[This is an “instant” review of performances I saw over the past three nights. As soon as possible, I’ll elaborate on it further (and correct inevitable typos and grammatical errors), and add another performance, in a subsequent full review.]
American Ballet Theatre
New York, New York
June 17, 18, and 19 (evening)
Name a ballet choreographed by Sir Kenneth MacMillan with a tragic ending, that features three thrilling romantic pas de deux by the lead dancers, street beggars, harlots, sword fights, a stabbing death, soon to be lovers who find each other across a crowded space, and a stomach-curdling scream – and which is an emotionally draining, cathartic experience for anyone in the audience with a beating heart.
No, not that one. Manon.
After a lengthy absence, Manon returned to American Ballet Theatre’s Met schedule with a week of performances that began on Monday, and that will end Saturday evening. It’s a ballet of extraordinary complexity, with a physically and emotionally demanding female lead character that’s the equal of anything in the contemporary ballet canon, choreography that melts as well as excites, and a consistently galvanizing operatic score by Massenet. It’s one of my favorite ballets. It’s been away too long.
For this engagement, I have (to date) seen three of the four casts, led by Hee Seo and Roberto Bolle on Monday, Sarah Lane and Herman Cornejo on Tuesday, and Isabella Boylston and David Hallberg last might. [Regrettably, I don’t expect to be able to see the fourth cast, led by Misty Copeland and Cory Stearns.] Each of the Manon portrayals, according to ABT’s publicity releases, is a role debut. None of the portrayals disappointed, and any member of the audience seeing only one of them will believe that that one could not be equaled. But there were appreciable differences between them that I’ll discuss below.
Over the years, I’ve seen fewer performances of Manon than I have of other brilliant ballets, primarily because it’s not scheduled as frequently as others. But of those I’ve seen (all in the New York area), the Manons most indelibly etched in my mind are those by Diana Vishneva, Alessandra Ferri, and Sylvie Guillem. That nothing I’ve seen to date can equal these portrayals is not surprising. That two of them are already close to it speaks both to the ballet’s depth, as well as the dancers’ extraordinary talents as dancer / actors.
I’ll elaborate on the Manon story in an expanded review. In summary, young Manon Lescaut is on her way to a convent, but stops in a courtyard where she meets her brother Lescaut (in the novel on which the opera and then this ballet is based, Lescaut is her cousin), who spends his time scheming ways to make money, currently focusing on partnering attractive women with older men for the equivalent of a finder’s fee and the promise of more riches to come. In other words, he’s a Belle Epoque pimp. Manon, either willingly or under her brother’s influence, becomes one of his lures – with the particular target being a rich bon vivant and foot fetishist, Monsieur G.M. But while in the process of seducing the already seduced Monsieur G.M., Manon spies Des Grieux, a bookish young student, and immediately falls in love. Upon seeing her he’s immediately besotted as well, and faster than you can say Romeo and Juliet they run off to Des Grieux’s apartment and its waiting bed.
Not willing to give up on his financial bonanza, Lescaut finds them, bringing Monsieur G.M. with him (conveniently, after Des Grieux dashed off — maybe a post-tryst need for a cigarette or two). Fully equipped with furs and jewels and abetted by Lescaut, Monsieur G.M. convinces Manon that a life of loveless luxury with an oily perfumed pompous pervert beats a life of poverty and puppy love. Finding Manon gone, Des Grieux gets just a little upset. Lescaut attempts to buy his acceptance with some of the money Monsieur G.M. paid in commission, but Des Grieux repeatedly rejects the offer until Lescaut convinces him with a stranglehold.
After becoming Monsieur G.M.’s trophy companion, while at a “party” given by her wealth provider at a “Peculiar Hotel,” which could pass as a high class nineteenth century bordello, complete with Madame, courtesans, and prospective customers. It’s quickly apparent that Manon enjoys being in the company of courtesan temptresses (and is good at being one herself). Des Grieux just happens to be there. She resists, but ultimately falls back in love with Des Grieux. They plan to escape Monsieur G.M. and still acquire a measure of Monsieur G.M.’s wealth via a card game fixed by Lescaut, but Monsieur G.M. figures out that he’s been had – not just by Lescaut but by Des Grieux and Manon as well, and begins fighting back. With a sword. Manon and Des Grieux escape — back to Des Grieux’s apartment, which consequently made it easy for Monsieur G.M. to find them, bringing with him the local constabulary (or his private army). Monsieur G.M. kills Lescaut, and has the gendarmes arrest Manon for being a prostitute. Des Grieux follows her into custody, and eventually to exile in an American penal colony, run by a despicable Jailor, who promptly finds Manon to be the pick of the deported prostitute litter, and forces himself on her. Enraged, Des Grieux stabs and kills him. Manon and Des Grieux escape to a fetid, foggy bayou where Manon dies of starvation or illness or heat stroke or being tossed around like a sack of potatoes.
