Nicola and I saw *Manon* performed by the American Ballet Theatre on 6/22/19. Neither of us is a big ballet fanatic (though I’m becoming more of one), but we’re both big fans of Misty Copeland, who was dancing the title role.
*Manon* is a ballet from 1974 by Kenneth MacMillan, set to music by Jules Massenet, based on the 18th century novel *Manon Lescaut* by Abbé Prévost. I’m somewhat familiar with the Massenet opera *Manon* and was naturally expecting the score to be largely made of music from that opera, but MacMillan (strangely) chose not to use any music from *Manon,* instead choosing from 13 other Massenet operas, two oratorios, various orchestral works, and a handful of songs and piano pieces adapted for orchestra. The arrangements and orchestrations were originally done by Leighton Lucas and redone by Martin Yates, and it was impressive how well this Massenet grab bag holds together - - it really sounds like it was all written as one piece, and perfectly suited to the drama and its particular moments.
The ballet itself was fantastic, the storytelling done through the dancing, there was very little “here I am performing this impressive number” like we saw so much of in *Swan Lake,* it was all very closely linked to the drama. My favorite moment in the choreography was a moment in the big romantic pas de deux for Manon and her boyfriend Des Grieux in the second act. At one point the music took an interesting turn, the harmony became unusually rich and intense. MacMillan made this a moment where the dancers stood still and looked at each other, he let the music carry the drama. That was touching.
Here's a clip from a Royal Ballet Covent Garden production. The moment that I love is around 2:30, though in this production they're kissing each other rather than standing still (a suitable choice):
Another interesting moment - - Manon’s brother shows up drunk at a party and the pas de deux he does with his girlfriend has many wonky moments, due to him being drunk. But we only know that they’re wonky because we’ve seen them done so beautifully by other dancers earlier in the ballet. It’s like the ballet is being a ballet and also teaching you about ballet. I thought that was considerate.
The story is not a pretty one. Manon might not be literature’s first hooker with a heart of gold, but she was definitely among the first. MacMillan does not shy away from the creepy and disturbing elements of the story, in fact he seems to highlight them. There’s a moment in the second act when Manon’s boyfriend goes off to work and she’s visited by her brother and a wealthy gentleman who wants to acquire her. She puts them off at first but changes her mind when she sees the clothes and jewels that he’s brought with her. The dance she does with the two of them is one of the dramatic high points of the ballet, completely comminicated through the dancing - - the brother slides her onto the wealthy gentleman and he fondles her and (gasp) kisses her foot. This unsettling business transaction (or something like it) happens many times over the course of the brief scene, and the music remains lovely and polished the entire time. This is a Shostakovich effect: the sparkle interacting with the stink.
Here's a video of that scene from a documentary about 1970s Russian ballerina superstar Natalia Makarova. The brother is the younger guy wearing a jacket, the wealthy gentleman is somewhat older, not wearing a jacket, and wearing a more elaborate wig. You can't hear the music very well, but you get the creepiness:
One interesting distinction between this performance and the one we saw: in the Makarova production, Manon seems completely willing. In the ABT production, Copeland danced the same choreography, but seemed to convey more apprehension.
Copeland was extraordinary. This was a much better role for her than *Swan Lake,* it’s a real acting part, which is her strength. I can see why Makarova said this was the best role of her career, it’s a real tour de force for an expressive dancer. Cory Stearns was her boyfriend (Des Grieux) and he did a lovely job, though his role doesn’t have the depth or complexity of Manon. His role was less convincing, more pose-bound.
One of my favorite things about going to the ballet is the bows. I’m sure bows in a big opera company are just as steeped in stagy tradition, but I’m so used to that, i barely notice it. Ballet bows are a delight, they’re so theatrical, so (to use a Nicola word) extra.