Well, it’s been a hectic couple of weeks since I got back from my holiday. Work is at a busy time of the year and our department as a whole is still very short-staffed, although my team is slightly less stretched now that someone has come back from a long period of sick leave. The new computers are still causing hiccoughs assorted; every time I think I’ve got the hang of things I am brought up against another baffling change to the simple “how you do this” issues, with the result that I still feel like a cat chasing my tail a lot of the time. Fire-fighting the illogicality of Windows 7 is a big draw on one’s time and energy.
I haven’t been completely without fun, though. I’ve had a lovely trip to the Wetland Centre, some ballet outings and concerts to go to, plus a trip to the cinema (“Thor”, totally daft but entertaining; nice to see Tom Hiddleston, one of my ideal Gabriel Yeatses, getting a good high profile job, too) and a highly enjoyable birthday party – the sort where intelligent people talk about intelligent things and laugh a lot over a few pints. I’ve been trying to keep on top of the garden, not an easy task in this drought. And I’ve started the tricky and rather emotionally-draining business of giving “Ramundi’s sisters” a third revision. >sigh< It needs to be done, but it’s a job that gets slightly more sticky with each turn around the block.
My ballet outings were all very enjoyable. The latest Triple Bill at the Royal Ballet was a lovely package, except for being too short – none of the three pieces was particularly long, and the first came in at under twenty minutes. Even with longer than average intervals to pad it out, I was home soon after ten pm; but it was a good enough evening that I didn’t feel short-changed. “Ballo della Regina” was the “please sir, I want some more” opener, with Lauren Cuthbertson in lovely, shiny, smiley form as the lead ballerina, skipping through some fiendish footwork as if it were a playground game. She had a scrumptious quartet backing her up, and Sergei Polunin, all huge leaps and cheekbones, was classy as the sole fella.
Next up came a new piece by Wayne McGregor, which has got the critics all at sixes and sevens; like retsina, it seems, you either love it or loathe it. I was high enough up in the house not to be overly distracted by the video backdrop of exploding trucks, and could concentrate on the dancing. I’m never entirely sure I’m convinced by McGregor’s intellectual ideas, but he certainly choreographs incredible stuff from the dancing point of view; elastic off-centre bends, weird shapes, strenuous lifts and general frenzied athleticism all round. Ferociously tricky, it was danced by the small cast with a bravura that was slightly scary.
For a finale we got a revival, much longed-for by me, of Christopher Wheeldon’s “DGV”, a gorgeous non-narrative piece whose lack of a story does not preclude a heartfelt warmth in its series of fluid duets and final, powerfully uplifting ensemble. It’s a thrilling ballet that I could happily watch over and over; and with a cast like this it simply sings. Duet number one brought us a sensuous Laura Morera and Steven McRae’s customary febrile dynamism, duet number two, Zenaida Yanowsky’s long limbed elegance and the steady, modest strength of Eric Underwood. For duet number three I was lucky enough to see Gary Avis and Melissa Hamilton again; this is a luxury partnership of astonishing chemistry, and their ease with one another in this tender, soaring, probably hideously-difficult material is simply dazzling. To finish off, replacing Sarah Lamb and Federico Bonelli, came a decidedly high-calibre piece of back-up casting in the form of Itziar Mendizabal and Nehemiah Kish, two new recruits both of whom I am warming to rapidly. They hadn’t originally been slated to dance this at all, seem to have been put in fairly late in the day, and both looked as though they were loving every minute.
Then came the saga of the “Manon”s. MacMillan’s “Manon” is one of my all-time favourite ballets, and I went to see it back at the beginning of the run in April for a performance featuring the sexy Steven McRae, passionately intense and technically dazzling, and his regular stage partner, the beautiful and elfin Roberta Marquez. Gorgeous!
When I discovered that a performance featuring Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg was being put out on the Big Screen in Trafalgar Square last week, though, I decided I had to go to that – after all, Cojocaru and Kobborg are pretty damned special together, and it was free, and Big Screen screenings are tremendous fun in a slightly surreal way (double decker buses circling, sirens wailing by, aircraft heading into Heathrow as the night sky darkens to deepest phthalo blue…). So I went along, with a fleece and a picnic, and failed to link up with a friend who cried off at the last minute, and was thrilled all over again.
