Deirdre Kelly

Ballet as Class Struggle: Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon


By Deirdre Kelly

Manon, the three-act contemporary ballet that the National Ballet of Canada will present in Toronto this week as the kick-off to its fall 2014 season, is an unconventional work full of pimps, hookers and pickpockets. Cinderella it ain’t. But like the storybook ballets that pepper the repertoires of classical troupes, Manon is, nevertheless, a morality tale in which vice is punished by brutal exile and death.

With its artful juxtaposition of tender love duets and carnal trios that serve as steamy dance equivalents of the menage a trois, Manon is a raw ballet set in the demimonde of 18th-century Paris. Originally created in 1974 by the late Sir Kenneth MacMillan, former resident choreographer of England’s Royal Ballet, the work is based on Abbe Prevost’s 18th- century novel, Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut.

Manon, a poor girl in Regency-era France, makes a fatal detour into the darkling life of a courtesan. Her brother, Lescaut, pimps her to a goutish man of wealth, Monsieur Guillot de Morfontaine, who rewards Manon for sexual favours with diamond-encrusted trinkets that she wears around her throat and wrist like chains of bondage.

Apologies in advance for giving away the ending (though the story is retold in two different operatic versions: Jules Massenet’s of 1884 and Giacomo Puccini’s of 1893), but Manon dies, as does her brother, whose undignified demise comes courtesy of a quick bullet.

Such an ending is, perhaps, routine in fairy-tale worlds, but here, it’s not so cut and dried. In this intelligent ballet, morality is scrutinized through a lens of political inquiry focused on the class struggle.

The ballet’s opening sequences establish that the world Manon lives in is fraught with clashes between rich and poor. Visually, the difference is telegraphed by means of the lush, sparkling robes of the wealthy and the threadbare garments of the downtrodden. Peter Farmer’s costume designs also adorn the courtesans who primp in the borrowed trappings of their supposed betters during ritualized dances of seduction.

In the third act, which is set in the ports, jails and bayous of Louisiana, 18th-century France’s version of New World hell, these women are social outcasts with shorn hair and torn sacks for dresses. Manon is among them, sent into exile as a prostitute by her upper-class patron. Discarded, she is near the breaking point. Her once confident dancing steps have declined into stumbles. The only thing faintly supporting her is love, which appears as Des Grieux, her young, naive lover who followed her from Paris.

But MacMillan is no sentimental fool. In a world in which the rich hold the reins of power, Cupid is no match for Mammon. Manon dies, her lover cries, and so the world turns. While the final tableau recalls other full- length ballets in which lovers are eternally separated by death (Giselle, Swan Lake and La Sylphide), here death brings no redemption. Ultimately, Manon is an anti-romantic work, but one that provokes compassion for the human condition.

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