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State Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne
March 21, 2014
Choreography: Sir Kenneth MacMillan
Music: Jules Massenet, arranged and orchestrated by Martin Yates
Set and costume design: Peter Farmer
Lighting: William Akers, reproduced by Francis Croese
Ambition, love, power, lust – these are the vices which influence the fates of Manon’s protagonists. A staple of the Australian Ballet’s repertoire, Manon represents one of its major offerings of the year. Abbé Prévost’s 18th-century tale of a young girl who is tempted away from love by her own dreams of wealth has formed the basis of many operas, two ballets and even a poetic drama. The Australian Ballet brings us the classic production of the late British choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan, known for its strong dramatic roles and lyrical, expressive choreography.
MacMillan’s Manon offers outstanding opportunities for the four principals – Manon; her lover, des Grieux; her brother, Lescaut; and Lescaut’s mistress. All four roles are technically demanding and yet require something more – the morally ambiguous positions of the characters within a complex web of seduction and betrayal offer much interpretive scope regarding each character’s motives.
Lana Jones’ Manon begins her journey from a place of almost Eden-like innocence. She seems out of place in the worldly courtyard of the inn outside which she makes her entrance. Her performance is powerful in its subtlety, allowing MacMillan’s choreography to carry some of the communicative burden. The lightness of her performance retains some of Manon’s early innocence even as she becomes aware of her own sexuality and the lavish lifestyle it makes open to her.
Kevin Jackson’s des Grieux, by contrast, is much more self-consciously interpreted; at times Jackson falls into the trap of over-acting, particularly in some of his solo performances, but remains convincing as a man deeply in love.
The contrast in the dynamics of the pas de deux of the first and second acts lucidly underline the erosion of trust between the pair, so Jones and Jackson do well in ensuring that the more flirtatious, lighter moments of their scenes suggest their characters’ enduring love. In the second act pas de deux, for instance, during a moment that sees Manon dangle the fine bracelet given to her by Steven Heathcote’s Monsieur GM in front of des Grieux, Jackson lingers for a moment in the spell cast by Jones’ presence before jealousy and confusion abruptly snap him out of it.
Brett Simon and Laura Tong also deserve mention for their interpretations of Lescaut and his mistress. Tong’s performance is mesmerising. She commands the stage with a full and dramatic use of her body, possessing in equal measures the gravity and sense of comedy required to portray this misunderstood woman. Simon takes a bit more time to warm into his role but when he does we see a Lescaut that is less the profoundly corrupted figure of some interpretations but rather a misguided man who has grown up without understanding love or the difference between right and wrong.
Often overlooked are MacMillan’s provisions for the corps de ballet, for they provide the all-important social context against which the actions of the protagonists are measured. At times, the dancers seemed a little young to be convincing as such worldly characters as harlots and their clients, particularly in the party scene of Act 2. The scene is one of the most visually compelling thanks to Peter Farmer’s sumptuous set and costume designs, and showcases an array of minor characters who occupy diverse positions on the moral spectrum of virtue to vice. Compared to Jones’ Manon, supposedly the least hardened of the women at this point in the production, the young dancers seemed oddly child-like and decorative.
The transcendent themes, drama, sensuality and larger-than life costumes and set designs offer more than enough substance to satisfy any ballet-goer, and the compelling performances of the leads do justice to MacMillan’s vision. This is a production that will immediately satisfy on the way out of the theatre. Be prepared, however, for it may well remain with you long afterwards.
The Australian Ballet’s Manon plays Melbourne until March 24 and Sydney from April 3-23.