Manon; Boy Blue: REDD review – five-star performances rise above the fray

One reason critics hate awarding stars is that their bluntness doesn’t allow the writer to reflect the subtle shades of many productions. These two profoundly contrasting works both feature five-star performances at their centre; it’s the things that happen around them that dim their light.

In the Royal Ballet’s revival of Manon, Vadim Muntigarov made a hero of the student Des Grieux, whose love for a girl on the rise in the demimonde of 18th-century France brings them both to a tragic end. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Des Grieux can so often seem like a drip; he wanders in, moons around a bit, and then agrees to share her with a powerful rich man (Monsieur GM) before changing his mind, failing to cheat successfully at cards, and then letting her die in his arms in the swamps of Louisiana when she’s deported as a prostitute.

But the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan carved Des Grieux out of fine, aching arabesques, delicate curves and jumps of youthful longing, rapid spins of emotion, and Muntigarov pins them to the air with absolute exactitude. He makes the steps speak, acting with every muscle in his body, conveying precisely a noble nature and a tender heart. He combines this with a face that conveys every flicker of feeling; he can’t quite believe he has caught this wonderful creature and he can’t bear losing her.

In their scenes together, Sarah Lamb as Manon matches this rounded portrayal beat for beat. She’s beautiful and lyrical, finding little pauses in the Massenet score (lushly played by the orchestra conducted by Koen Kessels) to register Manon’s calculation of her options. When they dance together before they’re discovered, they are like children, and you can see the exact calibrations she is making between love and her liking for glittery things.

Around them, on opening night, the Royal Ballet did not have its finest hour. The production, which is busy and full of action, felt both under-emphatic and over-acted. I took against Ryoichi Hirano’s portrayal of Manon’s brother, because although it was danced with finesse, he turned the character into a cartoon. I didn’t believe in him, and in this ballet belief is all. There is a long run of Manons to come, with many different dancers trying their art; things will improve, but Muntigarov has set a very high bar.

Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy, centre, in Boy Blue’s REDD: weighed down ‘like Gulliver trapped in Lilliput’. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

So too does Kenrick “H20” Sandy, who towers at the heart of REDD, which is created by him as choreographer, with Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante his co-creator as composer, for their own astonishing dance company Boy Blue. Sandy dominates the stage as a man who seems imprisoned by grief and despair. His movements are obsessive, repetitive, slow. Squares and shafts of light (fabulously designed by Charlie Morgan Jones) pinion him in place as waves of dancers throw themselves around him, sometimes clinging to his back, weighing him down, sometimes directly challenging him or trying to pull him to one side or another.

He looks like Gulliver trapped in Lilliput, but finally he is offered redemption by one still figure. It’s a haunting work, too long and slightly too repetitive, but full of originality and grace. Sandy is immense.

Star ratings (out of five)
Boy Blue: REDD

  • Manon is at the Royal Opera House, London, until 6 November

  • Boy Blue: REDD is at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon, as part of Dance Umbrella on 19 October

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