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  • Ballet Essentials: Kenneth MacMillan's Manon

Ballet Essentials: Kenneth MacMillan's Manon

Our quick guide to this 20th-century tragic love story.

By Rachel Thomas (Former Content Producer (Ballet))

12 September 2014 at 5.36pm | 3 Comments

The Story Begins…

Actresses, gentlemen and the Parisian demi-monde gather in the courtyard of an inn near Paris. Among them are the student Des Grieux, the wealthy Monsieur G.M. and Lescaut, who is there to meet his sister Manon on her way to enter a convent. Manon arrives with an Old Gentleman who is obviously attracted to her. Lescaut takes the Old Gentleman aside to come to an arrangement with him over Manon. She remains outside and meets Des Grieux. They fall in love and decide to escape to Paris…

Manon Across the Ages

L'Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut is a novel by the Abbé Prévost, a 18th-century French writer whose extraordinary life encompassed Catholic piety, scandal and love affairs. The controversial novel was banned in France upon its publication in 1731, but became very popular on the back of pirated copies. Manon’s story has since inspired numerous adaptations, among them operas by Massenet and Puccini, a film by Clouzot, and MacMillan’s ballet.

From Controversy to Company Classic

Kenneth MacMillan believed that Manon’s story would be a good basis for a large-scale, traditional company ballet. However, the choreographer's choice of a capricious and seemingly ruthless heroine was a challenge to ballet conventions. Critics expressed reservations about Manon after its premiere – ‘basically, Manon is a slut and Des Grieux is a fool and they move in the most unsavoury company’, one wrote. However, audiences immediately took to the work, and the power of MacMillan’s choreography, as well as the relevance of Manon’s message in modern society, has secured its place as a classic in The Royal Ballet's repertory.

Manon’s Music

When MacMillan came to choose the music for Manon, he was advised to avoid the Puccini opera and turned instead to the music of Massenet. The choreographer asked composer and conductor Leighton Lucas to create an arrangement. With the help of Royal Ballet accompanist Hilda Gaunt, Lucas sifted through Massenet’s overtures, ballets, music for plays, oratorios and operas – though notably not the composer’s Manon – to create a new ballet score. This was re-orchestrated by Martin Yates for the work’s 2011 revival.

A Story Told Through Pas de deux

As was his habit, MacMillan first worked on the ballet’s pas de deux. These occur at key moments in the drama, and together poignantly track Manon’s downfall. She and Des Grieux throw themselves at one another with passionate intensity as they fall in love in Act I, but by the time they dance their final pas de deux in the Louisiana swamps, much of their choreography comprises desperate reminiscences of earlier steps.

The production is staged with generous philanthropic support from Celia Blakey, Peter Lloyd and The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund. Original Production (1974) made possible by The Linbury Trust.

This article has 3 comments

  1. Carolyn responded on 13 September 2014 at 10:14am Reply

    A great introduction!

  2. Susan Love responded on 22 October 2014 at 7:28am Reply

    Where did the remainder of the production go - it was meant to run through to the end of October/November??

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