Manon: a tale of coins, pointes and conflicts interpreted by a new generation

In 1978, Kenneth MacMillan, with his wife and daughter, travelled to Australia on a working holiday. During a two-day visit to Adelaide, the choreographer was in touch with the Australian Ballet’s Peggy van Praagh, who had returned for a second time to the role of artistic director, to discuss some of his ballets that the company might take into its repertoire.

As Jann Parry wrote in her biography of MacMillan, the talks came to nothing. There was no agreement about two of his ballets that the company might take, Rite of Spring and The Invitation. MacMillan also offered his (four year old) ballet, Manon, but, Parry wrote, the offer was rejected by the company’s then administrator, Peter Bahen, “on the grounds that operas bearing the heroine’s name were not well known to the Australian public, so that the ballet would not attract audiences”.

That seems a strange decision and surely did not apply to the operas Carmen and Madame Butterfly.

It took a further 26 years for Manon to enter the Australian Ballet’s repertoire.

The ballet premiered in Melbourne in February 1994 and has since been a staple of the company’s repertoire, as it is within at least 15 companies around the world.

Twenty years after the Australian Ballet’s first Manon, the company opened its 2014 Sydney season with the ballet on 3 April 2014. This marked the company’s 144th performance of the ballet. Lucinda Dunn danced as Manon, Adam Bull as Des Grieux, and Steven Heathcote as Monsieur GM.

Heathcote knows the ballet inside out having danced the role of Lescaut and Des Grieux from the 1990s. His performance as Des Grieux was captured in Adelaide in 1995 when he danced with Justine Summers as Manon and you can still buy a DVD of that performance.

I’ve seen many performances of Manon over the last 20 years, including Sylvie Guillem’s as a guest with the Australian Ballet in 2001 but it’s still intriguing to see how different artists interpret the leading roles and to realise that there are many aspects of the ballet that I’ve overlooked before.

This new season in Sydney led me back to the creation of the ballet that’s recalled in Jann Parry’s biography, and to a few new ideas about the ballet itself.

Two recurring aspects of Manon are the influence of money (and avarice) in the plot and the frequent appearance of pointe shoes as a symbol of desire.

In the very first scene, a rabble of beggars pounces on coins thrown to the ground. A watch is stolen. Bags of money are thrust by Lescaut into the hands of Des Grieux. A sparkling necklace is snapped around the neck of Manon by Monsieur GM. The Gaoler duplicates the abusive seduction with a diamond bracelet, a card game is played for financial reward and the services of harlots are exchanged for money.

Then there’s the shoe. Did MacMillan have a foot fetish? Pointe shoes in Manon are an indication of sexual power. Skirts are lifted and the pointe is shown as a seductive object. A choreographic motif for Manon is a ronde de jambe, with her working foot teasing the onlookers. Monsieur GM strokes Manon’s pointe shoed foot as she lies on a bed. As Manon is carried aloft by many suitors her skirt falls back and she raises one leg aloft and points her foot like an exclamation mark or a declaration of power.

The latest viewing reminds me how well MacMillan’s choreography depicts the seduction of Manon in the threading pas de trois of GM, Lescaut and Manon and how she herself seduces each man who touches her in the bordello scene.

Manon’s sensuous arms are also used to indicate desire especially in the bedroom scene. MacMillan, it seems, had an obsession about the inside of a woman’s upper arm.

So what doesn’t work? In my opinion there’s too much faffing about for the Harlots at the party and, for des Grieux, too much standing around and looking as moody as Prince Siegfried before he encounters Odette.

Among the pleasures of Manon are the score to Massenet’s music and the 2011 re-orchestration by the conductor, Martin Yates, and the way in which a new generation of dancers establishes their own ways of interpreting their characters.

As Lescaut, Andrew Killian, was not the malevolent conniver that is often portrayed, but more of a lad – a man who might not be the best choice as best man at a wedding – but a lot of fun, nevertheless. Lescaut’s mistress, Lana Jones, was in fine form in her Act II solo which she danced with the over-the-top manner of the ballerinas in Gala Performance, all flashing eyes and “look at me” sparkle.

Whenever he’s on stage, Heathcote draws one’s attention like a particularly powerful magnet as does Olga Tamara, as Madame X. Her substantial career as an actor as well as a dancer is clear.

Lucinda Dunn as Manon maintained the chaste manner of her initial virginal appearance into a restrained and rather ladylike demeanour in the bedroom scene but as a woman transformed by the thrill of money and power, she subtly metamorphosed into a glamorous vixen by the time she made her stunning entrance in the bordello scene.

As Des Grieux, the long legged Adam Bull was an excellent partner in a role that makes enormous demands, from the first, very slow and controlled solo, to the arduous partnering work in many pas de deux.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen as sinister a Gaoler as Brett Simon who has the unpleasant task of forcing Manon to fellate him (how embarrassing can this be at first rehearsals?) and Brett Chynoweth shone as the mischievous Beggar chief.

At the curtain calls, Dunn’s tears were a moving symbol of her memories of opening nights as well as the release after completing the marathon of dancing Manon. For her, that performance must have triggered deep emotions as it clearly did for the audience.

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Lucinda Dunn, Steven Heathcote and artists of the Australian Ballet in Manon, 2014, photographer unknown

Lucinda Dunn and Adam Bull, the Australian Ballet’s in Manon, 2014, photographer unknown

Justine Summers and Steven Heathcote, Manon, the Australian Ballet, Adelaide, cover for the 1995 video

Lucinda Dunn, Manon, Australian Ballet, photo © Lynette Wills