Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon premiered in 1974, not quite a decade after his Romeo and Juliet, and in some ways is the earlier ballet’s dark twin. Each has as its heart young lovers in a hostile environment whose instant attraction to one another ends in tragedy; each has hugely coveted leading roles of the kind that make reputations.
Queensland Ballet first staged the MacMillan Romeo and Juliet in 2014 and revived it five years later for a new set of dancers. On opening night in 2019 the star-crossed lovers were Mia Heathcote, then a 24-year-old soloist, and Patricio Revé, then just 21 and in the company’s lowest rank. Both were given a promotion to the next level at the end of the performance.
There was a sense of history repeating itself, and of a little history being made, when QB added Manon to its repertoire on September 28. Again Heathcote, in the title role, and Revé, as the student des Grieux, were first cast. Again both were promoted onstage at evening’s end, this time to the pinnacle of principal artist.
It was an exciting, albeit not terribly surprising, coda to the performance. As in Romeo and Juliet the two looked wonderful together but the intervening years have deepened and burnished their partnership and their individual artistry. The rapture and abandon so essential to Macmillan’s deeply sensual pas deux are now fully present. Heathcote, now 27, and Revé, 24, looked free and natural together in even the most challenging choreography. The chemistry was sizzling.
For both Shakespeare’s couple and for Manon and des Grieux love is intoxicating, overwhelming and unutterably dangerous. MacMillan based his ballet on the scandalous 18th-century novel L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost and sets it in that time. Manon, pausing on her way to join a convent, meets des Grieux entirely by chance. A few minutes here or there and the two may not have come face to face. But they do, putting a spanner in the works of Manon’s brother, Lescaut. He hopes his beautiful sister can be put under the protection of a wealthy man, for a fee of course. In the heat of their coup de foudre Manon and des Grieux impetuously run away. The chase is on.
The ballet isn’t short but the key events tumble upon each other quickly. Lescaut and man-of-means Monsieur GM lure Manon away from des Grieux with fancy clothes and jewels. Des Grieux lures her back with love but rich men don’t like being bested. Arrest, transportation to New Orleans and death in a Louisiana swamp are Manon’s fate.
Manon, now nearly half a century old, looks somewhat problematic after #MeToo. It’s the story of yet another young woman going to the slaughter and MacMillan trivialises what is required of working girls in the high-class brothel in which Manon is presented as a kind of superior exhibit. If some of the ensemble work looks tacked on it’s because Manon has more than its fair share of filler.
The ballet survives, though, because of the string of ecstatic – well, erotic really – pas de deux for Manon and de Grieux and because Manon is a role a fine dancer can make her own. Heathcote’s gentle, glowing Manon had something of Juliet’s innocence and all of her radiance. She and Revé were both luxurious, filling the space with expressive, silken lines that seem to go on forever.
On opening night Alexander Idaszak was a marvellous Lescaut, a louche charmer who on occasion looked as if he might be ashamed of his venality. His showpiece Act II exhibition of drunkenness was less funny than it often is and therefore much more interesting. Yanela Piñera was Lescaut’s forbearing mistress and Vito Bernasconi the forbidding Monsieur GM.
It’s worth noting that senior soloist Idaszak will have his turn at des Grieux at the matinee of October 8, partnering first company artist Chiara Gonzalez. And then at that evening’s performance he will reprise his Lescaut. Respect.
In other casting of note, the extraordinary Alina Cojocaru will dance Manon at two performance with QB principal Victor Estévez as her des Grieux. QB artistic director Li Cunxin is Monsieur GM for three performances, having des Grieux and Lescaut under his belt back in the day, including when he was a principal with The Australian Ballet. Ballet is very much an art of connection between present and past, with Li’s appearances being just one link. The QB production uses sets and costumes (Peter Farmer designs) from The Australian Ballet, which has staged Manon five times in nearly 30 years. The most recent season of it, in 2014, opened in Brisbane as it happens. During that run Monsieur GM was played by Steven Heathcote, who was in his time a much admired des Grieux. And yes, he is Mia’s father and was in the opening-night audience.
The music for Manon was drawn from a wide range of pieces by Massenet, excluding his opera on the subject. The result is a score big on romance and sensuality that sounds as if it were written expressly for the ballet. With QB music director Nigel Gaynor at the helm, Queensland Symphony Orchestra – and in particular the brass – had a great night on both September 28 and 29.
The second performance was headlined by Joel Woellner, who looked wonderful in the choreography created on the supremely elegant Anthony Dowell, and Neneka Yoshida, whose passivity as Manon lowered the temperature too much for comfort. She danced impeccably but didn’t seem to have a clear position on the character. As do the best exponents of the role bluntly called Lescaut’s Mistress, Laura Toser made you wish she had been given the honour of a name. She registered as a woman of wit and substance making the best of her situation. Kohei Iwamoto was a standout as a Lescaut with a strong vicious streak, although the power of his characterisation was somewhat at odds with Lescaut’s quick change of heart in the second act when he helps Manon to escape the clutches of Monsieur GM, the very man to whom he delivered her.
It’s not often that Monsieur GM gets entrance applause but Li’s appearance was greeted warmly by the audience on September 29. Li’s decision to take the role paid off handsomely. His stage presence is undiminished and he wasn’t afraid to reign as the most unpleasant character in a ballet not short of them. In Li’s hands Monsieur GM was indelibly creepy.
Manon runs at Queensland Performing Arts Centre until October 8.
Alina Cojocaru dances the title role on October 3 and 6.
Li Cunxin dances Monsieur GM on September 29, October 4 and October 6 (matinee).