In the 40 years since its premiere, Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon has become one of a select few British creations to have achieved cult status on the international ballet market. The latest company to acquire it is Moscow’s Stanislavsky Ballet, spurred on by the success of its production of MacMillan’s Mayerling.
Manon has tripped up more than one ensemble, however, and as the initial run showed over the weekend, the Stanislavsky is no exception. For all its period costumes and lush designs by Nicholas Georgiadis, there is none of ballet’s traditional grandeur in the world inspired by the Abbé Prévost’s novel. Prostitution and corruption are everywhere; destitution looms at the slightest setback. Naturalism is the key to the characters, from the lowly corps prostitutes in Act Two to the often unappealing lead roles: Manon, the faux-ingénue with a taste for diamonds, and Des Grieux, whose obsession with her verges on stupidity.
The Royal Ballet showed the way in June when it brought Manon on tour to the Bolshoi. As of now, the Stanislavsky’s staging is just too polite, with harmonious phrasing but little inner life; Act Two in particular is more tea party than brothel scene.
As with Mayerling, the Stanislavsky acquired the ballet partly for Sergei Polunin. Before his infamous exit from the Royal Ballet in 2012, at just 22, he’d had time to make a noted debut as Des Grieux, and anticipation had been building in Moscow ahead of the premiere. Ballet’s rebel without a cause didn’t feel compelled to come to rehearsals, however, and was subsequently dismissed.
Polunin was replaced by a guest artist from the Royal Danish Ballet, Alban Lendorf. His sturdy build doesn’t lend itself naturally to “white tights” roles, as the princes and naïfs of the repertoire are referred to, but his is a rare talent, nurtured in the subtle Danish ballet tradition. His first variation, an almost instant declaration of love to Manon, was presented with more finesse than the Royal Ballet men demonstrated in June; his partnering is mostly light and assured, though he occasionally blends into the corps de ballet.
His partner was Tatiana Melnik, a petite blonde with an air of mystery on stage who has the makings of a very fine Manon. A little more abandon will go a long way, both for her and for her Russian colleagues.
Still, there is virtue in a fresh take on the choreography, and some aspects of Manon (based on MacMillan’s staging for the Royal Swedish Ballet in the 1980s, slightly different from London’s) were more clearly delineated than in the Royal Ballet’s recent performances. The drunken pas de deux for Manon’s brother Lescaut (Dmitry Sobolevsky) and his Mistress (Valeria Mukhanova) was noticeably funnier, a welcome detail. As for the rest, the Stanislavsky has its work cut out.