‘The sweetness of her glance –or rather, my evil star already in its ascendant and drawing me to my ruin – did not allow me to hesitate for a moment.’
—Antoine François Prévost, ‘Manon Lescaut’, 1731
The dancers of the Queensland Ballet did not hesitate for a moment to poetically tell the story of this demanding ballet, Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, staged for the first time since 2014 in Australia. It’s a hugely involved ballet for performers and production team alike, the ballet’s Artistic Director, Li Cunxin reminded audiences during the curtain call on opening night of the undertaking.
The show involves 1,600 items of costume and jewellery, 80 or so cast members, and Lady Deborah MacMillan flown over from London, giving it the ‘mammoth’ quality that Royal Ballet principal Francesca Hayward mentioned in relation to performing it in 2018.
It is rarely staged due to the complexity of costumes, set and props, but also perhaps to the incendiary nature of some of the themes, but this makes Queensland Ballet’s production feel like an even rarer treat. The drama is as unrelenting as the dancing, as we follow the story of ‘fallen woman’, Manon, young, beautiful and full of potential, corrupted by a life of adoration and avarice.
The chemistry between the senior soloists (promoted on the night to principal artists) Mia Heathcote and Patricio Revé, is electric as they dance their way through the vortex of Manon’s fall from grace, from whirling belle of the ball to the final act where she tumbles listlessly into his arms.
Heathcote has an airy quality to her dancing, her reverse bourrées light and nebular; a difficult feat given some of her elaborate costumes, which include a fur trimmed coat with long tails.
Her characteristic costume colour is light blue for Act One, until Act Two where she wears the dark scarlet-lined gown of a courtesan, and Act Three where, banished to the squalor of New Orleans, she wears tattered rags.
The pas de deux sequences between these two really are sublime; Revé lifts Heathcote like a cloud above his head, then seamlessly slides her to the floor. Both of them beckon each other closer and away, as if they are aware of the cruel fate in their stars; infatuated but afraid to love.
Lescaut’s Mistress, danced by Yanela Piñera really shines for the spicy leg extensions and sassy épaulement, especially in the comical pas de deux with Lescaut, where he lunges and lifts her drunkenly, much to her haughty disdain.
There is marvellous allegro of the men, as they bound across the stage showing off their dandy bravado in blouses and tights. But by far the show-stopper in Act Two is Manon’s solo. She has descended from her floaty blue naivety to the dark glittering robe of a woman of the night. The expressive, sensual arms, high tilt of head and slow turns Heathcote perfects, as the corps de ballet is deadly still around her, creates a tableau of awe.
We zoom in on Manon, as she is idolised by the men, carried across the stage and of course, built up to her inevitable fall from grace. These are the gems in Act Two, the rest of the brothel scene is drawn out.
Revé dances a tortured solo as Des Grieux, a lovelorn poet pining after Manon. His tombés and extensions perfectly delineate the depths of his longing. Sword fights, gambling, duels and murder are staged with action and precision, kudos to Principal Répétiteur, Robert Tewlsey.
This is a ballet replete with romance and rage, as well as physically intimate scenes. The ballet hired an intimacy coach to help support the dancers with this, a welcome addition to productions in these times. The lighting and scenery are cinematic and powerful.
This hugely dramatic and engrossing ballet has really met its match with Queensland Ballet and their ambitions to show that they are a world-class ballet company. Heathcote dances as Manon with pathos. Her character once received by audiences as reprehensible, leaves us with a timely question: how has the policing of and exploitation of women’s bodies led to violence and why does this violence persist?
Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon
Queensland Ballet Company
Brisbane Lyric Theatre
Manon will be performed until 8 October 2022.