When the Royal Ballet touches down at the Wang Theatre this month, quash any visions you might have of tea-and-crumpets decorum. The Royal, still most identified with legendary ballerina Margot Fonteyn and choreographer Frederick Ashton, celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. And for its four Boston performances — June 15-17, presented by the Bank of America Celebrity Series and the Wang Center for the Performing Arts — this huge, world-class company has chosen a real bodice ripper: the revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s 1974 Manon.
Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta
You think poverty and desperation in New Orleans is news? Wait till you see Manon, the conniving Parisian courtesan, reduced to degradation in the Louisiana swamplands and dying in the arms of Des Grieux, the student she once scorned. Crime, prostitution, betrayal: the story is replete with flawed characters and dark intimations. MacMillan’s choreography is overwrought in ways that read as sensual, with acrobatic lifts and swooning pirouettes — but this is also a ballet about how a woman uses her sexual allure as a bargaining chip, to maneuver within a set of constrained choices.
The title role is a juicy diva role that a dewy ingenue just can’t pull off. Manon’s mix of hauteur and desperation calls for a ballerina with acting chops and some life experience in her pointe shoes. Boston will see Spanish-born Tamara Rojo partnered by Carlos Acosta, whom some will remember fondly from guest spots with Boston Ballet. Rojo herself danced Odette/Odile in the Royal’s 2001 Boston performances of Swan Lake, and she once described her own reading of Manon as a young woman who needs the money — the furs, the jewels — her rich admirer lavishes on her. Tiny Romanian-born ballerina Alina Cojocaru, who trained and danced lead roles in Ukraine, will be partnered by Johan Kobborg, and Zenaida Yanowsky, sister of Boston Ballet principal dancer Yury, dances with Kenneth Greve.
Secondary roles in big story ballets usually fly under the marketing radar, but when former Boston Ballet principal Sarah Lamb dances Lescaut’s Mistress on Thursday and Saturday evenings, she can expect a lot of friends and fans in the audience. A Boston native, Lamb was the star pupil of Madame Tatiana Legat, and in Boston Ballet’s 2003 production of Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée, she danced Lise to Acosta’s Colas. At the end of the 2003–2004 season, she accepted a position as first soloist with the Royal; at the end of this past May, she was promoted to principal, just in time for these performances on her home turf.
Manon must be in the air, since American Ballet Theatre is opening its own revival of the same opulent Nicholas Georgiadis production in New York June 19, with four different ballerinas in the title role. For those with a taste for making comparisons, Manon is the flavor of the month.
ROYAL BALLET | MANON | June 15, 7:30 pm; June 16, 8 pm; June 19, 2 + 8 pm | Wang Theatre, 270 Tremont St, Boston | $45-$95 | 800.447.7400