Manon, like many beloved ballets (Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, Carmen and Swan Lake, for example), is laced with romance but ends in tragedy. The scandalous Manon ballet synopsis is based upon the book, Manon Lescaut by Antoine Francois Prevost, published in 1973. Manon falls in love with Des Grieux, before dabbling with the wealthier Monsieur GM. When she falls out of favor with him (through her own meddling misdeeds), Manon is arrested. Manon and Des Grieux journey to the Americas, but the stressful ordeal takes such an extraordinary toll on the flawed heroine, she shortly passes away. The English National Ballet showed their performance of Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon ballet at the Manchester Opera House in 2018 on the ENB Facebook and YouTube channels from June 24 – 26 T. The ballet lasts about 1 hour and 55 minutes without intervals.

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A man supports a woman in the splits
Dancers Joseph Caley and Alina Cojocaru of English National Ballet play lovers in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon ballet.
Photo credit: Laurent Liotardo

Manon Ballet Review

Act I

There’s a good ten minutes dedicated to scene setting before we meet Manon Lescaut – illustrating the difference between the white-wigged men and women in full-bodied skirts with petticoats, and the dirt-smudged others, begging with cupped hands. MacMillan often stages performers in the background to create ambiance, but the area feels overcrowded. The two large tables probably don’t help; and the busyness distracts from the main small group choreography.

When Manon (Alina Cojocaru) arrives, she uniformly delights her peers – and she revels in her new-found sense of power. After she enchants an old man and the lecherous Monsieur GM (James Streeter) in his red, long-tailed coat, Des Grieux (Joseph Caley) becomes the next casualty. The two share a joyous pas de deux with playful balances before stealing away in a carriage for a scintillating duet at Des Grieux’s quarters – the seduction similar to scenes from MacMillan’s The Mayerling, but altogether less ominous.

A male dancer shows off a ballerina in arabesque
Lescaut (Jeffrey Cirio) shows off his mistress (Katja Khaniukova) in the English National Ballet’s Manon, choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan.
Photo credit: Laurent Liotardo

Manon’s brother, Lescaut (Jeffrey Cirio), swoops in accompanied by Monsieur GM as soon as Des Grieux exits. The love-struck Manon all too quickly snaps out of her reverie to sample material luxuries financed by the unsavory Monsieur. But our annoyance at her fickle nature subsides during a curious pas de trois. Lescaut proffers his sister as bait for money, while Monsieur GM worships Manon, kissing her feet and animalistically heading north. Manon endears herself, just enough, without letting the Monsieur get too close – fan kicking over him, just out of reach. Still, she departs with him.

A dismayed Des Grieux quarrels with Lescaut when he hears Manon has left. Apparently, the golden coins can’t console him, like they do Manon’s brother. Des Grieux can’t get the upper hand in the physical fight with Lescaut (obviously, because he uses a moment of escape to sit woodenly at his desk); and this duo departs the apartment as well.

A man embraces a ballerina en pointe on stage
Alina Cojocaru and Joseph Caley share a duet in Manon as Manon and Des Grieux.
Photo credit: Laurent Liotardo

Act II

The second act delivers a bit of bawdy fun with pretty girls in pastels and an inebriated Lescaut. It’s a pleasure to see Lescaut dance more, instead of solely pacing with a hand under his chin to illustrate his scheming. The Mayerling springs to mind, again. But the ladies in this second act are less edgy and more comical as they jockey for male patrons. The courtesans upstage each other and compete for the more attractive suitors. They also drop all sense of decorum when a trinket falls to the ground; they drop, too – scrambling on their hands and knees for a payout.  

Time seems to stop when Manon arrives in her glamorous coat and dress with gorgeous lace applique. Beguiled men carry Manon like a prize trophy, her leg pointing skyward as tantalizing as Ralphie’s dad’s fishnet stocking-ed leg lamp from A Christmas Story movie. The doting crowd kiss her hands, and Manon only falters when she encounters Des Grieux, hands nervously clasped at her front. His continual prostration eventually wins her over – just before his poorly executed con job, which results in a short sword fight, Lescaut’s execution and Manon’s arrest.

Women in colorful tutus stand to one side of the room, gentlemen in wigs on the other
The courtesans in colorful tutus show off for the gentleman on the other side of the room in Manon.
Photo credit: Laurent Liotardo

Act III

The third act also takes time to set the scene. Fine ladies in powder blue outfits dance in a dockyard with young men wearing tricorn hats. Finally, our bedraggled heroine disembarks from the ship, her forced transatlantic journey ended; although she returns barely recognizable with short hair (and this abrupt makeover seems similar to the last scene of MacMillan’s Anastasia ballet). The number on Manon’s back identifies her as a prisoner; and despite Des Grieux’s attempt to protect her, she is seized by a pair of officers. She is left with the lustful Gaoler (Fabian Reimair), who forcefully subjects her to his abrasive desires and returns Manon’s diamond-studded bracelet as ‘payment’. After Des Grieux stabs him, she chucks it by his corpse.

Although this would have been a powerful ending, we follow the lovers to a mist-filled landscape, where we meet a mysterious handful of ladies in and characters from earlier scenes: Lescaut and his plucky mistress (Katja Khaniukova), a contented Monsieur and the brothel’s Madame (Jane Haworth). In Manon’s mind, the Monsieur and other mistresses happily carry on with their lives. Meanwhile, Manon’s physical body is exhausted, even with a sturdy Des Grieux to raise and support her. Manon frantically runs into a lift and snatches at the air with her arms; but her body goes limp before she even touches the ground.

A ballerina leans back, supported by a man in a suit
The Gaoler (Fabian Reimair) sets his sights on Manon (Alina Cojocaru) in Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet.
Photo credit: Laurent Liotardo

Des Grieux grieves for his lover, and the audience is left to wonder how else Manon’s life could have played out.

Star Rating:

Alina Cojocaru brings an interesting dimension to our misguided heroine, Manon; she’s not an innocent fairy tale princess – but she’s not as devilishly devious as Carmen (from Bizet’s famous opera.) Sure, she was foolish, but did she really deserve her fate? Some of the choreography was very impressive; if only the whole was as captivating as the woman for which the ballet was named.

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Did you see the English National Ballet perform Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon ballet – whether in person or online? Which was your favorite act or scene? Let us know in the comments field below.

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