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18 January 2024

50 years of Manon

In this Royal Opera House revival, Kenneth MacMillan’s masterful ballet still has the power to bring audiences to their feet.

By Zuzanna Lachendro

Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, adapted from Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel Manon Lescaut, has been revived at the Royal Opera House for its 50th anniversary, running until 8 March. The original 1974 choreography of MacMillan, a former artistic director of the Royal Ballet who died in 1992, tells a familiar story – will Manon choose true love over a life of luxury? – accompanied by Leighton Lucas’s score, which was inspired by Jules Messenet’s operas and oratorios.

In the first act, the audience is thrown straight into the flurry of the petit allégro sequences, which introduce the star-crossed lovers, Manon (Francesca Hayward) and Des Grieux (Marcelino Sambé), as well as Manon’s brother Lescaut (Alexander Campbell), and the story’s villain Monsieur GM (Gary Avis).

The scenery, designed by Nicholas Georgiadis, is defiantly drab, with rags of varying brown hues serving as the backdrop, flooded by a wash of warm yellow lighting designed by Jacopo Pantani. The 18th-century full skirts beautifully complement the dancers’ movements – but the monotonous colour palette of beige and yet more brown simply causes the corps to fade into the background.

Still, the choreography makes up for everything the design lacks. Relationships are firmly established using space, distance, moments of stillness and emotive movement. Longing solos melt into romantically languid or impassioned, urgent pas de deux; drunken duets with daring penchés seamlessly transition into sword fights.

Act three takes a turn into the fantastical with swinging vines, a smoke-covered stage and teal lighting reflecting Manon’s psychological torments, as she grapples between her loyalty to Des Grieux and – encouraged by her brother – Monsieur GM’s riches. The final scene concludes with a heart-wrenching pas de deux between the lovers that earns the production a standing ovation from the audience. Kenneth MacMillan’s mastery of narrative choreography continues to move audiences 50 years on.

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This article appears in the 24 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Media Wars