The Australian Ballet
Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre
February 21, 22, 28 and March 1 2014
Reviewed by Ruth Ridgway
“I’m sick to death of fairy tales.”
Choreographer Kenneth MacMillan
Manon is no sugary fairy tale with a happy ending. Instead, it is a dramatic tale of love, intrigue, betrayal, corruption, murder, and sex.
The Australian Ballet opened its 2014 season in Brisbane with this three-act ballet choreographed by Kenneth Macmillan. Set in eighteenth-century France and Louisiana, it depicts the downfall of its central character Manon Lescaut. First appearing as a young girl on her way to a convent, she quickly becomes a thief and courtesan, is arrested as a prostitute, and ends as an escaped convict in Louisiana, dying in a swamp. While this sounds grim, there is beauty in this ballet too and even a touch of humour.
In the first night performance, Lucinda Dunn sparkled and charmed with exquisite balance and lightness as the easily led but seductive Manon. Manon and the student des Grieux (Adam Bull) declare their love in the Act 1 bedroom pas de deux, which was happy and hopeful with its playfulness and lovely lifts. In Act 3 Dunn transformed herself into a broken, faltering character who had lost everything. Bull portrayed Manon’s faithful lover as a rather stiff and boring character in the first two acts, and his solos were a little untidy and lacking in energy. However, he was a strong partner for Dunn, especially in the despairing final pas de deux with its many dramatic lifts.
As Manon’s brother Lescaut, Andrew Killian was suitably sleazy and manipulative. Lana Jones was brilliant as Lescaut’s mistress, with phenomenal technique and control. Jones and Killian were very funny in the party scene in Act 2, where their characters drunkenly parody the grace of a classical pas de deux.
Lescaut procures Manon for the powerful and sinister Monsieur GM, played by former Australian Ballet principal Stephen Heathcote. Monsieur GM was the dominant male character in this performance. (He was also the most impressively costumed of the dancers in his extravagant eighteenth-century gentleman’s outfit.)
I’m sure I speak for many longtime ballet fans in saying that it was great to see Heathcote back on the stage – and also Julie da Costa, a former senior artist with the company, who played Monsieur GM’s associate Madame X.
The pas de trois with Manon, Monsieur GM and Lescaut was one of the most intense and sinister, yet at the same time confrontingly beautiful, moments in the ballet. Manon was treated with reverence but cold detachment as a lovely object passed between the men controlling her – one selling, one buying. This image of Manon as a manipulated object passed from man to man is repeated many times through Act 2 in the party scene. The motif of Manon as a passive object returns in the final pas de deux with des Grieux, when she has little strength left and finally dies in his arms.
There is so much happening in this ballet – plotwise and choreographically – that it is easy to be swept away. I did feel though that some of the dancers, perhaps the less experienced, were either reticent about representing vice or evil, or didn’t quite understand how to convey it. The harlots in the party scene, for example, appeared roguish but wholesome, and Brett Simon as the Gaoler did not quite convey the full loathsomeness of this character.
The music by the nineteenth-century French composer Jules Massenet is elegant yet poignant, counterpointing the sinister and violent elements of the ballet. The score does not come from Massenet’s opera Manon, but is made up of 21 other pieces. Conductor Nicolette Fraillon and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra made the evening an enjoyable musical experience.
Check the cast list for coming performances of Manon in Brisbane here.
The Australian Ballet is also performing Imperial Suite in Brisbane on 26 and 27 February. This double bill consists of two classical ballets created in the 1940s: George Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial and Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc.