Review by Gemma Keliher
Many ballets I have seen can be described as a romance that turns tragic, but to me the story of Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon is a tragedy that contains a love story. The tale of Manon, a young French woman, and Des Grieux, a young poet, was doomed from the start, in an age rife with poverty and lacking freedoms it was never going to be a story where love can conquer all. Manon finds herself in a position torn between love and an opportunity for a life of riches, in a time where the threat of poverty can quickly turn ambition into deadly greed.
A Queensland Ballet production staged by Julie Lincoln, with three acts and a set change during each, this ballet is no small feat to stage. Peter Famer’s set seemed tastefully restrained but still loomed larger than life and transported the audience with ease through various locations across 18th century Paris and New Orleans. While there was still delicate detail, I was glad to see not overly ornate sets, particularly with one of the largest casts I have seen in a Queensland Ballet production. In the ensemble moments there was so much to try and catch happening across the stage, and the set and costume design were effective without being overwhelming. Similarly with Farmer’s costume design, where you are used to seeing elaborate and opulent costumes, it was effectively jarring when directly contrasted with the dirty and ripped rags of the lower-class characters. The juxtaposition of the lavish costumes, including some fabulously extravagant hats in the opening of Act 1, against the plain and battered layers truly set a more realistic scene of the class different in 18th century France. It’s this class difference and the seemingly lack of any middle ground between either rich or poor that plays a large role in the story of Manon and the conflict that arises, and this was well portrayed in this production.
The lighting design by Jacopo Pantani was beautifully executed and brought the whole set to life. Jules Massenet’s music, arranged by Martin Yates and performed by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra under Conductor Nigel Gaynor, easily carried me away into the story and aligned well with the choreography to convey tone.
Within Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography I was particularly impressed with the intricate and intimate lifts, they were stylistically very dynamic and engaging, and all were performed so cleanly and with great technical skill. The pairing of Mia Heathcote as Manon and Patricio Revé as Des Grieux was beautifully cast, their chemistry as dancers fit well with the characters they portrayed, and they worked with ease together; every moment between the two looked effortless. As Manon’s morally vague brother Lescaut, Alexander Idaszak was a highlight of Act 2, bringing some lightness and comedic elements. A drunken Lescaut was not only beautifully represented by the choreography, but it was performed convincingly by Idaszak. As Lescaut's Mistress, Yanela Piñera was enthralling to watch and played well off a drunken and misbehaving Lescaut. Vito Bernasconi had a nice balance of dominating presence and grace while portraying the rich Monsieur GM. It was a pleasure to watch Mary Li as a Guest Artist embodying the enchanting Madame who held such a powerful presence on stage. Rounding out the main cast, D’Arcy Brazier gave a convincing performance of the abusive Gaoler, having the challenge to perform a difficult to watch scene.
The strong emotional character work of every one of the dancers on the stage created a world that was so lifelike, engaging and thoroughly moving. The two mirror images concluding Act 2 and 3 of Manon crying over her brother’s body, and Des Grieux crying over Manon’s was powerful imagery. The story of Manon is deeply tragic and both Heathcote and Revé brought the characters to life with such a tenderness and plenty of heart. Their promotions at the end of the evening to Principal Artists was incredibly well deserved after such an outstanding performance on stage.
This wasn’t a ballet of beauty in the traditional sense, but rather I found the beauty of this ballet came from the raw and emotional work the dancers brought to the work. The choreography itself is mesmerising but wouldn’t be nearly as effective without the dancers rising to the challenge to bring technique and fully embodying their characters. I was impressed by what felt like a new standard of storytelling set by the Queensland Ballet and can easily say I would wish to see Manon performed again, as tragic a tale as it is.
Image Credit: David Kelly