Queensland Ballet staged Kenneth MacMillan’s “Manon”—a rarity in and of itself. It is not every day that a MacMillan piece graces an Australian stage, and when it does you know that it was by no means an easy feat to get it there. Expectations were set high for this premiere; “Manon” was pitched as the diamond of the company’s season and promised to fully immerse the audience in the absolute wealth and passion of the tale. A promise, it seems, that Queensland Ballet was fully justified to make.
One of the true highlights of the performance was the portrayal of Des Grieux and Manon by Patricio Revé and Mia Heathcote, respectively. From their first encounter onstage, to their final heart-wrenching demise, the two dancers were glorious. Revé executed MacMillan’s trademark choreography with ease; the extension of his lines was truly sublime, and his characterisation of the romantic poet fit exquisitely with Heathcote’s captivating performance.
There is something special about Heathcote. She has an innate ability to seamlessly guide the audience on a journey; her characterisation of Manon sits beautifully in the imbetweenness of her station. Heathcote makes the transition from innocent sister to a slightly less timid creature believable in a way that further connects you to her plight. One cannot help but empathise with a woman refusing to bow to the long slow death that is poverty.
A special mention goes to Vito Bernasconi who was cast as the Monsieur, and Alexander Idaszak who danced Lescaut. There couldn’t have been a more perfect Monsieur than Bernasconi. He injected just the right amount of distaste into the character that you couldn’t help but be disgusted by him—a licentious, libertine. Idaszak, similarly, shone as Lescaut. His drunken pas de deux with Yanela Piñera was a crowd favourite and rightfully so. It takes a lot of work to execute movement with your centre of balance purposefully off, and both him and Piñera were delightful to watch. Credit must also go to Laura Tosar who was a brilliant comedic spark hiding under the table during the duelling scene.
As a company, this is not the first time Queensland Ballet has performed one of MacMillan’s works. Li Cunxin staged “Romeo and Juliet” quite early on in his tenure as artistic director. Since then, the Shakespearean tragedy has become a staple of the company’s repertoire and favoured by audiences every time it is revived. Part of this popularity comes from the familiarity associate with the play; we know the story, the characters, and anticipate the downfall of the star-crossed lovers. With “Manon”, however, the situation is different. The ballet is slightly more distanced from the collective psyche of the audience, plus there are significant contextual and performative differences associated with it.
“Manon” is not a light-hearted ballet—it is provocative and refuses to shy away from the harsh realities of the eighteenth century. It deals with human trafficking, reiterates archaic views of sex work(ers), and points a spotlight on the abuse of power. For the majority of Brisbane audiences, this is the first time they are engaging with this work. It is, also, the first time they are engaging with the darker, more transgressive side of MacMillan’s repertoire. And if Cunxin had chosen to stage this ballet sooner in his tenure (or if he had acquired the permission to do so sooner), the reception of “Manon” would not have been as successful. Part of its success is due to how Queensland Ballet has slowly and deliberately expanded the scope of its own repertoire.
“Manon” falls into a unique sub-category of the company’s repertoire and this category has nothing to do with MacMillan. There is a growing list work works that share similarities, both in terms of context but also in structure—“Manon” joins the likes of “Dangerous Liaisons” by Liam Scarlett and “Dracula” by Krzysztof Pastor. These contemporary story ballets experiment with passion, sex, and a darker side of human existence that is normally muted by the art form. And Queensland Ballet has intentionally been exposing their dancers and audience to works like these. The company shows a deep understanding of “Manon,” of MacMillan’s work, of the content and what the ballet is saying—but show an even greater understanding of how it fits into Queensland Ballet’s institutional identity.
When the ballet ended, however, the night was not over; there was one more memorable moment planned. After the curtain call, Cunxin walked out from the wings holding two bouquets of flowers—an act that neither the audience, nor his dancers were prepared for. After looking briefly at a nervously excited cast, he turned to the audience and announced two major promotions. Heathcote and Revé are now the company’s newest principal artists. A promotion that, on both accounts, was well deserved.