MacMillan took his narrative from Abbé Prévost’s 18th Century French novel Manon Lescaut, and the Massenet opera based on it, and set his ballet to a special arrangement of the transporting Massenet score.
Set in a Paris where squalor and wealth perpetually jostle against each other, the tragic story follows a pretty country girl who desires romantic love but is corrupted by sex and money in the big city.
Stopping off at Paris on the way to a convent, Manon falls in love with a poor student, Des Grieux. Their first pas de deux, translating the freshness and abandon of intense first love, is a wonder to behold.
Happiness is all too fleeting. Sold to the wealthy Monsieur G.M. by her greedy brother, Lescaut, Manon is only too easily corrupted by the promises of jewels and an entry into society. When she eventually succumbs to Des Grieux entreaties to return to him, Manon concocts a clumsy plot to rob the old man. She is arrested and deported to the then French colony of Louisiana, where Des Grieux follows her.
Manon soon succumbs to swamp fever in a final scene that leaves Des Grieux bereft and, if properly danced, not a dry eye in the house.
With MacMillan's acute psychological observation translated into graphic and powerful choreography, Manon is as mesmerising in its intimate pas de deux, such as the pure first love encounter between Manon and Des Grieux (above), as in its bustling ensembles, such as the Act II scene set in the debauched high end brothel where Manon is being paraded as Monsieur GM's latest prized acquisition.
The ballet requires convincing acting in all its principal roles. So Manon must convey contrasting qualities: she is a shallow girl, whose ability to love is trumped by her wish for riches, but she must convince us that her failings do not just justify her horrific fate. She must be able to create real pathos in the final scene.
Des Grieux is a more straightforward character: the romantic poet who's prepared to sacrifice himself for his true love; but the role requires solid and absolutely reliable partnering, particularly in the final scene where her fever and his desperation combine in a reckless pas de deux full of throws and breath-taking lifts.
Manon's brother Lescaut must combine the ability to amuse, for example in a long, difficult drunken scene, with the revulsion generated by his amoral, greedy character.
And in the hands of a consummate performer such as Principal Character Dancer Gary Avis, Monsieur GM acquires depths of reptilian perversion.
MacMillan's Manon allows enough room for different dancers to find their own interpretation of the main characters; and this season most of the Royal Ballet's Principals (as well as a couple of Guest Principals) will get the opportunity to make these enticing characters their own.
The pairing of Natalia Osipova’s Manon with ABT Principal David Hallberg’s Des Grieux will probably sell out quickly. However, many of the other casts are mouth-watering, too: on past experience, we would highlight Marianela Nuñez and La Scala's Robert Bolle, with newly promoted Principal Marcelino Sambé as Lescaut, Yasmine Naghdi as his long suffering mistress, and Gary Avis as Monsieur GM.
Whichever cast you choose, you're in for a treat: MacMillan's Manon will make you laugh, and cry, and marvel, as all good ballets should.
|What||The Royal Ballet, Manon|
|Where||Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
02 Oct 19 – 06 Nov 19, 19:30 mats Sat 5 Oct 12.00; 19 Oct 13:30 Dur.: 2 hours 50 mins inc two intervals
|Website||Click here to book|