It was a totally different interpretation of the leading roles, with Kobborg playing Des Grieux as an intelligent, mature man of almost heroic decency, and Alina’s Manon the most thoughtful, even moral, I’ve ever seen. I know it sounds odd to call a girl who elects to become a rich man’s kept woman “moral”, but really, you could see her struggling between the choices facing her, knowing that both are, in one way or another, wrong – forswear the man you love and become a whore, or let-down and disobey your beloved brother (and know you are losing your one chance at financial security as well)…
And then my mum called me on Friday to say the friend she was going with to the Saturday matinee (scheduled to be danced by Laura Morera and Federico Bonelli) had called to say she couldn’t come after all, and would I like to join her? Well, Morera and Bonelli were a stunning Tatyana and Onegin last autumn, so I was delighted to say yes. Only to find, on arriving at the Opera House, that Mr Bonelli was injured and was being replaced by Mr Kish – who’s only danced the part once before, and that not with Ms Morera.
Mum was vocal in her disappointment (she feels about Mr Bonelli rather as I do about Messrs Watson and McRae, tall dark Italians being catnip to her in the same way ginger toms are to me); “Who’s this Nehemiah Kish, then? Never heard of him. Where’s he from? How long's he been kicking around?” etc etc – rather embarrassing as one cringes and hopes her well-pitched and rather carrying voice will not reach the ears of a parent, wife, girl~ or boyfriend, or anyone else who’s there to support Mr K... I tried to reassure her but as I hadn’t seen him in action very much, all I could say was fairly bland things about him being tall and a good partner.
So into the theatre we went, and the lights went down, and we were treated to what was for me, completely out of the blue, the best of the three “Manon”s I’ve seen this year, by a good margin.
It’s always hard to explain it, when it happens, but it was one of those performances when everything just comes together. By the time they got to that final terrifying pas de deux, hurtling into despair and death in the Louisiana swamps, I was crying helplessly into my binoculars, totally harrowed.
With two leads who hadn’t been set to dance together, and who therefore can’t have had much rehearsal together, one could have forgiven the odd hesitation or over-careful lift, but in fact they seemed pretty much unfazed by it; there was hardly any sign that they hadn’t been dancing together for years. To my eyes they were well-matched physically, technically and emotionally; their acting styles were complementary (both are subtle and inward actors rather than grand-standing and full-on) and they brought the whole thing alight for me.
The rest of the cast was batting down the order, too, and there were lovely little touches all over the place. José Martín was an excellent Lescaut, perhaps less virtuosic than Ricardo Cervera had been but more complex as a character; Valentino Zucchetti was a terrific Beggar Chief, Gary Avis a really nasty Monsieur GM, Bennett Gartside a really nasty Gaoler – I could burble on for ages listing every bit part who got a credit, as there wasn’t a duff performance to be seen. And from our leads there were lovely clean lines and confident sweeping lifts, kisses that looked as if they were really meant, and all the time that sense of real feeling, of something not thought-thru’ and rehearsed but fresh and immediate.
Laura Morera’s Manon came across as a girl who at the beginning is only just discovering the power her allure gives her, making a journey from innocence to a painful adulthood – a Juliet-like character, trying to make the right decisions, to solve the pull between irreconcilable longings. Mr Kish’s Des Grieux was a classic nice guy, simple and straightforward, kind-hearted, devoted, even perhaps not terribly bright; exactly the sort of decent, honest boy-next-door type she ought to have been able, in a better world, to marry and be happy with.
She knows how to use her stillness to say more than one would think possible; he knows how to use his very beautiful hands and wrists to finish a long, aching line; they both have the technical skill to let the choreography do the talking, rather than trying to over-characterise. The final pas de deux was about as no-holds-barred as I’ve seen it, Manon’s death a shattering moment, Des Grieux not screaming silently as most do but slumping back on his heels, staring at her body in shock; exhausted, bereft, and knowing he’s next.
I’ve been haunted by it ever since.
The Royal Ballet 2018/19 Season
7 hours ago