Thoroughly Modern Manon

Classic Arts Features   Thoroughly Modern Manon
Manon, the sex kitten of classical ballet, is back. Allen Robertson shows us why after almost thirty years, she has lost none of her power to shock.

The night she was born there were several assassination attempts on her life. Fortunately, the conservative, thoroughly shocked London critics weren't able to deliver any fatal blows. Now, 28 years later, she has become one of the most famous: or, more accurately, infamous: women in the world. She has stretched her domain from England to St. Petersburg, from Paris to Houston. This year, ten years after the death of her original choreographer, Kenneth MacMillan, there will be no less than a dozen productions of Manon around the globe.

She is undoubtedly the sexiest, most dangerous heroine in all of ballet, an amoral kitten whose claws are as lethal as her charms are alluring. Before Manon hit the stage no ballerina had ever expressed sexual appetites so openly. Even the excessively overt Japanese bride in George Balanchine's Bugaku (1963) was legitimately celebrating her nuptials. Manon, on the other hand, is impure libido in full flood. She's a force of nature who will not allow anyone or anything to stand in the way of what she thinks she wants.

The problem is that the material wants of her mind and the emotional needs of her heart turn out to be two very contradictory things. So, her craven lust for diamonds and furs means she must turn her back on the one man she truly loves. While her penniless student lover, Des Grieux, gives up everything to have her, she gives him up to have everything.

MacMillan rubs our noses in Manon's acquisitive lechery, dares us to be hypocritical enough to look down on her. And, since he has provided her with some of the most ravishing choreography ever created, we can't do it. Instead, he makes us accomplices in her desire to have it all without having to pay the price of her transgressions.

When Manon's brother, Lescaut, lures the oily, old, aristocratic and fabulously wealthy Monsieur G.M. into Manon's garret love-nest and encourages him to drape her in jewels (in exchange for a healthy fee), MacMillan leaves us on the horns of a dilemma as acute as Manon's own. We in the audience alternate between wanting to cheer, "Go, girl," and hiss, "You fool."

It is this ambiguous portrait of a heroine that gives the ballet its edge: hard, uncompromising, and, most importantly, modern. Manon thinks she can get away with it. Of course she can't. The powers that be won't allow her that luxury. She fails dismally in her attempts to double-cross those who are footing the bills, the men who are corrupting her: never mind how very willing she is to be corrupted.

Power, insists MacMillan, will always win. It is that very realization that puts us on Manon's side. She draws us to her. No matter how we disapprove of her actions, we can't help championing her double-dealing games. She wants to take this corrupt society for all its worth.

Unfortunately, she just isn't clever enough to beat them at their own game. In one fell swoop she plummets from the most glamorous courtesan in Paris to a branded whore shipped off to the French penal colony of Louisiana. Tossed on the scrap heap, Manon pays the ultimate price. She ends up degraded, deported, and dead. The final bitter irony is her knowledge that the love of Des Grieux has been the only true and constant emotion in her brief, peripatetic existence.

Looking back to the opening night in 1974, described by the choreographer's widow, artist Deborah MacMillan, as "a disaster," we can see how much the world has changed. "I think Manon was ahead of its time in daring to be 'adult,'" she says. "Today it isn't so shocking, but back then it deeply offended many people. But it has found its audience, so much so, in fact, that it is now Kenneth's most performed ballet. Sex and death: you can't miss."

When Houston first staged in 1994, the production featured new designs by Peter Farmer who had collaborated with MacMillan on several occasions. Before Sir Kenneth's death: backstage during a Covent Garden performance of his ballet Maylerling in 1992: he had decided that it was time for Manon to be revamped.

According to Lady MacMillan, who is now the custodian of his entire body of work, there were several reasons behind Sir Kenneth's intentions. First, he had wanted the Houston production to be something special, but he also knew that the original designs were both impractical and prohibitively expensive when it came to touring. "Kenneth didn't want the future of Manon jeopardized, and a ballet only lives if it's performed. It doesn't exist otherwise.

"More importantly," says Lady MacMillan, "designs can date very quickly. No matter what period the ballet is set in, most designs tend to reflect the fashion of their day. Just look at the hairstyles in Doctor Zhivago, for instance, and you see immediately that it dates from the 1960s.

"Kenneth had no qualms about having things redesigned. He was always making little visual changes. He was always saying, 'I want to move it on.' I think that Peter's designs did that, and they tour like a dream. Most of the companies that add Manon to their reps, including the Kirov, now opt for the Houston designs."

Houston Ballet was special to MacMillan. Though he loathed flying and was already far from well, Sir Kenneth agreed to accept Ben Stevenson's invitation to serve as Houston Ballet's Artistic Associate. He took up the position in 1989 and remained connected with the company until his death.

"He loved the fact that there was such a terrific school in Houston," says his widow. "He liked very much that culture of nurturing through a training process. The style of what Kenneth choreographed is very, very important. It's not just the steps. And he trusted Houston to look after his ballets properly.

"In the end, Kenneth really liked the Houston company because it reminded him of the company he knew here in London," says Lady MacMillan. "A higher compliment than that could not be paid."

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