Friday, October 31, 2014

Manon, Zenaida Yanowsky & Matthew Golding, Royal Opera House, 29 Oct 2014

Wednesday's penultimate Manon marked the return of Zenaida Yanowsky to the role -- a French courtesan beguiled by love and money, toward a tragic end. That role for which she won unanimous enthusiastic reviews in her 2005 debut, and which she herself's been eagerly waiting to reprise. That role which has thus become my holy grail of ballet -- ever since first chancing upon her in Sylvia March of '08, then reading about all her past performances, desperately going WHO IS THIS WOMAN.

The evening had been padded very nicely in advance. Roberto Bolle cast as her Des Grieux and Carlos Acosta debuting as her Lescaut -- a winning formula that sold out. But at the last minute, literally a day before, Matthew Golding had to replace Bolle due to a hand injury visible in their rehearsal -- hopefully, in a bid to save him for their Nov 1 performance (we'll see how it goes tomorrow..!). [Edit: one word - phenomenal.]

As a result I wasn't sure what to expect on Wednesday. I had faith Yanowsky would more than deliver the emotional goods (extravagant plane-ticket-to-London-for-2-shows-faith) but with the change I wasn't sure how everything would gel together. Golding was apparently fantastic with Melissa Hamilton weeks before, but my memory of him and Yanowsky in Bayadere 2013 was really nothing outstanding -- and true enough, their characters' love turned out to be as inconceivable to me then as this time around. Yet instead of marring the show, which for a time the audience and I really thought it might, it ended up making for such a spectacular take on the ballet instead -- one that was no less emotional and heart wrenching. Here Des Grieux is more plot device than protagonist, as the story shifts its focus to Manon's own internal journey through the vicissitudes of a life she's done her best to make do with, but never escapes.

The Manon and Lescaut of Yanowsky's and Acosta's invention whom we meet from Act 1 are a pair well practiced in the lay of this self-serving land. They know to grab at what patronage you can to avert the vicious throes of poverty -- and have survived by perfecting the act that will sell her well to nobility. Lee McLernon commented on Twitter that Acosta seemed too nice a Lescaut to ever sell his sister, yet I saw it as simply a practical arrangement they've come to terms with to survive, that is quite independent of how they feel toward each other.

Thus she appears in Act 1 coming off the arm of "Old Gentleman", ever the innocent ingenue -- but it is an innocence that comes across as ill-fitting. Whether it was perhaps a function of Yanowsky's awkward unease as the show began or really a machination of Manon's character, it hinted that this version of Manon, and furthermore her affection for Des Grieux which grows from it, is perhaps just one of the many facades she knows well how to yield.

As much as this was my first time seeing the ballet, I at least had the distinct impression that Manon and Des Grieux were supposed to be desperately in love. At first I was truly disappointed thinking that the intended emotion of romantic highlights such as their first meeting or the bed room pas de deux had been sadly felled by their hasty rehearsals. Their affection seemed superficial at worst, ephemeral at best. They had little chemistry, and it would seem barely even eye contact, and it was only when they made out hungrily that I relented Fine, maybe she likes him. But all from his first unconvincing solo through to their clumsy embraces, literal collisions with furniture, and awkward lifts that seemed more cursory than central, I simply could not make myself believe. Such a waste of Yanowsky's return to Manon, I thought.

But the disappointment faded the moment Will Tuckett and Acosta came to join her in Act 1's pas de trois. This was actually the first properly rehearsed partnering we were seeing of the night, and as much as Yanowsky seemed to relax because of this, so did Manon appear to fall into a more comfortable habitat of coy teasing of a potential new patron -- a game she and Lescaut were clearly familiar with. Here was a glimpse at her truer self, not the facade thus far.

I honestly don't know how much Yanowsky might have planned before, how much adapts to fit Golding's interpretation of Des Grieux, or how much is plain accidental -- but the effect of Des Grieux as a passing fancy rather than soulmate was solid even if unexpected. Manon is simply never really in love (he, well, he's as infatuated as a prepubescent teenager), but is instead entertaining a fleeting passion because Hey, why not, Matthew Golding really is quite hot.

The concept of Des Grieux as merely a curiosity, a fleeting experimentation of Manon's affection, is solidified come the beginning of Act 2. The icy stares she fixes at him at Monsieur GM's ball almost yell "God, you miserable creature. Don't you know you were just a play thing?" And it had a hilarious parallel as if Yanowsky were glaring at Golding going "You. You dropped me in Act 1." And so she continues to ignore him, not even bothering to check her effect on him as some teases would do in just playing hard to get. This Manon truly does not care about him and any careless glances thrown his way thereafter are only as if to say "Goodness, you're still here?" She continues to flirt as easily as she does breathe, passing from man to man, (men who were each characterized exquisitely by the RB gentlemen.. Such perviness they exude so perfectly), expertly plying them with just the right perfume for their intoxication. The odd thing is, it's rare that I actually pay specific attention to Yanowsky's technique. There's just so much else going on in the rest of the emotional package that it makes more sense to focus on the impression of her overall motion and expressions. But an exquisite dancer she certainly is, and I must commend her heartily for her fluidity and control in this scene. I must also commend Eric Underwood, who handled her more noticeably deftly than the others, and perhaps really is the ideal partner I thought he might be.

