The American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House on Saturday, June 24.
I don’t have much use for this sort of story: A beautiful, virginal young woman, seduced by an unscrupulous man, falls into disgrace and dies tragically — but beautifully, always beautifully — as penance for her sins of the flesh. It’s so eye-rollingly Victorian and dull, truly dull, because the woman is inevitably a passive figure, and any story with a passive central figure is going to be dull.
But perhaps only dull from a literary or philosophic viewpoint. Manon taught me that, when it comes to choreography, a passive central figure can be just as beautiful as the Victorians would dream. I might have rolled my eyes at the dated histrionics of the story, but I held my breath at the loveliness of the dancing.
Based (loosely) on a novel that scandalized eighteenth-century France, the ballet Manon is the story of a materialistic young woman who allows her brother, Lescaut, to talk her into being a rich man’s mistress instead of a poor man’s lover. At least that’s what the program synopsis says. Choreographer Kenneth MacMillan suggests something darker. The dancing implies that wealthy Monsieur G.M. isn’t so much looking for a mistress as for a pretty new fille de joie for his high-class brothel. Regardless, Manon would be better off with the penniless but devoted Des Grieux.
On Saturday night, Julie Kent danced the role of Manon, with Jose Manuel Carreño as the amorous Des Grieux. Kent is celebrating her twentieth anniversary with the American Ballet Theatre, which is difficult to believe: Her dancing is fresh and airy, as youthful as ever. Her pointe work is so delicate that she seems to float weightlessly over the stage, and her extraordinary flexibility lends itself to MacMillan’s fluid, sensuous choreography. Kent’s back arch alone — dramatic and extreme — conveys such passion that I almost bought into Manon’s twisted romance.
The production, which debuted in the 1970s, doesn’t try to make Manon into a strong figure. Instead MacMillan incorporates the character’s pliability and passivity into the choreography, resulting in some gorgeous dancing, I admit. Intricate lifts, for example, are a staple of the ballet; Manon seems to spend as much time off the ground as on it. In one memorable scene, Monsieur G.M. and Lescaut pass her back and forth in a sort of elegant, mid-air cartwheel. The movement is ornate yet seamless — not to mention a striking way to indicate how much control the two men have over the easily manipulated girl.
The ballet is set to a hodgepodge of music by Jules Massenet with mixed results. The love theme for Manon and Des Grieux is gentle and beautifully orchestrated. Dark, somewhat grim music provides a dramatic sonic backdrop for the scene in which Manon is passed from partner to partner in the brothel. Unfortunately, much of the score is forgettable and generic, and occasionally it is wildly inappropriate for the action onstage. The most egregious example comes in the third act when MacMillan’s choreography clearly indicates that prison guard is forcing Manon to perform oral sex. The dancers are pantomiming rape, and yet the music accompanying the disturbing scene is placid and colorless — a bizarre disconnect.
Despite my quarrels with the music and the story, the dancing was invariably exquisite. Carreño proved to be an excellent partner for Kent, matching her extension and spinning and lifting her through position after position with seemingly effortless grace. Also impressive was Marcelo Gomes, who played Lescaut. His “drunken” dance — shifting his balance as he leapt, landing with hands smacking the floor, and then vaulting himself into the air once more — was breathtaking.
And in the end, I don’t go to the ballet for the narrative, of course. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for dramatic tension and emotional heft, but a poor storyline isn’t a deal breaker. With Kent, Carreño and the rest of the company bringing such skill and passion to the stage, it was easy to forget just how stupid Manon really is.