The Royal Ballet’s new season opens with Manon, Kenneth MacMillan’s tale of doomed love and sexual exploitation. It’s a ballet that shows off the whole company’s gift for storytelling, conjuring up an 18th-century world that is greedy, gilded and desperate. Rags and riches literally jostle together in Nicholas Georgiadis’s brilliant designs, poverty looming over the characters’ passions.
Created in 1974, Manon has become one of the company’s most popular works. The title role is coveted by ballerinas around the world: a heroine who falls for the young hero Des Grieux, even as she’s being lured into life as a rich man’s mistress.
Pitched into a corrupt world, Manon is also presented as an embodiment of desire. Compared to MacMillan’s headlong Juliet, or the gallery of ambitious, vulnerable women in his ballet Mayerling, she’s a more passive, ambiguous figure. Passed from hand to hand in the brothel scene, she floats through Massenet’s perfumed music, both seductive and remote. It’s a hypnotic image of sexual power, but it’s not her needs driving the story.
Sarah Lamb is a thoughtful Manon. She doesn’t show the blazing heat this ballet can generate, but she’s fluent and touching. Offered furs, her Manon doesn’t sink sensuously into them: she draws herself up, trying on a new identity. She crumples a little when she remembers the lover she’s leaving, but not enough to change her mind.
Vadim Muntagirov’s radiant dancing shows both Des Grieux’s innocence and his ardour. The tricky off-balance turns unfurl with besotted grace, as if Manon has tipped his centre of gravity. He and Lamb take risks in their duets, from the giddy delight of falling in love to the feverish panic of the death scene.
Ryoichi Hirano is a charismatic Lescaut, Manon’s pimping brother. He whirls wildly in his drunk dance, yet the comic timing is pin sharp, and he keeps a thread of menace. As his mistress, Itziar Mendizabal dances with boldness and emotional range. I love her tipsy dignity in the brothel scene, holding herself carefully upright as she navigates her way through an orgy.
The company starts its season in strong form, with clean dancing and dramatic gusto. Luca Acri, Joseph Sissens and Valentino Zuchetti are crisp and buoyant as the virtuoso gentlemen over in the corner; Philip Mosley’s elderly client does his best to imitate them, both frivolous and a little wistful. It’s a canvas seething with stories.
In repertory until 6 November. Box office 020 7304 4000