Edward Watson's pulling out left the first night to newcomer Steven McRae but he had a very experienced Manon in Leanne Benjamin. This is how they were seen by the critics.
LEANNE BENJAMIN – “one of the most painfully involving Manons imaginable”
Times – Leanne Benjamin, queen of the Royal Ballet's Manons. Her dancing was a little pallid even if her courtesan's heart was clearly torn between love for Des Grieux and lust for Mr G. M.'s expensive baubles.
Telegraph – Leanne Benjamin is not a perfect Manon… Yet what repeatedly flashes like lightning in some unforeseen but spectacular storm – and ultimately makes this one of the most painfully involving Manons imaginable – is the spark between the two Australian-born leads, as her Manon's lustrous, womanly knowingness collides with the ingénu devotion of his Des Grieux. It's a captivating sight to witness her usher him into the work even as her more experienced character introduces his to earthier pursuits. Despite my cavils, Benjamin generally dances nimbly and with emotional candour, and her faith in McRae's partnering appears to blossom as the story progresses. By Act 2, she's tumbling through the air into his arms as if nothing else matters, and her broken doll of Act 3 is pitch-perfect, almost too painful to watch..
Independent – One of the Royal Ballet's most experienced ballerinas, Benjamin dances Manon with eager freshness. She's pulled this way or that by the claims of love and money, but we always see Benjamin's Manon making choices. Persuaded to leave Des Grieux, she hugs the bedclothes for a moment, then turns away: decision made. In the brothel scene, Benjamin dances with extraordinary lightness, showing off her legs and feet with flirtatious precision. Passed from hand to hand, her Manon is both passive and working it.
Arts Desk – Benjamin's Manon is an enchantingly cool hand from the moment she dashes on. Tiny, curly-haired, urchin-bodied, she reads the role exceptionally intelligently: she amused me with her aplomb, and she gave a hauntingly broken death scene. She doesn't do the Marilyn Monroe-type sexbomb – Benjamin is more of a young Becky Sharp, knowing the moves required to make her way in the world, learned in all likelihood directly from her brother, Lescaut, who is a conman and a pimp who would sell his grandmother as well as his sister to make a few sous.
STEVEN McRAE – “the most touching, urgently believable young Des Grieux I've ever seen”
Times – McRae became a principal last season and has since been acquiring leading roles with unbridled enthusiasm. He looks exceptionally young, which can be a drawback in the more princely repertoire, but since Des Grieux is an innocent moth drawn into a deadly flame of passion McRae here makes innocence work for him. Des Grieux's first solo comes as the penniless student meets Manon at a seedy inn outside Paris and is eager to woo her on the spot. MacMillan's choreography can present a nightmare of control, but McRae stretched his high arabesques perfectly and shaped his phrases with such command that emotions were allowed to flow freely. Indeed, control was the mantra for his dancing, so much so that one wished for a hint of recklessness to throw him off balance. And then in Act III, when Manon and Des Grieux are driven to despair in the Louisiana swamps, came the ferocity we had been waiting for.
Telegraph – After an eloquent but slightly hesitant Act 1 solo, his mastery of technique is as complete as his immersion in character. There's a very special Candide-like innocence, youthful ardour and moral rectitude about his Des Grieux, whether arcing through the air in his agony at Manon's faithlessness or merely sitting stock still, his hands palpably sweating during the ill-fated card game. His response to MacMillan's choreography is constantly as articulate as the astonishing steps themselves – and boy, can McRae turn. He delivers Des Grieux's final romantic plea after the party, and panicked spins away from the gaoler's corpse, faster, more gracefully and more affectingly than anyone I've ever seen.
Independent – McRae makes his demanding first solo look easy, moving through its long phrases and off-balance turns with lyrical simplicity. His dancing is gorgeous, with open line and speedy footwork, and shaped with an urgent sense of drama. McRae's partnership with Benjamin is ardent and assured.
Arts Desk – it's no disrespect whatever to Watson's outstanding talents if I say that McRae, who usually appears to have the greatest of confidence in his own abilities, became one of the most touching, urgently believable young Des Grieux I've ever seen… And from the dancing point of view, McRae unfolded the character's beseeching, hopeful arabesques with an ease that cannot have come easily – this is a killer of a role, written on the abilities of Anthony Dowell who had a unique command of balance, and most Des Grieux wobble like jellies in those achingly slow solos. And it's no disrespect to Benjamin that in last night's show Des Grieux was the one I rooted for, felt most distressed for.
Photo: Leanne Benjamin as Manon & Steven McRae as Des Grieux – Johan Persson
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.