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The Royal’s Manon at the Bolshoi
Ashton’s Fille goes down a storm in St Petersburg
"The London Covent Garden company shows proof that over the other side of the Channel matters in the ballet are in extremely safe hands"
25 JUN 14
Moscow’s senior critic, Kommersant's Tatyana Kuznetsova, adds her own high praise for the Royal Ballet’s Manon to the general ovations in Moscow that have greeted the company’s tour last week.
Not unexpectedly, the immense draw of former Bolshoi star Natalia Osipova making her debut in the role of Manon in her former home theatre, and moreover alongside Carlos Acosta (a great Bolshoi favourite), meant that comparisons are drawn with the opening cast, the home team’s Marianela Nuñez and Federico Bonelli, that are not to the latter advantage.
However Kuznetsova’s sharp eye roams with much appreciation over the entire company’s performances, including the relishably disgusting bits, such as lepers, prostitutes, brothel clients and the infamous blow-job which she uneuphemistically names - though she does wonder how the imminent Stanislavsky Ballet staging of the ballet will cope with it in today’s puritan Russia.
She is less impressed by some of the leading dancing, but overall she finds many lessons for Russian troupes to learn from the great virtues of the British ballet.
It’s evident that if British critics love the Bolshoi on tour in London, then the Russian ones are equally enamoured of the Royal Ballet on tour in Moscow. This tour appears to have been an unqualified success in artistic terms, and has surely set the wobbling Anglo-Russian cultural exchange year, hit badly by political events, back on track.
The British ‘Manon’ at the Bolshoi
The landmark three-act ballet Manon (1974), created by Kenneth MacMillan to a medley of music by Massenet, has become a classic, not just of of British but of world theatre. The English willingly produce it all around the world: only this season the ballet was included in the repertoire of La Scala, Milan, and in a couple of weeks it will be premiered in the Stanislavsky Theatre.
Well populated, opulently dressed, with a readily understood ballet plot which presents the Prévost story in the spirit of the English character-romance - it would be a treasure for any theatre: it makes box office cash and work for the entire troupe. Back in 1987 Covent Garden had already shown Moscow its prize, but at that time the impression produced fell flat. Since then Moscow has seen much more ballet and many different performers, and the final duet of Manon has been a staple offering at galas, so for this latest tour the ballet’s shock effect is no longer enough - we now examine the ballet closely, looking for its faults.
And once again, as with the tour’s first programme [IB: the triple bill], the most flattering compliments are owed to the company itself, the ensemble as a whole. In Manon the Covent Garden troupe demonstrated not only truth to its own company style and superlatively well rehearsed dance scenes; but there had also to be acting skills as strong as in straight theatre. And the performers played out the multi-character action with a detail worthy of Moscow Drama Theatre.
Every ‘prostitute’ of the corps de ballet, while dancing with impeccable precision within the group, also had her own character, taste and type; every one of the aristocratic clients of the brothel wittily and vehemently sought his pleasure, never suspending his business even during the leading performers’ solos. This brilliant actors’ ensemble was headed by the notably disgusting semi-pantomime characters, Monsieur GM (Christopher Saunders) and the Gaoler (Gary Avis). It would be no sin for Russian troupes - who pass for ‘actors’ only because it’s conventional - to study this sort of total, involved drama in the playing, which not one character, not even the ‘unimportant’ ones, loses hold of (not even the ‘leper’ who roams around the side of the stage).
Elegant, prudent Manon
With the solo roles, matters stood rather worse. And if both the Lescauts’ Mistresses (Laura Morera and the especially piquant Helen Crawford) know their job superlatively well, then Lescaut himself, brother of the heroine, was let down by both castings. The striking brunet Thiago Soares, rather more the pimp in his interpretation, danced poorly, to be frank, and amended matters only with his masterfully executed ‘drunk’ adagio with his Mistress. The chubby-cheeked, sturdy Alexander Campbell, playing the spoiled young lad, danced the text of the role much better, but was lacking in the precision of the lifts and in the finish of his combinations.
In the first of the four Manons the leading roles were performed by Covent Garden’s distinguished principals Marianela Nuñez and Federico Bonelli. However, in this ballet rank and expertise are not the end of it: the pair looked surprisingly dissociated (that is, in terms of the acting - in the lifts in the six adagios all went excellently well).
Nuñez’s Manon was an elegant, even prudent girl, one would think incapable of gambling, let alone reckless passion. For the whole third act her untemperamental heroine - exiled to the New World, violated by the Gaoler (the blow-job was performed with disarming clarity - I will be interested to see how this episode resonates in the Russian version of the ballet) and then dying in the swamps of Louisiana - seemed in a barely conscious state, as a result of which the ballet’s dramatic momentum ran out long before its end.
This Manon’s partner too sparked no particularly strong feelings; Federico Bonelli clearly defined both action and dance, which in this ballet are indivisible. But as he mimed and gesticulated, he was giving a classroom performance of the set tours and arabesques, and in conveying his emotions, he rather distorted his handsome face in his attempts to convey his passions. Honourable as they were, this couple pretty much drained the juice out of the entire ballet.
Radical, agonizing Manon
The final cast were the guest principal Carlos Acosta and Natalia Osipova, dancing the role of Manon for the first time as a member of the London company, and this couple were the antithesis of the first. One could find fault in the technical execution of both performances: for the 40-plus Acosta the arabesques were not so high and not so free, and Osipova’s inexperience showed in some raggedness in the manyhanded adagio pas of the second act - the ballerina did not flow from hand to hand of her admirers as smoothly as her predecessor. But one could not tear one’s eyes away from the duets between them, and as this life-loving Manon’s short existence flew by before the Bolshoi audience’s eyes in those three short hours, our mesmerised obsession with her was being driven by the agonizing adult passion of her steadfast Des Grieux.
Natalia Osipova, it does not need saying, is the leading actress in world contemporary ballet today. None of her predecessors has ever been so radical in interpreting Manon. Over three acts we saw three different women, yet the psychological connection between them was obvious. The curious, joyful young girl, who in the first act so happily discovers first love and first sex, turns after the interval into a reckless, seductive adventuress who is aware of all her sexual power and ready to put it to use.
In the third act, the ballerina’s bravery scales the heights of dramatic actors’ theatre. This half-crazed Manon with sharp, ugly knees and the muscular calves of an urchin, a lifeless baby’s face and involuntarily twitching fingers is a master creation within contemporary ballet. And however piercing, under the naturalism Osipova’s acting craft keeps it under full control - witness for instance the final pas de deux, where the insane double twist in the air, after which the ballerina’s body goes limp as a ragdoll in the arms of Des Grieux, is a stunt that would be impossible without the highest degree of professionalism.
The miracle of Natalia Osipova’s return to her native stage, even if only a one-off (to make this a repeated event is the job of the Bolshoi directorate, who have the power to invite the ballerina to perform in Moscow), proved the additional and exultant bonus to the tour of the London Covent Garden company, and an extra proof of all the evidence that in over the other side of the Channel matters in the ballet are in extremely safe hands.
The Royal Ballet's classy prostitute
Bravery: Natalia Osipova and Carlos Acosta in the Manon death scene (photo Mikhail Logvinov/ Bolshoi Theatre)