Not many people have the chance to see the 3 act ballet, ‘Manon’ simply because not many regional companies arround the US are doing it. It isn’t your Cinderella, your Midsummer Night’s Dream- with princesses or fairies or a Disney movie version. It isn’t at all family friendly and therefore not a sure ticket seller. Unless of course, we’re talking about American Ballet Theatre performing a rare-and-scandalous ballet with Roberto Bolle and Julie Kent in the lead roles. Should this be the case, people will fly across the country to see it. And by people, I mean me.
‘Manon’ is based on the Abbe Prevost novel of the same title with music by Jules Massenet (using none of the Opera). Original choreography and direction came from Sir Kenneth MacMillian. Here is a quick Cliff Notes, Bodies Never Lie-style- on the plot for those unfamiliar:
Boy sees Girl. Boy fall for Girl. Girl steals random old man’s money and runs away with boy only to be tracked by her often-drunk brother and yet another rich old guy interested in pretty girl. Girl then leaves ditches boy in favor of rich man despite love for boy and tells boy to cheat at cards at upcoming party so that boy wins new rich man’s money. Boy is caught cheating and he and Girl rush away. Rich man has girl arrested as a prostitute and woops, kills newly-minted hooker’s brother. Girl is sent to America with a bunch of other ‘ladies-of-the-night’, followed by Boy. Jailer also falls for girl but is killed by stalker boy. Girl and Boy run off to the Louisiana swamp and girl dies.
Why more companies, aren’t doing this over ‘the Nutcracker’, I will never know. Sounds like a holiday classic to me.
I could watch ABT’s June 2nd evening performance of this masterpiece and it would feel like Christmas every time. The Massenet score is incredibly beautiful, rich, and cinematic and orchestration and arrangement from Martin Yates served the material well. Lighting by Christina Gianelli was masterfully done, creating environments eerie and or intimate that alternated between pockets of shadow and reflected every detailed costume borrowed from Houston Ballet. MacMilan’s original choreography begs litter tampering but it does require phenomenal technical ability from the performers. ABT did not disappoint.
Dancing the male lead of Des Grieux, Roberto Bolle was exquisite in a way that almost seemed feminine, due in turn to both choreography of his solos and finesse of line. His opening solo was a slow adagio, rare for a male variation, and showed less traditional male bravado and more of a gracious, gentle quality through controlled promenades, deep bows to Manon, and held balances. It bordered on a reserved feeling and came off more sweet than seductive. Passion seemed to build through the ballet as the character took darker turns. Throughout the performance, Bolle was a believable character but almost unbelievable in terms of ballet technique. One particular moment of marvel was a dead profile enveloppe in contraction devant with the downstage leg through passe to arabesque releve, repeated three times, each arabesque increasingly slightly in height, extension of the chest towards the sky, and balance. In such a step, there is no room for less than perfect turn out through the passe, the lifting of the leg to the arabesque. Throughout the entire performance, Bolle was nothing less than perfect.
(I’ve clearly been drooling over Bolle for years)
Equally impressive was Daniil Simkin, as Lescaut, showing his famed-technical brilliance along with a wonderful sense of humor during Lescaut’s drunken scenes. How he manages to at one moment jump like a rocket into a cabriole devant almost hit himself in the face with his own leg midair and the next, stumble over his own feet, clumsily partner an oblivious mistress, and fall to the ground is just hilarious. Slap-stick buffoonery is even funnier coming from one of the most gifted dancers on the stage today. I’ve occasionally heard stories of what it was like to watch Baryshnikov during his hey-day, knowing that genius was taking place before your eyes, and I can only imagine it’s something like watching Simkin.
The men overall in the performance should be praised. The three gentlemen, danced by Joseph Gorak, Blaine Hoven, and Eric Tamm were wonderful in incredibly difficult turn sequences including double attitude derriere into passe, straight into step-over pirouettes (or lame ducks, or whatever term is popular these days). There were tiny musical differences in a few moments for these three early on- a faille saute arabesque sequence for one-, but they seemed to unify better as the performance went on and then each was stunning individually, even more impressive collectively. ‘Manon’ also has what looks like very tiresome, intricate partnering for the men and everything was seamless. One particular moment was a diagonal downstage with Manon held aloft, diving headfirst towards the stage and swooping back up into the air like a serpent slithering towards prey. Lifts such as swinging held by arms and legs between two men, or Manon’s assemble double tour caught midair, and passed down the line were unusual, not your typical press, and executes with perfection.
And what of the women? The corps were wonderful, sensual, and lively. The surprising disappointment was in Stella Abrera as Lescaut’s Mistress. While her every step was astounding, it all seemed calculated. There was something of this particular performance that did not seem to reach her eyes or radiate from her soul. There was one moment when Abrera and the female harlot corps were performing a simple balance entournant around a circle and each of the corps women seemed to let their neck relax a bit more, let the head swing, giving the very classroom step a bit of verve. The incredible dancing, double piquee turns in a low extended devant that carried into a fan to high a la second still on releve*, somehow did nothing to bring the story to life, much as it pains me to say so.
More Stella Abrera here (I guess I liked her in this performance, and I’ve always liked her in this add)
Manon herself, danced by Julie Kent, is really, if you think about, an unlikable, selfish, stupid character. However, there was no choice but to love someone so delicate, charming, beautiful. In the first act, there was one moment when Abrera actually was dancing in the center and I thought, ‘is that Manon? No, I just have the feeling I’ll know when it’s Julie Kent’- whom I have been a fan of for years, but have never actually seen perform live. (Watching Center Stage at every sleepover between the ages of twelve and fifteen doesn’t count does it?)
Even McDonalds reminds me of Center Stage. Don’t judge.
Kent did not always hit 180 with her penchee. Her extension, while amazing, was not that of Svetlana. I don’t recall ridiculous amounts of pirouettes. What I recall was sharing the feeling of youthful joy when she bounded post stunning pas de deux onto the bed in act 1, the temptation that came with the heavy necklace placed around her pale throat by Monsieur G.M., the shame when she was imprisoned, and the heartbreak of her death. Her line is just perfect and her feet are so amazingly arched I wonder how she can perform many of the things she did on them- a partnered off-balance coupe turn with one hand for instance. Those feet were always pointed, even when she was being dragged on the ground only to be pushed upright again atop those arched pedestals. In every fiber of her being, she has presence, the awe-inspiring perfect presence of a ballerina, even if the character is a rather despicable one.
Hard to say if Manon was the ballet I’ve most enjoyed seeing in a very long time because it was danced, staged, lit so excellently or simply for the novelty of it. I may perhaps need to see it again to determine an answer. Would anyone like to buy me a ticket?
* I know that the description of this step makes very little sense. It defies description. I could perhaps attempt to do it and tape it but only if someone prepares a big ice pack for my hamstrings and a warm, soft something for my ego.