Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY; 7(m) June 2014

Colleen Boresta

It is standing room only at the May 7th matinee at the Metropolitan Opera House.  American Ballet Theatre is performing Kenneth MacMillan’s ‘Manon’.  The stars are two of ABT’s finest dancers, Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes.  Kenneth MacMillan choreographed ‘Manon’ in 1974 to incidental music from Jules Massenet, not the music from the opera, ‘Manon Lescaut’.  MacMillan’s ballet is based on the 18th century novel by Abbe Prevost.

Kenneth MacMillan’s ‘Manon’ is a richly dramatic work where the choreography fits the music seamlessly.  MacMillan has created many spellbindingly innovative lifts for this work.  One of the most memorable occurs at the second act soiree where Manon is lifted and tossed from man to man until she is placed at G.M.’s feet.

The ballet only works if the dancers become the characters, especially the dancers performing the roles of Manon and Des Grieux.  This is definitely the case when Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes take on the roles Saturday afternoon.  Their acting is so real, so natural.  At the start of the ballet Manon is a young girl who has grown up both poor and ashamed of her poverty.  She soon, however, reveals her attraction to all things money can buy.  Vishneva’s dancing shows clearly how Manon is transformed from an innocent girl to a seductive courtesan.  She also reveals how Manon is trapped between her love for Des Grieux and her love of luxury. In Act III Vishneva’s Manon is a broken woman who is redeemed by Des Grieux’s devotion.  This allows Manon to die in peace.

Gomes’ DesGrieux is a naïve young student whose life takes a dark turn when he falls for the young courtesan.  Through both his dancing and acting, Gomes displays Des Grieux’s joyous love for Manon in Act I.   When Manon leaves him for G.M., Gomes’ pain is heartbreaking.  He will do anything to win Manon back, including cheating at cards.  (Among 18th century gentlemen murder was excused.  Cheating at cards was not.)  At the end of the ballet, when Manon dies in his arms, Gomes’ Des Grieux’s despair is so palpable that the tears are running down my cheeks.

As fantastic as Vishneva and Gomes are separately, together they set the Metropolitan Opera House alight.  They are such a perfect twosome that their images from ’Manon’ are forever engraved in my mind’s eye.  Their passion even continues in the bows where Vishneva is honored for her ten years of dancing with American Ballet Theatre.

Other performers stand out too.  Herman Cornejo is a wonderfully sleazy Lescaut.  His dancing is thrilling with Cornejo performing lightning quick turns and pas chats, where Cornejo springs into the air like a cat.  He is very funny in the Act II soiree as an obviously drunk Lescaut’s dancing is both bravura and off-center.  He is even funnier when he dances with his mistress who is performed by Misty Copeland.  It must be difficult for such a great dancer to perform so badly.

Copeland’s mistress is wonderfully done.  Both her dancing and her acting are first-rate.  Victor Barbee’s characterization of Monsieur G.M. is a powerful one.  As the Louisiana jailer Roman Zhurbin adds another rich portrayal to his already vast arsenal.  All the characters in the ballet are extremely memorable – from courtesans and gentlemen to the beggars in the courtyard.  ABT’s production of ‘Manon’ is a fantastic one which I hope they dance for years to come.