Manon's chameleon adaptability is especially evident in this act in an unexpected side show with GM, where she expertly toys with his affection and plays hard to get. This treat was thanks to heavily detailed interactions off to a side table where Tuckett and Yanowsky put really impressive care into crafting their relationship. As the act goes on though, you see Manon's veneer begin to shatter as GM takes increasing liberties, gaining in violence, and it is only in this aggression that there begins to parallel an increasing affection for Des Grieux.

This side story hence becomes the most convincing reason that Manon eventually chooses to run off with Des Grieux. It is not for true love, as the programme tries to tell me, but it is for nothing more than self preservation from someone who is obviously beginning to bite off more than she is comfortable with. Here Des Grieux offers the coincidental way out, someone foolish enough to play for Manon's love, which he doesn't know she'll never give. Even after their escape together she's so obviously difficult to pry away from her jewels. Sure she's grateful he was there, but it's as if her mind's already plotting the move to her next material anchor. I love most the part where they're just done embracing, then as she wraps around the bed post her eyes catch GM's bracelet, and you can practically hear the switch reverting her back to normal programming. Yanowsky's Manon really has no need of love, and it is never the cause of her downfall.

In fact it is clear that the only real gravity and love of her life is Lescaut.  (A Lescaut who, I should mention, is a downright hilarious drunk.) Throughout the ballet, her most earnest motions and expressions are with him. Her running to him like a little girl in Act 1 is so genuinely unguarded; the break in her facade to smile at him when she first sees him in Act 2 is so distinct; her anguish at his death end of Act 2 is so laser sharp it sears the heart of every of the 2250 audience members.

This anguish is even far greater than the one she affords herself in Act 3. The Manon here truly is a shell of herself, completely drained with the death of Lescaut and the instant stripping of all the life she knew thereafter. Des Grieux really is nothing but a literal prop in these scenes -- she is so far gone she seems to barely register he's there except as a crutch, and perhaps the last glimmer of generosity she can die in peace with.

And it is in the moribund and completely hopeless way she drifts through Act 3 that my heart suddenly felt as though it was pelted with lead. The depressive scene is first set most effectively by Gary Avis as Gaoler, who plays his role so subtly that it becomes, ironically, deafeningly real. You can cut his misogyny with a knife, as he grabs randomly at deportees' throats and flings them aside. There's nothing more pointedly forlorn as these women who rise and fall with the gust of the wind, each gaining life only briefly enough for a futile solo protest against her circumstance. In this, I really noticed Francesca Hayward -- dancing for barely 30 second slots but so obviously expressive with her limbs. She is definitely one to bookmark for the future, and it's a shame I couldn't see her debut. (But hey now, one magical principal at a time please. I can't afford it.)

When Manon finally appears it is clear all is doom and gloom. I really appreciate the way MacMillan crafts the same step, a series of fifths back and forth on pointe, in all 3 acts, and done so differently each time to reflect Manon's circumstance. Here, her feet move lackadaisically, and the Yanowsky on top of them is practically crumbling over already. Yet when you think it can't get worse, thus ensues the most traumatic scene I've ever seen in a ballet -- what I hesitate to call a "pas de deux" between Gaoler and Manon. I almost had to look away because it was so graphic at times (Wow MacMillan, you really were a firestarter with this one), and I hate to think how disturbing rehearsing this scene must be. Regardless, kudos to Yanowsky and Avis because my body couldn't decide whether to retch or break out in tears there. I finally managed to conjure more positive feelings for Des Grieux when he gut him like a fish.

At the final pas de deux, the cap of the emotional roller coaster that the ever masterful Royal Ballet has created of the evening, one is nearly as drained as Manon. Yet Yanowsky and Golding throw themselves at their steps, and for the first time there truly is a paradoxical chemistry, where they both rail against the injustice they've found themselves together in -- him having been sucked in a giddy lovelorn spiral away from the convent and into destitution, her having finally tripped on a lifestyle that could never have been fully sustaining. Manon and her brother lived on borrowed time -- skirting the instability and absurdity of trying to ascend the social ladder beyond their means. Fate finally catches up and laughs at their attempts to be other than who they are.

While the spins and throws aren't death defying per se, the pas de deux is truly desperate and engaging, and an amazing recovery from the flubs of Act 1. Their bodies meld, suddenly familiar as if the evening's first acts were a refreshing rehearsal (which.. They probably really were), and it truly looks to be an effort to keep her alive. What I love, love about Yanowsky is encapsulated in this scene -- she isn't pulled up. Not to say she's slouching all over the stage, but she uses her back precisely and appropriately, not maintaining the constant poise as I have seen done so curiously in other versions. If the character is dying, she's dying. No two ways about it. Her beautiful extensions are not to impress the audience with her acrobatics but to convey the last bits of Manon's vitality stringing through her limbs. Yanowsky makes a reality of ballet, not art. Even then, life had a funny way of intertwining with art in this particular instance -- Yanowsky said she developed cramps in both calves (and here I was looking at her flexed legs in the final scene going, Well that's interesting choreography,) so was barely standing at the end of the ballet, and couldn't make some of the curtain call.

And thus Manon drops off the face of the Earth. I know I've said painfully little about Golding, because Yanowsky really did steal the night, but he truly impressed me in this scene. He is heartbroken, clutching at her desperately, willing her to live -- it is a generous outpouring of emotion. He's also a strong and imposing dancer, one all the more amazing for stepping in at the last minute.

All in all, this was a truly special night, despite the auspices otherwise leading up to and even during the show. By sheer expressive fortitude the evening triumphed, and the audience responded in overwhelmingly loud approval as Yanowsky made her tearful curtain calls, clearly emotionally and physically spent. As we all were.

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