Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Reviewed by Kate Goerner

This week sees the arrival of English National Ballet to the Opera House in Manchester with Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, first performed in 1974 and rarely seen outside of London.

The ballet, set to a score by Jules Massenet and reworked by Martin Yates, is based on Prévost’s Manon Lescaut, and tells the tale of Manon (Alina Cojocaru) who when being traded by her brother Lescaut (Jeffrey Cirio) meets and runs away with idealistic young student Des Grieux (Joseph Caley).

Their romantic idyll is soon shattered when Manon’s head is turned by the furs and diamonds laid on by the sleazily menacing Monsieur GM (James Streeter) and she abandons Des Grieux for him.

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They are later reunited, but they pay the price for their defiance and, somewhat inevitably, it all ends tragically in a swirling, confusing, Louisiana swamp.

Dangerous Liaisons indeed.

The powerful production is packed with extraordinary performances.

As the young lovers Cojocaru and Caley (both making their debuts in the roles) are irresistible. Their Act I playful and shy courtship pas de deux making way for a more physical pairing the following morning. And their hypnotic and heart-breaking final dance together deserved the cheers.

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As the sinister Monsieur GM, Streeter rose above being a cut-out villain, his height, combined with costume, make up and beautifully controlled body language sent a real shiver down my spine. Not a man who would take being left lightly.

Crowd pleasers were Ciro’s infectious Lescaut – his drunk dancing clearly delighted the appreciative Opera House audience – and Katja Khaniukova as his mistress, displaying both passion and control.

Artists of the company play a variety of roles from courtesans and their customers to both extremes of society – powdered faces and rouged cheeks contrasting with dirty smudges and ragged clothes, coiffed wigs with tousled hair.

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The female artists clearly had great fun in Act II in particular, inside a den of iniquity. Their romantic dresses belying their competitive nature when it came to landing a customer – behind the smiles they were all sly shoves and sharp elbows.

Mia Stensgaard’s stunning design coupled with Mikki Kunttu’s lighting brought modernity to the production. An abstract prow of a ship and an incongruous modern large scale period painting that set the scene in Act 1 brought an interesting twist to proceedings.

Indeed the scope and scale of the production is so vast that at times it seemed a little restricted on the Opera House stage – but with another literary heroine in residence down the road at the Palace, perhaps this couldn’t be helped and really is a minor reservation.

Manon truly is a stunning production that will delight and devastate in turn and again reinforces why ballet companies should be congratulated for stepping away from the more familiar tales, and enabling regional audiences to experience the rarer works.

English National Ballet | Song of the Earth/La Sylphide


By Nikki Cotter

English National Ballet delivered a spectacular double bill at Manchester’s Palace Theatre last night, the two works, both new to the company offered dance fans an opportunity to see both Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s, Song of the Earth and August Bournonville’s La Sylphide recreated by Frank Andersen and Eva Kloborg in one delightful evening of dance.

First performed in 1965, MacMillan’s choreography for Song of the Earth features three central figures, a man, a woman and a messenger, ‘the messenger of death’. The trio are supported beautifully by the corps de ballet in this powerful and emotive exploration of the journey of life and the ever present looming of death. Beautifully set to Mahler’s haunting song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde and performed live by the stunning English National Ballet Philharmonic with accompanying operatic performers Rhonda Browne and Samuel Sakker. Each of the six songs are delivered with precision and impressive sculptural beauty. Dressed in simple greys, whites and blacks the dancers make full use of the Palace’s expansive stage, as the messenger of death Jeffery Cirio tenderly seduces firstly the solid and strong man Joseph Caley then draws in the stunning woman Tamara Rojo until she is left with no other choice than to accept the relentless call of death.

Song of the Earth allows ENB to showcase their strengths in this captivating piece, the two male leads deliver a dramatic and engaging opposition with Joseph Caley’s light and optimistic demeanour challenged by Jeffery Cirio’s dark and seductive dance of death. Tamara Rojo’s transition through the piece from playful innocence to tormented resignation is superb.

Part two in this captivating double bill is August Bournonville’s classic romantic ballet La Sylphide. Frank Anderson and Eva Kloborg stay faithful to Bournonville’s 1830s choreography as this charming piece introduces us to themes of love, infatuation and ultimately tragedy. In this engaging and joyous production we meet James (Issac Hernandez) on the morning of his wedding to Effy (Anjuli Hudson) as he wakes from a dream to see a mysterious and beguiling Sylphide standing before him, this sets off a fateful sequence of events which ultimately leads to tragedy and heartbreak.

With stunning design from Mikael Melbye we are transported by the corps de ballet to a jubilant wedding celebration in the Scottish Highlands. The festivities however are continually interrupted, firstly by the Sylph (Jurgita Dronina) who mesmerises and draws groom James (Issac Hernandez) in with her captivating beauty and secondly by the cackling and calculating witch Madge, portrayed wonderfully by Jane Haworth. The choreography is fast and perfectly precise, mixing classical steps with Scottish folk dance superbly. The Character acting is exceptional as this story is clearly and engagingly told. Moving from the thrilling scenes in the Higlands to the beauty of the enchanted forest La Sylphide captivates the audience entirely. Issac Hernandez is thrilling as James, strong and powerful he leaps elegantly from fling to forest. Jurgita Dronina enchants as the Sylph, mysterious yet magical.

These two exhilarating works allow English National Ballet to really shine and will undoubtedly delight both classic ballet lovers first timers alike, their commitment to making ballet accessible continues to impress, bold, dynamic and hugely entertaining.