Most narrative ballets take flights of fancy with sylphs, swans, or Nutcracker princes. The late Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Manon, fully recognized as a 20th century masterpiece, takes the audience on a different, but equally rewarding, journey. The ballet's story details the sweeping, dramatic trajectory of its all-too-human heroine and her lover against the backdrop of 18th century France. Manon ushers in Houston Ballet's 40th anniversary season in a splendid production that also honors MacMillan's influence on the company.
When MacMillan premiered his full-length Manon at London's Royal Opera House in 1974, the ballet created somewhat of a scandal. Filled with morally questionable characters who engage in gambling, erotic duets, shady dealings, fickle behavior, murder, and prostitution, it represented the antithesis of fairytale ballets with happily-ever-after endings. Thirty-five years later, Manon, set to an orchestrated compilation of Jules Massenet's compositions, has received acclaim as a masterwork that frankly explores human weaknesses and their consequences. The combination of costume drama and magnificent dancing creates a wonderful marriage of ballet at its grandest.
The Heroine Goes from Convent to Bordello
The story of Manon originated with the French author Abb_ Pr_vost's 18th century romantic novel, L'Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, which tells the tale of Manon, a young woman whose charm overwhelms her character. The novel inspired two composers, Giacomo Puccini and Massenet, to write classic operas, the stirring Manon Lescaut and the melodious Manon, respectively. In the storyline, the three primary men who revolve around Manon are her licentious brother Lescaut, an impoverished student named Des Grieux, and Monsieur G.M., a wealthy Parisian.
The ballet begins in the courtyard of an inn near Paris, where the sixteen-year-old Manon is on her way to a convent school. Her brother, however, strikes a deal with Monsieur G.M. to place Manon in the patron's favor _ _for a financial sum. The naÇve Des Grieux notices Manon, and they almost instantly fall in love. Together, they flee in a carriage to Paris. But Lescaut tracks them down and persuades Manon, who has a weakness for fine gowns and jewelry, to abandon Des Grieux for the rich Monsieur G.M.
At a Parisian gambling house and bordello, Manon cavorts with her admirers, until confronted by Des Grieux. Her affections waver between her rich patron and her ardent lover, until she persuades Des Grieux to cheat at a card game with Monsieur G.M. The older man discovers the scheme and has Manon arrested as a prostitute. In an ensuing scuffle, Lescaut is stabbed to death.
The last act takes place in New Orleans, then a penal colony for the French. Manon, deported after her arrest, is followed by Des Grieux. A sadistic jailer tries to rape Manon, but the enraged Des Grieux kills him. To escape capture, Manon and her lover run to the nearby swamps. In her delirium, Manon recalls the montage of missteps in her past. In the end, all her material dreams melt in favor of her love for Des Grieux. She dies in his arms.
Wealth and Poverty
Kenneth MacMillan had experimented with new ways of expanding the three-act ballet by probing the complexities of the characters in his choreography. In an interview with The New Yorker, MacMillan described his fascination with Manon's quirky, self-destructive personality. "You have a sixteen-year-old heroine who is beautiful and absolutely amoral, and a hero who is corrupted by her and becomes a cheat, a liar, and a murderer. Not exactly your conventional ballet plot, is it?" said MacMillan. "One of the intriguing things about Pr_vost's Manon is that there doesn't seem to be any logic in the way she thinks. One minute, she tells Des Grieux that she loves him, the next minute she's deceiving him with an elderly count. My clue to her behavior is her background of poverty. Manon is not so much afraid of being poor as ashamed of being poor." (It's also worth noting that in 18th century France, the contrast of wealth and poverty was about to ignite a bloody revolution).
Another significant reason for the ballet's success as a beloved modern classic lies in MacMillan's genius for choreographing breathtaking pas de deux. As with his great Romeo and Juliet, the choreographer knew how to make two people embody love, rage, envy, and desperation through the glorious physicality of dancing. MacMillan originally choreographed Manon for The Royal Ballet stars Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell, and their onstage chemistry is legendary. The daredevil, wind-swept nature of MacMillan's duets (like Manon's bedroom pas de deux) symbolizes ballet at its most romantic.
As with all of MacMillan's ballets, the d_cor and costumes capture the period: in this case, the grandeur and decadence of the French Regency era. English Designer Peter Farmer, who has created lavish productions for Houston Ballet for 35 years including Giselle and Madame Butterfly, has created a panorama of sets and costumes that allow fantasy and reality to intersect.
A Mainstay of the International Repertoire
Manon has become one of the most beloved ballets in The Royal Ballet's roster of dramatic works. As a mainstay of the international repertoire, it has made its way into the most renowned ballet companies, including the Mariinsky Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, The Australian Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet, and The National Ballet of Canada.
MacMillan, who was hailed by The New York Times as "one of the century's great choreographers," formed a close bond with Houston Ballet. In 1983, Houston Ballet's former artistic director Ben Stevenson, asked MacMillan to serve as the company's artistic associate, a position he held until his death in 1992. In addition to Manon, Houston Ballet has performed four other MacMillan ballets: Song of the Earth, Gloria, Elite Syncopations, and Solitaire. In doing so, the company has become noted for its ability to make the works their own and to develop a strong dramatic flair.
Manon combines all the necessary ingredients to intrigue and enchant audiences. Brilliant dancing, lavish stage settings, Massenet's emotionally sweeping music, and a psychodrama full of unusual twists make for a great recipe. It also provides a stunning opener for Houston Ballet's 2009-10 season.
For further information on the 40th Season, visit Houston Ballet.
Joseph Carman is a Contributing Editor to Dance Magazine and the author of Round About the Ballet.