In the summer of 2011, the Royal Ballet beamed Kenneth Macmillan’s Manon live from Covent Garden into 21 cinemas across the country, and onto a gigantic screen in the middle of Trafalgar Square, as part of the BP Summer Big Screen performances. Alina Cojocaru danced the role of Manon Lescaut; her romantic and professional partner Johann Kobborg danced des Grieux, a poor student and Manon’s love interest.
I was 23 years old and I worked at Any Amount of Books, a perfect and blessed second-hand bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. I may even have walked directly from a day shift at Any Amount to join my friends on picnic mats in the middle of Trafalgar Square. I knew nothing of the world of dance and theatre criticism. I would venture to say I didn’t know anything very much at all. I’d had: a) pictures of Cojocaru pasted to my folders since my school days and b) no money spare with which to afford sit-down tickets to the Royal Opera House. The BP Big Screens initiative was, for me, the knees-up of the summer.
Manon is an ideal big-screen ballet. Kenneth Macmillan created it during his directorship at the Royal Ballet. It is intensely characterful, driven as much by superb dramaturgy as by bravura performance, and very horny. (Perhaps only Mayerling is a hornier Macmillan ballet.) The narrative structure is vivid and clear; if you’re a 23 year old sitting around with friend getting increasingly tipsy on M&S booze from the concession in Charing Cross Station, it’s simple to follow, thanks to the powerful sense of personality and emotion.
Manon Lescaut, the eponymous anti-heroine, is a beautiful young woman with a high life-loving brother, known as Lescaut. The siblings go to an inn, where Manon falls in love with a poverty-stricken student, des Grieux, and Lescaut attempts to pimp his sister to an old gent. Manon runs off with des Grieux, to everyone’s annoyance, but flashy Monsieur GM tells Lescaut that he too is interested in the enchanting Manon, and Lescaut promises to Change Her Mind about des Grieux. At des Grieux’s lodgings – after one of the very horny duets – while des Grieux is out posting a letter, Lescaut and Monsieur GM persuade Manon to be practical and establish a liaison the good Monsieur. Manon accepts, not because, as the original Guardian review claims, she is ‘basically… a slut’, but because poverty is terrifying and women of the 18th century have very few rights or options. On des Grieux’s return, Lescaut persuades him, too, that there could be mad cash money in it for him if he’ll sanction the ‘arrangement’.
The three men and Manon head to a party, where Lescaut gets drunk and dances blunderingly with a local demimonde. The little set piece is a great example of why Manon worked so well in the mass setting of the summer screens: the camera allows detailed focus on the clowning and staggering, the delightful little drunken gurns and no-but-I’m-sober eyebrow raises; it offers TV emphasis on what is usually stage-distance acting. The pissed-up rollick is so funny that it’s easy to forget how extraordinarily skilful and controlled the performer needs to be. It takes a lot of serious sobriety to look this wasted.
Cojocaru as Manon is the perfect coquette. She flicks and twinkles with a deceptive frittery lightness; her girlishness can easily be read as silly and self-involved, which I believed then and believe now is a test of the audience’s empathy for a trapped woman. Cojocaru gives this challenging, visually complex role the coy ease of a girl blowing dandelions.
Manon’s set-piece scenes are worth looking up from the gossip and M&S tinnies for, but it must be said, we didn’t watch every minute of the ballet. Free outdoor performances, like relaxed performances, allow for movement, conversation and varied levels of engagement. No one sat for three hours on the flagstone of Trafalgar Square because they weren’t very interested in ballet – everyone came because they wanted to see a world-class company for free – but the pressure to view the ballet ‘correctly’ is off, especially when it is simultaneously a social occasion. Such gatherings are, for now, unthinkable. The luxury of the communal viewing – the luxury to be in the presence of great art and to choose to ignore it – feels as if it is part of a decadent past.
In 2013, Cojocaru and Kobborg left the Royal Ballet. Cojocaru joined the English National Ballet as a principal dancer, and, in June 2020, as part of the ENB’s lockdown Watch Parties, Manon was screened once again (with principal dancer Joseph Caley as des Grieux). The Watch Party made Manon available online, and on demand, for free, for 48 hours. By limiting the time it was available, it did, in some ways, attempt to reproduce the communality of watching a performance.
It has been nearly a decade since I’d sat in Trafalgar Square with my friends, and during lockdown I’ve developed an extremely bad TV-watching habit. I put on something that I really, truly, sincerely want to watch, and I that would pay money for in a cinema or theatre, and then, unless I am reviewing or it’s Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring, I spend the entire screening dividing my attention between the TV screen and my phone screen, doom-scrolling Twitter. I wish I could tell you I put the phone down for Manon.
‘Watch Party’ suggests I should have made more of an effort. I could have put on a nice dress, or at the very least changed out of paint-stained jogging bottoms. Manon comes to the party in a magnificent white dress and a cape like a diamond-covered snowdrift, seemingly stunned by her own appearance, delicately picking her way into the crowd. For that, I could have left my phone in another room.
At the party, thing go very wrong for des Grieux and Manon. Des Grieux is caught cheating at cards and the pair flee. Monsieur GM has Manon arrested as a prostitute. Lescaut tries to defend his sister and is killed by the police. (Incidentally, the ENB screening had the roguish, buoyant Jeffrey Cirio as Lescaut, a dancer for whom it is worth closing the Twitter app.) In the end, Manon is deported to New Orleans, accompanied by de Grieux (pretending to be her husband), where she is effectively raped by the gaoler, witness to the gaoler’s murder by an enraged des Grieux, and dies delirious and exhausted in the Louisiana swamps.
Manon’s long, frantic death scene is unbearably harrowing, particularly if you’re already in a volatile mental state. Cojocaru dances like her muscles are trying to break her bones; she dances like it’s only cobwebs and breath keeping her soul from tearing free. That I could witness all this sitting on my sofa, as casually as I might casually flick through Star Trek: The Next Generation on Netflix, felt a freakishly dissonant as any of this pandemic has.
How can we focus on art when our brains are disintegrating in the bile of panic? Sitting on the sofa with a phone felt different from sitting in the Square with a tinny, even though my attention was similarly divided. The delineation of an occasion is missing. The giddy joy of choice is limited; my body takes in the staggering beauty of Manon in the same slumped position, in the same room, the same house, the same two-mile radius, as it takes in reruns of Frasier. Both Manon and Frasier bring me distinct and certain delight, but can I continue to feel the separation and distinction of their joys when my body is a barnacle on the sofa? Sometimes I feel that I must travel, in some way, to the experience; my body must be given the sense of arrival or else my brain will struggle to register it anew, and we’ll sit together in the same putrefying misery, apathy and fear, all the tendrils of the day’s problems tangling in my thoughts.
Sadlers Wells, home of the ENB, have made the difficult decision to postpone reopening until January 2021. I will not be travelling to them for some time to come. But I hope they will find some financially viable way to continue with Watch Parties, and that I will find a way to travel freshly to a room in my house. I hope to arrive, one day, at Manon.
This is the fifth piece in Exeunt’s Redux Review series, which invites writers to talk about performances across multiple encounters; one pre-lockdown, one in livestream form. To read them all, click here.