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Ballet Essentials: Kenneth MacMillan's Manon

A quick guide to MacMillan’s passionate ballet with a captivating heroine at its heart.

By Rachel Thomas (Former Content Producer (Ballet))

30 March 2018 at 9.36am | 6 Comments

Manon is beautiful and impulsive, and loves romance almost as much as she loves diamonds. She meets and falls in love with the handsome young student Des Grieux and they elope to Paris. But when the wealthy Monsieur G.M. asks Manon to be his mistress she is torn between a life with Des Grieux and one of luxury.

One of the most dramatic and devastating of all ballets, Kenneth MacMillan's Manon is based on an eighteenth-century novel that was banned when it first came out in 1731, before becoming hugely popular on the back of pirated copies. Manon’s story has since inspired numerous adaptations, including operas by Massenet and Puccini and a film by Henri-Georges Clouzot.


Kenneth MacMillan believed that Manon’s story would make a fantastic large-scale, full-company ballet. But the choice of such a capricious and apparently 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’, wrote one reviewer. However, audiences immediately took to the work, and the power of MacMillan’s choreography, as well as the continuing relevance of Manon’s message, has secured its place as a modern classic.

The music

None of the ballet's music came from previous tellings of the story. When MacMillan came to choose the music for Manon, he avoided the Puccini opera and the music of Massenet's opera. Instead, MacMillan enlisted composer and conductor Leighton Lucas to sift through Massenet’s overtures, ballets, music for plays, oratorios and operas and to create a new ballet score. The score was re-orchestrated by Martin Yates in 2011 and remains some of the most moving and beautiful of all ballet music.

Listen to an extract from Act I scene 2

A story told through pas de deux

To tell a story based so much on the relationship of its principal couple, MacMillan started creating the choreography by focusing on the pas de deux. These are danced at key moments in the drama, and 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 and they mix playfulness with rapturous joy in their Act II 'bedroom' pas de deux. Their final, moving pas de deux in the Louisiana swamps consist of reminiscences of earlier steps.

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Manon runs until 16 May 2018. Tickets are still available. This article has been updated to reflect the current Season.

Manon will be relayed live to cinemas around the world on 3 May 2018.

The production is staged with generous philanthropic support from Sarah and Lloyd Dorfman, John and Susan Burns, The Gerald Ronson Family Foundation, Lindsay and Sarah Tomlinson and the Friends of Covent Garden. Original Production (1974) made possible by The Linbury Trust.

This article has 6 comments

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

    A great introduction!

  2. Annabel Cowdrey responded on 29 March 2018 at 12:48pm Reply

    Cannot wait to see Manon again and thank you for this article. Watching Bonelli and Nuñez again reminded me of what a fantastic cast that was and how beautifully those two work together but how I WISH you'd released it on DVD or Blu-ray.

  3. Janet Chivers responded on 30 March 2018 at 1:55pm Reply

    An absolute joy to watch Nunez and Bonelli in this masterpiece. Yes, can it be released on DVD please.

  4. A B responded on 12 May 2018 at 5:24pm Reply

    I’m left speechless yet again by such a wonderful RB production. Francesca was extraordinary as always and all the pas de deux’s with Bonelli were completely breathtaking. Such beautiful choreography for these exceptional dancers.
    I’m so glad I got to take my teenage daughter to see this at the ROH, as she is a talented ballet dancer herself and enjoys your productions so much.
    We originally had tickets to the live screening at our local cinema but were refused entry as some dinosaur had rated it a 15 and my daughter is 13. Not sure of the logic there, and I think rather an ignorant decision on the part of the censorship board considering the nature of the production. I think as parents we should be able to decide whether we feel our children are mature enough to watch a very mild scene of a sexual nature or mild violence. I’m sure this is beyond the Royal Ballet’s control, but I just wished to point it out for the record as it was a huge disappointment when we were turned away after looking forward to it so much.

  5. Cindy responded on 16 May 2018 at 6:53pm Reply

    Where can I find a recording for the music?

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