Manon just turned forty last March. How this masterpiece came about is compressed into a few fascinating pages in Jann Perry’s biography of choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, Different Drummer, which Haglund has been trying to finish reading since its publication in 2010 – it is, after all, 758 pages with very few pictures. MacMillan was the Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet when he created Manon in 1974.
“MacMillan, thinking as an artistic director, decided that his new three-act ballet should not serve as a vehicle for a guest artist. [And] Fonteyn had held back the Royal Ballet’s young stars for long enough; it was time he gave them a chance.”
Monday evening, ABT opened its run of eight Manon performances at the Met Opera House. The cast included the company’s oldest ballerina, who continues to block much younger but fully mature artists from leading principal roles, and a de facto guest artist. So much for thinking as an artistic director.
Following the 1974 premiere, critic Mary Clarke summed up the ballet’s plot in the Guardian:
“Basically, Manon is a slut and Des Grieux is a fool and they move in the most unsavoury company.”
Monday night, Julie Kent's Manon was neither a slut nor someone looking for a sugardaddy. She conveyed prettiness and acted too much like Juliet, as in Capulet. But many people in the sparse audience were thrilled to see exactly that and did not know that anything was missing.
There was no sense of selfishness in this Manon. Nor was there any sense of fear or shame she might experience if she had to give up all of the jewels and luxurious life style. There was very little that was erotic in the portrayal.
“In both the bedroom pas de deux, MacMillan told [Antoinette] Sibley that he wanted her to make seductive use of the inside of her upper arm. 'He loved that area, so Manon often twines her arms around her head…it’s her special erotic zone,' says Sibley.”
Julie's Manon raised her elbows and arms, and pushed her smile at Des Grieux. But there was nothing provocative about it. There are still many people around who remember the way Alessandra Ferri seduced Julio Bocca’s obsessed Des Grieux with the insides of her elbows. She made us smell the perfume that she had dabbed at their pulse points. When Ferri’s Manon turned her back on Bocca’s Des Grieux and abandoned him after being seduced by Monsieur G.M.’s wealth, she did so with such callous indifference that it shocked the audience. No such shock was delivered on Monday night. And while the choreography required little in the way of classical or neo-classical soloist technique for Manon, it was evident that Julie’s arabesque had become less clear and her back less flexible.
Roberto Bolle invested his Des Grieux with enough emotional intensity for the both of them. Except for a slight unsteadiness in his opening solo, he danced magnificently throughout the night. For such a huge man, he moves with the swiftness of Mercury and judiciously employs a masculine flexibility to punctuate the drama in his dancing. But his intensity sometimes seemed overwrought in response to Julie's pale output. While he might prefer to dance with Julie because of her feather lightness – and he certainly could throw her around easily enough – they do not compliment one another in any meaningful way.
The reason that Haglund returned to Different Drummer was to try to find out why MacMillan gave more challenging and complicated choreography to Lescaut’s Mistress than to Manon. On Monday night, Stella Abrera imbued the role of Mistress with a seductive, earthy gusto. Here was a woman who would dump her man for a shiny nickel. She danced with a theatrical authority that eclipsed Julie Kent.
It required more than a little suspension of disbelief to accept Daniil Simkin as Lescaut, the guy who sells his sister Manon in order to line his own pockets. In the opening tableau, he looked absurdly ridiculous and unconvincing wearing a huge hat while kneeling at the center of a swirled cape. His “drunk dancing” during the party scene was slapstickish. Haglund probably wasn’t the only one who gasped when Daniil picked up Stella while doing his drunk stumbling steps. He has a hard enough time partnering when he’s sober-serious. When Daniil's little Lescaut forced the gold coins into big Roberto's Des Grieux's hand and then forcibly twisted his arm behind his back at the end of the act, it looked stupid, because, as everyone knows, Bolle could have just swatted Simkin like a fly.
The harlots’ wigs now make them look tres chic instead of whorish. And for some reason neither Julie Kent on Monday nor Diana Vishneva on Tuesday would let go of the eye makeup to the extent needed to convince us that they were captive prostitutes or in ill health. Alessandra Ferri let us see Manon’s suffering through a face with little makeup on it.
There seemed to be two different choreographies for the Skivvies’ little dance on Monday and Tuesday nights for no apparent reason.
On opening night the Gentlemen (Joseph Gorak, Blaine Hoven, and Eric Tamm) were a strong, unified trio. On Tuesday night, the Beggar Boys were a mess and seemed not to have a clue what they were supposed to be doing. This was an example of where the differing styles that ABT is trying to brag about really backfired.
The orchestra on Monday night sounded a lot more robust than on Tuesday night when it sounded tired.
Tuesday evening’s principals, Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes, were more collaboratively passionate than Monday night’s cast. Both artists still dance as though at the tops of their games. Marcelo had terrific control of his solo adagio movements, and the beauty of the leg positions and foot placements were a highlight. And he’s still got very good back flexibility in his arabesque. The PdD in the swamp was ridiculously thrilling when Marcelo threw Diana up in the air and spun her around. Diana's performance just had so much more energy to it than Julie's. Her every movement and position were fuller and had a sense of independent strength to them. And she really looked the part of someone for whom wealth and luxury were of the utmost importance. Thank goodness that a meaningful-sized crowd turned out to see this performance.
Herman Cornejo and Misty Copeland were Lescaut and His Mistress. Herman found it much easier than Daniil when it came time to burn pirouettes while wearing a very long-tailed coat. He also had a better crafted and much funnier drinking solo. While Misty danced well, her lack of projection turned the role into a soloist gig instead of the principal role it is supposed to be. She didn’t mess up anything; it’s just that none of it looked very important. It may have simply been a case of miscasting. At the end of the night, a very odd thing happened during bows in front of the curtain. Everyone came out in pairs, and then for the second round of bows, Herman came out by himself followed by Diana and Marcelo together. One wonders if Misty missed the call or if she wanted to have a solo bow for the ultimate photo opp - but it didn’t happen.
The HH Pump Bump Award is bestowed upon beautiful, talented Stella Abrera whose glitter is real gold. If Kenneth MacMillan were directing ABT, a 45-year-old declining ballerina would not be blocking Stella’s path to leading principal roles nor our opportunity to watch her perform them.
If she's gonna be in chains, they may as well be Giuseppe Zanotti for Balmain chains: