All bathed, all drowned in a golden light. Like Carle Van Loo’s 1737 painting, Halt in the Hunt, our stage palette is set. Rusty browns and sandy ochres give way to earthy greens. This is nature, human nature, with all its lust for power and pleasure, its poverty and its rat-catchers, harlots, and spinsters jostling side-by-side. Our eye, like in that of the painting, is drawn to those of import in blue (des Grieux, our romantic, besotted and well-intentioned student-cum-hero) and red (Monsieur GM, “an old voluptuary, who paid prodigally for his pleasures”1); colour has long been used to tell a story, and what a story “Manon” is. Our eye races through the painted stage scene, seeking to read all as it unfolds: a wagon of “fallen women,” a mistress’s fate, a beggar chief, an opportunistic pickpocket. We might be on the outskirts of Paris, in a courtyard, a microcosm of society, but this shouldering of the wealthy and the affluent alongside the poor and wretched rabble could easily be a scene come to life from Gian Domenico Tiepolo’s Carnival Scene (or The Minuet), the pendant to The Tooth Puller (1754). If you wanted to know your fate, you’ve only to cast an eye about the scene: up with wealth and furs; down, deep down, grief and despair. And this, this is only the beginning. Keep up, look lively.
“Manon,” derived in part from the famous novella, History of Manon Lescaut and of the Chevalier des Grieux, written in 1731 (though set slightly earlier) by Abbé Prévost, premiered in 1974. It is oily and visceral. It is of the body, as befits its source. It is about the body, its pleasures and vices, and carnal desires. Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography explores grief and death, alongside lighter moments such as a drunken dance, foot fetishism, and lust, all peppered with betrayal and its neighbour, guilt. And love: where to put love? Money alongside poverty, the dark juxtaposed with the light, this moving painting is kept in balance by its break-neck pace. And so we have Manon’s brother, Lescaut’s intoxicated pas de deux with his mistress, as a welcome, lighthearted reprieve in act II counterweighted by Manon’s abuse at the hands of her gaoler in act III. One to elicit mirth (and, here, Andrew Killian, as Lescaut, performs out-of-control inebriation with the utmost control), and the other, inescapably confronting in its choreography, and both scenes perfectly timed, perfectly placed. Fallen women, and their graphic downfall, these are scenes not typically portrayed in ballet’s history. A fast footwork package wrapped in furs and trinkets, this is heavy, gritty, and seedy stuff we are being presented within the safe red-velvet confines of the theatre. Debauchery wears silk stockings, and this naturally befits the story. To water down such a tale of survival, courtesans, and prostitution that sweeps us out the door of rowdy bordello opulence before submerging us in the hard-luck Louisiana swamp, would be to render it mute and to lessen its effect. Indeed, “in 1831 when Manon Lescaut was first adapted for ballet, [Manon’s] infidelity was so whitewashed that the story proved senseless.[notre]Caitlyn Lehmann, “Fallen Women,” from The Australian Ballet’s Manon programme, 2014[/note]
These were the grand ladies, whose business consisted in making themselves beautiful and delightful,—to ravish the eyes, to captivate the souls, and to trouble the hearts of men.
Nothing was demanded of them but to please; to employ all their address and artifice to learn, and to practice, the subtle and mysterious arts of seductiveness and caressing! 2
Manon, when we first meet her in act I, is on her way to enter a convent. She is light, bright, and tempting. She is our heroine. Guy de Maupassant’s introduction to the novella Manon Lescaut, describes Manon as an “exquisite jade, whose subtle and malign charm seems to emanate from her like an indefinable perfume though the pages of this extraordinary book…” (Maupassant, ix). This introduction mirrors the devotion and craziness of des Grieux, our ballet’s hero in powder blue tights. Manon, the “charming motion of the figure,” (Maupassant, viii) beguiles all, oozes Maupassant. Such shoes to fill, but shoes indeed filled by principal dancer Lucinda Dunn as the infamous Manon in her last Melbourne performance after an incredible twenty-three years with the Australian Ballet. This “Manon” is one with an electric charge. (Lucinda Dunn will retire after her last performance in the Sydney season of“Manon.” “As the longest serving ballerina of our company, she has inspired generations of young dancers to follow in her stellar footsteps,” –David McAllister, Artistic Director, the Australian Ballet.)
Manon Lescaut opens with two lines from Byron: “Why did he love her? Curious fool, be still! Is human love the fruit of human will?” This, too, is the ballet’s opening, and raison d’être.
Our Manon, depending upon how she is played, is also something of a impulsive decision maker; “a cheat, a blackguard, the almost conscienceless partner of a charming, conscienceless gredine,” (Maupassant, viii) in the eyes of Maupassant. She “affected his eyes, and engulfed his soul…. He proceeded with so much sincerity” as we hear in every “trust me” squeak of ballet shoe upon the stage in des Grieux’s act I adagio. Manon, a “unique evocation of the creature Love” (Maupassant, x) has him spellbound. And “we, like him, submit to the fascinating graces of Manon, —we love her as he did, we shall be deceived perhaps like him!” (Maupassant, viii.)
In their bedroom pas de deux of the second scene, Adam Bull dancing as des Grieux, and Lucinda Dunn as Manon seem to echo the very lines in the book through every movement, every glance:
You do love me then devotedly? I exclaimed.
A thousand times more than I can tell! Was her reply.
You will never leave me again? I added.
No! never, never! Answered she.3
Whether familiar with the novel or not, we see Adam Bull’s des Grieux in the words: “I sat down upon the grass. I plunged into a sea of thoughts and considerations, which at length resolved themselves into three principle heads. I had pressing want of an infinite number of absolute necessaries; I had to seek some mode of at last raising a hope for the future; and, though last not least in importance, I had to gain information, and adopt measures, to secure Manon’s safety and my own,” (Prévost, 98) and later “I felt my blood boil…”(Prévost, 105). Ruin lies ahead, of course, and that is largely, I suspect, why we love it. “…blood curdle[d] in my veins to remember.” (Prévost, 153.) Such torment! If “Manon” is one thing to me, it is big. And big with particularly great roles for men, from poor hero to Manon’s brother in olive green tights whom we first meet in black inky pool of own devising, a cloak of dastardly-ness spread out around him, sitting centre stage, no doubt concocting, scheming, planning. No small themes here, this is the big stuff, Money and Love, give them capitals.
Big and fast, and unashamedly in your face, “the characters and their personalities are the cause of the way the story unfolds,” explains Steven Heathcote (Monsieur GM). The pas de trois between Manon, Monsieur GM and her brother Lescaut, continues Heathcote, “is a true case of actions speaking louder than words…. It’s so tactile and oily, and this is where we can actually see the deal being sealed—we see Lescaut’s barely contained glee when GM finally exits with Manon, leaving him with a bag of money in his hand…. And from GM, he’s won the prize with a fur coat and a couple of jewels and a bit of charm, and he can’t wait to get her home and tear her clothes off…. And that’s just one scene in the ballet!”4
Serving as fantastical foil to these big and oily scenes, Harlots and (their) Clients cavort, and Madam X (Julie da Costa) can be seen dancing on the table. Footwork is precise and as fast as the narrative twists, and great technique is required to show movement under the opulent costumes. The costumes (by Peter Farmer) restrict and reveal. Skirts are slowly raised to show off legs. Allure and affection is something to be bought and sold. Vignettes unfold in every corner of this moving painting. Little scenes to add colour, and catch the eye, and cause you to wish you could playfully freeze the action in one area so as to watch it all. And when, with luck, our peripheral colour does freeze, our eye flits from courtesan with glass to her lips to client in repose. It makes one greedy. It makes of us, the audience, akin to Maupassant’s gushing introductory text. It makes us long for splendour, ruffles, and gold light. It is a deliberately conceived dazzle, a whirlwind of an amusement ride throwing us hither and thither before cloaking us cruelly in Spanish moss. In particular, the head holding, head spinning, head lamenting of the ragged prostitutes as they arrive in port in act III, which conveys all their inner anguish and their very brokenness so effectively, and the death MacMillan draws out for Manon that echoes the tragic death of the author Prévost in terms of drama.* From a central knot of uncompromising and difficult choreography with one huge story for sensory revelry, “Manon” spirals outwards at rapid pace like a whirligig throwing at you visual props and costume, and all to Jules Massenet’s rich score, brilliantly arranged and orchestrated by Martin Yates. It is Manon’s perfume in trumpet and harp, brass and strings. It is excess in spades.
This is blush-worthy story ballet at its finest. And none more so than on Lucinda Dunn’s last Melbourne performance where the male characters, des Grieux, Monsieur GM, Lescaut, to the Gaoler and Beggar chief, all could not wait, it appeared, to have their last dance with Lucinda Dunn as Manon. This performance, being her Melbourne farewell, transformed her truly into the Manon of des Grieux, Monsieur GM, Maupassant, Prévost, and everyone in the theatre’s eyes. From thunderous applause at her first appearance in act I through to tragic rag doll rendition in her memorable death scene and final curtain call, the atmosphere impossible to describe. Two bouquets of flowers were tossed upward in direction of the stage from somewhere in the middle of the stalls. They landed with a pleasing bounce on the overhead net between orchestra and stage. There they stayed, just out of reach, tokens of affection and appreciation from an audience. Terrific applause, much whooping, and a ballerina in tears that seemed to express gratitude, humility and relief, all made for a “Manon” I will not forget.
* The author of Manon Lescaut, Abbé Prévost, suffered like Manon, a tragic death when, “seized with apoplexy: his body without any sign of life, was carried by some peasants to the house of a neighbouring Curé. The legal functionary was sent for to authenticate the fact of the body being found, and to verify the appearance of the supposed corpse. He, immediately on his arrival, with deplorable precipitation, ordered the body to be opened. What horror and consternation flushed every countenance when a shriek from the victim told that he still lived! The operator checked his hand, but the murderous knife, driven into his entrails, had already done the work of death. The poor Abbé’s eyes opened only to become sensible of his own dreadful fate, and he expired, of course instantly, in the 67th year of his age.” (“Life of the Author,” from Abbé Prévost’s History of Manon Lescaut and of the Chevalier des Grieux, xxxi.)
- Abbé Prévost, History of Manon Lescaut and of the Chevalier des Grieux, illus. by Maurice Leloir (Boston: L.C. Page, 1906), 56
- Guy de Maupassant’s introduction to History of Manon Lescaut and of the Chevalier des Grieux by Abbé Prévost, iv
- Prévost, Manon Lescaut, 97
- Steven Heathcote, quoted by Rose Mulready in “The Men of Manon,” The Australian Ballet’s Manon programme, 2014