A chemistry lesson by Cojocaru and Kobborg

Aristotle thought that the essence of theatrical tragedy is the empathic response of the audience who can feel the agony of the protagonists and share their passion.

And I believe that’s exactly what happened last Saturday at the Sydney Opera House when Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg seized the roles of Manon and her lover, Des Grieux, and portrayed the characters so convincingly that they seemed to be falling in love for the very first time before they became entwined in a web of desire and avarice that ends in tragedy.

As guest artists with the Australian Ballet they brought a fresh dimension to the leading roles of Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet that entered the company’s repertoire two decades ago.

Aside from Sylvie Guillem’s performance as a guest artist with the company in 2001, Cojocaru’s was the most engaging Manon I’ve seen in many years. She fully inhabited the role from her first appearance as the eager girl who steps from a carriage into the courtyard of an inn and surveys the surroundings with eyes sparkling with anticipation.

Cojocaru and her fiancé, Kobborg, have danced together since 2001 so the chemistry and trust between them is a given, but familiarity with one another was only one element of their performance in which their acting ability combined with their technical strength and the way in which they varied the pace of their dancing to bring moments of stillness throughout the flow of the choreography.

Kobborg, 41, is now artistic director of the Romanian National Ballet, but his new role and his relatively fewer performances in recent months have not affected his strength – the kind that the role of Des Grieux demands from his first slow solo to the last pas de deux in which Manon leaps and dives like a rag doll in his arms.

His despair at her death was reminiscent of another former Royal Ballet dancer, Jonathan Cope, as well as the Australian Ballet’s Steven Heathcote whose performances as the man left behind after the death of the heroine were always entirely convincing.

Cojocaru’s Manon evolved from an innocent girl, to a passionate lover, to a woman ashamed and fearful of her brother’s repulsive behavior in selling her as a courtesan, to a vamp, to a tease, and finally to a fallen woman, all in incremental and subtle phases and with continual involvement with all the other characters on stage, none more than the men who carry her aloft in the dance combining tension and eroticism before she returns to the side of her protector, Monsieur GM.

As far as I can remember, this is Cojocaru’s third visit to Australia, the first with the Royal Ballet in 2002 and the second when she was guesting with the Hamburg Ballet in 2012 in Brisbane. I hope her two performances in Manon last Saturday and again tomorrow evening, Tuesday 22 April, are not the last in Australia.

Cojocaru, now a principal dancer with English National Ballet, will next dance in Sarasota at a gala titled “Johan Kobborg, Alina Cojocaru & Friends” and will then dance with American Ballet Theatre as a guest artist in La Bayadere, Swan Lake and Giselle.

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Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru, Manon, the Royal Ballet 2003, photo © Bill Cooper

Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg, Manon, the Royal Ballet, photo © Bill Cooper