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Getting Inside Manon's Head: Great dancers on one of ballet's most enigmatic roles

Antoinette Sibley, Alessandra Ferri, Viviana Durante, Darcey Bussell and Melissa Hamilton speak to us in the ballet’s 40th anniversary year.

By Rachel Thomas (Former Content Producer (Ballet))

25 September 2014 at 11.23am | 4 Comments

Manon, the eponymous heroine of Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet, is a role beloved by audiences and coveted by dancers. A ‘real’ woman with a life that encompassed amorality, lust and a quest for wealth and luxury, she was the first female ballet protagonist to break the ‘princess’ mould, prompting diverse and often deeply personal reactions to her character. Since Manon's premiere in 1974, many of the most celebrated performances of the title role have been inspired by instinctive, individual responses to her very human qualities.

Antoinette Sibley, who danced Manon in the ballet's premiere, remembers her avaricious side: ‘I don't see Manon as a particularly nice character. I think she has a lot of her brother [Lescaut] in her… she was out for what she could get. Of course she loves Des Grieux – but maybe not exclusively’.

Melissa Hamilton, who performs the role for the first time in the 2014/15 Season, similarly regards Manon’s actions as being motivated by greed: ‘I feel that Manon's love of lavish living inhibits her ability to be fulfilled purely by the love she and Des Grieux share for each other’, she explains.

Other dancers react with sympathy to the heroine’s personality and choices. ‘People forget how young she is – it’s too easy to make her a calculating character’, says Alessandra Ferri. Darcey Bussell expresses her compassion, explaining that Manon was ‘naive as to most things, although she became more calculating when she realized the power of money’. And Viviana Durante identifies with the character’s motives, saying that ‘Manon is attracted by temptation. I think of her sympathetically – we've all fallen for it at some point in our life.’

In the celebrated performances given by Sibley, Ferri, Durante and Bussell, their carefully considered personal readings of Manon resulted in unique but equally striking and believable portrayals of her character. But this would not, of course, have been possible without MacMillan’s choreography.

Bussell describes how, the whole way through the ballet, ‘every movement has a sense of what she [Manon] was experiencing, and that was what made Kenneth a choreographic genius’.

Other dancers highlight specific steps that, for them, represent Manon’s character. Ferri describes how MacMillan once asked her ‘have you ever thought how Manon would walk?’. She explains that ‘this became important advice for everything I’ve ever done since – if you find the walk of a character, you have the key to their character and it colours everything else’.

Exploring the choreography for the first time, Hamilton is particularly struck by MacMillan’s use of the feet: ‘I love how the choreography highlights Manon's feet. Thankfully blessed with arched feet, I am exploring ways in which I can "speak" with them throughout the ballet.’

The choreographer’s legacy is therefore twofold – daring to push back the boundaries of ballet to depict the realities of the human condition, and giving dancers the tools to portray this through a vivid, extraordinary vocabulary of dance.

Bussell’s advice to those performing Manon for the first time is simple – ‘Do your research and understand the story. Be very real. Be spontaneous with your acting. Keep it fresh. Change when you feel your feelings change. Bring your own interpretation to the role’.

If the dancers of the future can do this as successfully as generations of Manons have done before them, MacMillan’s heroine will, without a doubt, endure far beyond her 40th anniversary.


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.

By Rachel Thomas (Former Content Producer (Ballet))

25 September 2014 at 11.23am

This article has been categorised Ballet and tagged acting, Alessandra Ferri, Antoinette Sibley, by Kenneth Macmillan, Darcey Bussell, history, Manon, Melissa Hamilton, Production, role, Viviana Durante

This article has 4 comments

  1. Vanessa Wilde responded on 27 September 2014 at 11:25am Reply

    disappointing there is No mention of Jennifer Penney who gave us a definitive Manon.

  2. Nakis responded on 13 October 2014 at 1:27pm Reply

    To my mind and many others as well the definitive Manon will always be Sylvie Guillem who has danced the part of Manon unforgettably at the Royal Ballet but also at the Paris Opera, in Athens, Australia, the US and of course at La Scala. It was at La Scala as a matter of fact where she gave her latest and incomparable Manon in 2011. I wish, I do not know whether that was possible that the RoyalBallet would have shared a few of Sylvie's thoughts on thismost wonderful ballet.

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