Manon Lauren Cuthbertson & Sergei Polunin Photo by Tristram Kenton

The Royal Ballet: 8 November 2011

Manon is a role every royal ballet dancer wants to dance. And so when it is gifted to a dancer, a debut is a time of anticipation, a time of fear, a time of exploration and a time of admiration for all the dancers who have gone before. It is really only after the debut, that a dancer can really understand the role, that a dancer can shred the anticipation of the milestone.

This evening was a double debut, with the fearless Lauren Cuthbertson as Manon and rising star Sergei Polunin in the technically difficult non-bravura role of Des Grieux. When the ballet debuted in 1974 one critic described the role of Manon as a ‘slut’ and Des Grieux as a ‘fool’.

In the first Act we see the fool in Polunin, the earnest bookworm transfixed by the slightly more worldly Manon. Polunin’s first difficult solo is achieved with relative ease, though this solo often makes for uncomfortable viewing, the choreography revealing the slightest nerve, the slightest off balance. In Scene Two in Des Grieux’s lodgings in Paris the bedroom pas de deux is danced with such speed and daring, the result of which is a premature climax rather than the building of a passionate love for each other.

It is the genius of Macmillian’s choreography that comes to the fore in the Second Act as Manon is handed around – each man wanting his piece of her. Des Greiux watches from the sidelines, torn and distraught at the sight of Manon being flaunted before his eyes. With Polunin’s heart on his sleeve, his large eyes and dramatic stage presence it is him I am drawn to and his heartbreak I follow; despite him not dancing a step. We do not see the obvious slut in Cuthbertson’s Manon in this Act, rather she conveys Manon’s conflicts through her physicality – her expressive arms and upper body and her light extension. In Manon everyone has a price, and in Cuthbertsons reading, her price is low. We do not sense her prostitution has come at any great cost.

It is in Act 3 that Cuthbertson comes to the fore. We are drawn into her despair, her ability to make every step she takes look as though she thought of it only as she steps out of it. In the years to come I look forward to following her maturation in this role – it is through her brilliant technical execution and appetite for daring, that will in time, I hope, lead to a fascinating portrayal of the flawed Manon.

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