National Ballet of Canada review: Manon

I have a terrible memory, especially when it comes to recalling details and opinions about shows, concerts, ballets, books, movies, etc that I’ve seen. So to start doing something about it, here goes my inaugural ballet review post so I’ll have it for posterity, and for notes to compare future productions against.

Manon is the first show of the 2014-2015 season. This production has now earned it’s place as one of my favourites of the National Ballet of Canada (NBOC). It’s funny to think that this did not have a successful run the previous time that the National Ballet mounted this ballet in 1999. And to be honest I didn’t know about this ballet either when it was announced, but then when NBOC featured the rehearsal of the pas de deux on World Ballet Day, I got excited. After seeing the show last week, it was for good reason.

The Story

Manon is a multi-act story or narrative ballet choreographed by the late Sir Kenneth MacMillian based on the late 18th century novel by Abbé Prévost. Manon is a poor teenaged girl on her way to the convent and meets one more time with her older brother Lescaut (who gets by on lying, cheating and conning the wealthy). When her brother notices the attraction that wealthy men have towards her, he decides to make arrangements for her to become a courtesan to the wealthiest of them all Monsieur Guillot de Morfontaine (M. GM) . During this time she meets poor student Des Grieux. They immediately fall in love and run away. Their ill-fated love is happy for a total of two pas de deux.

Lescaut and M. GM track them down. When Des Grieux steps out they sweep in and are able to persuade Manon to give up on her love and a life of poverty to take on a life of luxury and glamour among the city elite. Lescaut “convinces” Des Grieux to go along with the plan so they can all reap in the financial rewards.

But when Des Grieux’s jealousy rears his head, Manon is forced to choose again. This time she chooses love, but that choice sets into motion a chain of events that ends with the death of her brother, her conviction as a prostitute, deportation to New Orleans, sexual assault by the jailer and ultimately her death in the arms of Des Grieux in the swamps of Louisiana.

I know, total drama, right?

One of the points I enjoyed is the story was not based on a fairy tale (e.g. Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella) nor require you suspend disbelief in the supernatural or sorcery (e.g. Swan Lake, Giselle, Les Sylphides, etc). The plot is driven by human reactions and the characters’ struggle between their desires, their circumstances, and their positions of relative power. All the characters make some poor to appalling choices. But the main protagonists Manon and Des Grieux are saved from being unlikeable by the pair of gorgeous pas de deux right in the first act. They are among the most beautiful and tender I’ve seen, and you fall in love with them as they’re dancing and falling in love with each other.

Alas, she gives up the love of the poor poet to become the mistress to the powerful and wealthy M. GM. One could argue Manon is a heartless gold-digger who had her eye on the prize to so easily abandon her young love. Another argument is she isn’t very smart nor guileless to so easily be convinced by her brother. Right now I’m choosing to go with the interpretation that she hoped she could keep Des Grieux as a lover on the side, while pragmatically securing a somewhat comfortable life fashioned in jewels and finery. Too bad it all goes to sh*t.

Other thoughts about the story/choreography:

  • Again, the pas de deux  in the first act are gorgeous. You can watch part of it in rehearsal from World Ballet Day (starts at 1:06). 
  • Her brother happily pimps her out to the highest bidder. What kind of family life did she grow up in?
  • The 3rd act includes a scene with a bunch of deported women with shorn hair who were suffering weakness and malaise. Was it just the voyage that did this? or did something else more sinister happen to them? And the well-to-do couples in New Orleans, do they pity the women to take them in? Or are they just recruiting for cheap domestic labour?
  • The sexual assault scene in the 3rd act that included implied forced fellatio was eye opening, I wonder what went through the minds of the retirees in the matinee show?
  • The last pas de deux in Act 3 between Manon and Des Grieux lacked something to me. I understand that at this point she is supposed to be weak and close to death and so the duet had the air of desperation to it. I think it needed to have some of that tenderness remembered from Act 1 to really underscore the heartbreak, and that would involve both characters initiating the movement. Instead, Manon is merely reciprocating and reacting to Des Grieux’s movements.

The cast

I’m such a ballet geek that I went to see this twice in order to catch two of the three casts. I ended up with Ring 5  rush seats for Nov 13 evening with Sonia Rodriguez and Guillaume Côté, and orchestra seats on Nov 15 matinee with Jillian Vanstone and Harrison James.

Now Sonia is my favourite ballerina of all at NBOC. She is an amazing actress, on top of her impeccable dancing skills. And Guillaume is all over the promotional materials for the NBOC’s season for a reason – he is pretty awesome. In their pairing they really were able to dance past the technique with almost reckless abandon, pushing the limits and making for very exciting moments. On this particular night they seemed a little off in the first act, missing the initial connections to some hand holds and some wobbles in a lift. The ending slide of the second pas de deux looked like it nearly slid off the stage. Being the pros they are though, I saw no other fumbles in the following acts.

One example of what I think was great acting is during the party scene where Manon is now with M. GM and is willfully trying to ignore the presence of Des Grieux. There were enough subtle glances and tension from Sonia towards Guillaume that you know she was fully aware of him and ignoring him took considerable effort. It made for the change of heart more believable.

The curtain calls that night were definitely earned.

Two days later when I saw Jillian and Harrison, I was pleased to find out that their performance moved me just as much. Jillian’s the newest principal dancer who really made her mark with the role of Alice in Alice in Wonderland. It was my first time seeing her playing a role with more complicated motivations. While she’s not at Sonia-level yet, she held her own for sure.

Harrison is actually only in his second year with NBOC and still in the corps de ballet, but with this set of highly successful performances I don’t see how he won’t be promoted later in the year. His dancing was confident and fluid, and looked to be a very strong partner. He had great acting skills, I believed it when he was falling in love and felt so sorry for him to see his heart breaking. The last scene of anguish as Manon dies in his arms could have been overwrought but he kept it in check. He seems like he would have the looks and the chops to make it in the leading man/prince roles of the classical ballets.

Their duets together were just as lovely and memorable, and you can see the definite trust in each other. I’m looking forward to seeing more of them together.

I was surprised there wasn’t a curtain call at all, but perhaps it’s because it’s a matinee performance with the stereotypical blue-haired patrons? We should switch our subscription tickets back to Saturday nights…

Other notes:

  • The costumes, sets and lighting design were top notch, particularly the costumes of the rich and courtesans.
  • The National Ballet Orchestra was great as usual, and the piece of music from the pas de deux is still an ear worm. I catch myself humming the theme all the time.
  • During the party scene at the brothel there are many corps de ballet dancers on stage, playing courtesans, whores, customers, etc. They all inhabit their characters to continually act their roles in the background to the main events on stage, and it’s entertaining to watch some of the shenanigans that were going on.
  • Our subscriptions tickets are usually in the 4th ring, but for Manon and Nijinsky the NBOC upgraded our seats to orchestra level to “thank us for continued patronage”. I’m thinking it also had to do with opening up more affordable seats to the general public and trying to lure us to upgrade our seats in the future. But you know what? It was an incredibly enhanced experience. Even though we were still in row U, we were close enough now that we could see all the dancing clearly without binoculars. With our binoculars, now we could really see the acting that was occurring on stage. The angle and distance of our 4th ring seats seems to really diminish the power of the performances. Now we are seriously considering switching to similar upgraded seats. Well played, NBOC, well played.

I hope it won’t be another 15 years before they bring Manon back again.