Manon; Strike! dance festival – review

Royal Opera House; Wilton’s Music Hall, London
Francesca Hayward presents us with a Manon for our times, while Jo Meredith proves why she is one of British dance’s best-kept secrets

Manon, created by Kenneth MacMillan in 1974, is one of the great story ballets. Adapted from the 18th-century novel by the Abbé Prévost, it tells the story of the amoral but vulnerable Manon Lescaut. Longing for luxury, Manon is torn between her affection for Des Grieux, an impoverished young student, and the attractions of life as a kept woman.

On Tuesday, 22-year-old Francesca Hayward made her debut in the title role. Petite and vividly expressive, she is a natural Manon, beguiling us with her dancing even as she spares us nothing of her character’s affectlessness and mercenary calculation. There are Manons who read the ballet as a love story, and the title role as that of an adorable if flawed romantic heroine, but Hayward doesn’t take this path. Her Manon never gives her heart to Edward Watson’s Des Grieux. To the bitter end she is her own woman, sexually sensuous but emotionally impermeable. Manon’s tragedy, as demonstrated by Hayward, is precisely that she cannot love. The exigencies of survival have extinguished that possibility.

Although at first glance 38-year-old Watson represents an odd casting choice opposite Hayward, he is unexpectedly moving. His Des Grieux is an ineffectual fantasist, persuaded against all the evidence to the contrary that he can win Manon’s heart. His dancing is tense and febrile, his hyperextended line contrasting almost luridly with Hayward’s neatly contained classicism. It’s an interpretation that makes more sense than most of MacMillan’s strangely vacant choreography for Des Grieux, which reaches its nadir when, as Manon is led to her fate by the Gaoler (Bennet Gartside, on icily vicious form), we see him turn a series of fey, distracted pirouettes.

Supporting roles are strongly executed, with Alexander Campbell a lithe and venal Lescaut and Thomas Whitehead a repulsively connoisseurial Monsieur GM. That Manon is prepared to offer her body to this rancid pervert tells you everything you need to know about her priorities, as does the hungry gleam in her eyes as he shows her the jewels and furs that he can offer her. And her spitting fury when, after their reconciliation, Des Grieux petulantly hurls her diamond bracelet across the stage. “Do you have any idea how much that’s worth?” she seems to be saying.

With her topaz gaze, delicate épaulement and precise line, Hayward is an enchantingly beautiful dancer, and it’s very much to her credit that she makes the unflinching interpretive choices that she does. Hers is very much a Manon for today. A Manon determined, whatever the cost to her spirit and dignity, to live the dream. And, if necessary, to suffer the consequences.

Wilton’s Music Hall is fast becoming a significant dance venue, with its Strike! festival presenting a compelling mix of new work. Last Friday’s programme offered Elise Nuding’s likable if slight Shift, Spin, Warp, Twine, and Jo Meredith’s Please Wait Whilst We Try To Connect You. Meredith’s four-handed work is set to text by Sean Bruno, with whom she frequently collaborates. Drawing a parallel between online identity and the myth of Narcissus, she presents a male and a female dancer tracked and shadowed by their mediated, auto-manipulated selves.

The text, the soundtrack (the Bad Plus, Brad Mehldau) and the choreography are stringently pared back, and the result is subtle and allusive, with a resonance that belies the piece’s small scale. Meredith is probably the best-kept secret in British contemporary dance. Seek her out.

Star ratings (out of 5)
Manon ****
Strike! ****


Luke Jennings

The GuardianTramp

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