by Wayne McGregor (Witness) and Russell Maliphant (Entwine). One small complaint: the pace is unrelievedly somnolent. It needs something swifter in the mix.
The balance between pace and pause is beautifully struck in Liam Scarlett’s Asphodel Meadows, revived by the Royal Ballet for the first time since 2011. Three couples and the corps are silhouetted against the backcloth like figures on a Greek vase. Ryoichi Hirano — with a faultless Marianela Nunez — was never better. His metronome rhythms and long lines are hypnotic. Laura Morera is soft and seductive, a foil to William Bracewell’s courtly polish. Luca Acri’s jazz, fight and energy rather overpower a muted Meaghan Grace Hinkis. It is over in 25 minutes. All too soon.
Frederick Ashton’s Two Pigeons is the anti-Manon. Here is Paris at her prettiest. From the gypsy skirts to the Degas garret, Jacques Dupont’s designs are very heaven. Vadim Muntagirov is the exasperated artist; Lauren Cuthbertson his fidgeting muse. They are goofy, endearing, affectionate as they coo and clown across the studio. Laura Morera, having a barnstorming night, is electrifying as the sexpot show-off gypsy. The anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better dance-off between Morera and Cuthbertson is a treat. When Morera dances you wonder that there isn’t smoke between her slippers and the stage. Phew, what a scorcher. Sure, the plot is silly and, sure, the reconciliation between artist and muse is lovey-dovey, but when Muntagirov leaps for joy, our hearts go with him.
The Spectator doesn’t do star ratings, but if it did this would be five perfect pigeons.