/Francesca Hayward’s debut as Manon at the Royal Opera House

Francesca Hayward’s debut as Manon at the Royal Opera House

Impressed by the 22 year old Francesca Hayward‘s impish bird dance at the Royal Ballet’s earlier production of Sleeping Beauty, I was naturally curious to see her perform again but as a lead in a tragic tale. This season of the Royal Ballet introduced the loving and disturbing tale of Manon, a ingénue whose struggle for love and material greed lead to her inevitable demise. 

Its music is written by Jules Massenet, which recounts the sensualness and naivety of Manon’s flawed character, which has been produced into various historical operas and plays from the original 1731 novel by Abbé Prévost. Created by Kenneth MacMillan in 1974, the English ballet was a delight to watch in its efforts to portray a never-ending spiral bridging two lovers, Manon and Des Grieux, that are tangled in forces beyond their control; finance, feelings and, life and death situations. Yet I have to admit, that I have seen fancier and riskier ballets that show more flair and technique, than this one. There was unmistakably a lot of talent, much leaping, lifts and beautiful movement that ingratiated the stage, as designed by Nicholas Georgiadis, and without putting down the strength and physical prowess of its dancers, I felt, the ballet’s choreography, as a whole, was a level below from the, more, grander and, more, popular ballets.

For Hayward however she was remarkable and proved herself worthy as Manon. Her role as a canary in Sleeping Beauty in the Canari qui chante was distances and miles away from here where we saw a more mature Hayward – this time a woman with the ability to decide her own fate, which ends up being a tragic one. Hayward kept a tiny part of her character innocent nonetheless, within the reaches of a tame lady as oppose to a temptress. She danced on the stage with unlimited passion and valour with her tiny, yet fervent feet and kept, almost, ever accent of her toes and hands movements clear. The role of Manon is never an easy one, whether it be in ballet form or not, it’s the interweaving challenges of facing emotional turmoil, reality versus love for a poor student.

The first scenes of the ballet aren’t as alluring as the love scenes with Manon and Des Grieux’s, (Edward Watson) pas de deux so, be mindful of having to watch the warm up before the main show. The wait is worth it however as we see both lovers run to each other’s body’s unashamedly and uncompromisingly. Lifts in the air are done with confidence and loyalty. These type of rejoicing scenes, which include a lot of hearty embraces and passionate kisses, are the visual epitome of our wants and desires from a lover.

Yet Hayward’s sexual intensity, understated dynamic twirls and spins are decimated at the final scenes where we see her shipped off to America as a prostitute. Hayward makes no excuses and embodies a slow-death in the way she dances with her wretched body as  ghastly Manon. Her gestures are entirely uneven, unsteady, looser and rough, all deliberately done, of course. This is evident in the final pas de deux where Watson carries and shakes her like a doll and tirelessly tries to dance with her until she is a complete dead weight. Ballet requires no words – but from bare movement alone, you can sense death, which in Hayward moved the audience, some to tears, including myself.

As noted, the role of Manon is a tricky one yet Hayward retained the balance throughout as an 18th century mystery girl, who is uplifted by love, misled by her own wrong doings (attention seeking, materialism and financial security), arrested and shipped away into human trafficking. There was a certain allure about Hayward’s Manon, which I found addictive. Perhaps it was her ability to meld together who Manon was in Prévost’s novel, her ballet expertise and unique style as well as MacMillian choreography at the same time. Only someone who had truly understood the text could have done that, evidently Hayward did.

Watson’s performance, on the other hand, was rather off-putting. His steps and arabesques weren’t as tight and sharp as I would have liked. At times, I thought he looked rather nervous when he was doing well. His Des Grieux seemed intimidated by Hayward’s Manon at first, but it was all set aside as soon as she kissed him on the mouth, interestingly enough. Nevertheless they looked good together and off the stage, one could tell they had a dynamic and supportive relationship.

Campbell, Hayward and Watson taking a bow to the audience

Other dancers made concrete contributions. Alexander Campbell as her brother Lescaut was handsome and springy on the stage with no doubt in his mind about his next moves. His drunken adagio was masterful and comedic whilst Thomas Whitehead as Monsieur GM was subtly perverted, but well executed.

The audiences seemed pleased. The orchestra was in good form, yet, in some parts, I would have liked it to be louder for climactic and dramatic emphasis yet this could simply be my personal preference. There are a large number of fascinating débuts for this production. You should check them out. 

The Royal Ballet in Covent Garden current production of Manon ends in November 1st 2014. Click here for details.