I’ve joked about the story, but to be clear, there’s nothing funny about Manon (except a wonderfully comic solo by a drunken Lescaut that morphs into an hilarious duet with his courtesan mistress). The ballet, played right, is a cornucopia of passion and action that rarely stops — except for too many curtain-closing between scene musical interludes that interrupt the flow.
Much of MacMillan’s choreography is filler (as it was in Romeo and Juliet), but it all works, and his romantic pas de deux are exquisite. But ultimately Manon is a morality tale, and what makes the piece, and the performance, is Manon’s journey.
In the usual Manon portrayals I’ve seen, she’s often depicted as a novice but willing courtesan-to-be from the beginning, easily convinced to seduce older rich men by her brother, but probably inclined to do it all along. Maybe it’s a family trait – and maybe her family sent her to a convent not from any religious conviction, but to insulate her from her temptations. In any event, it’s Manon’s suffering that people most remember, rather than the fact that she (to an extent abetted by Lescaut) brought on herself.
This was the sense I got from Seo’s and Boylston’s Manon – totally consistent with other portrayals I’ve seen, and with what audiences have come to expect. But Seo added something extra, a convincing (perhaps a bit overly convincing) sensuality, that Boylston lacked. [Now if only she can exude that quality when she dances Odile.] I find it difficult to believe that this was Seo’s debut; she looked that comfortable in the role, and was that accomplished. [She’d previously danced the pas de deux, with Stearns, at the most recent Youth America Grand Prix Gala, and looked equally accomplished then.] Bolle, who was to celebrate his “Farewell” ABT performance three nights later, started off a bit rusty-lookin but quickly delivered a first-rate Des Grieux, topped off by a ballet-ending scream that rivaled that of MacMillan’s Juliet.
Seo’s Manon was also incalculably aided by James Whiteside’s Lescaut. No matter what Seo’s inclinations from the outset might have been, Whiteside made it look like he made her do it. It was an amazing performance by Whiteside – by far the best performance of a Lescaut I can recall, and by far the best performance that I’ve seen from Whiteside to date. He ripped up the stage. He was a force, and he was dominant in the scenes he was in. Stella Abrera also gave an extraordinary, outsized performance as Lescaut’s mistress.
Last night, Boylston and Hallberg delivered very fine performances as well. Had one not seen Seo’s (and Lane’s), one might have found it as emotionally devastating as it needs to be. But it’s a question of degree and characterization preference. I sensed the “courtesan-in-training” character immediately, and found it difficult to build up sympathy for her notwithstanding the passion she displayed with Hallberg and the quality of her execution. Her portrayal also lacked the detail that both Seo and Lane provided, too often looking aloof and flat rather than seductive, or, later, as an experienced courtesan. Hallberg did a very fine job with his introductory Act I solos, and his partnering throughout. His Act I was by far the best of the three. But in Act III, his classical purity was much too evident, which slightly diminished the concluding scene’s impact.
Lane’s Manon was a Manon of a different color, and to me it worked brilliantly. This Manon had a purity, and a vulnerability, about her from the beginning that fit both Lane and the story, and that made the whole ballet far more complex than one where Manon is a willing courtesan / seducer as soon as she leaves her carriage. In the end, this characterization made her performance even more heart-wrenching than Seo’s, and far more tragic. As finely wrought as Seo’s Act III was, Lane’s took it to another dimension of suffering and anguish. I will never forget the way Guillem looked when she first appeared in Act III — it sent shivers up and down my spine, and I suspect the spines of others in that audience as well. Lane’s was the equal of that, with an added layer of vulnerability. She was not a broken woman who made bad choices and who’d reached bottom; she was all that, but she was also a broken spirit.
The problem in the Lane / Cornejo Manon was in their Act I, where to my eye they both were deferring to Herman’s recent injury (this was his first ABT performance this 2019 Met Season, and until the last minute no one I’d spoken with seemed certain that he’d be available for this one). Though the bravura stuff was maintained and done well, and the passion during the pas de deux was off the charts, the energy flow when they danced together was less powerful than between Hee Seo and Bolle. It may not have been noticeable to those who only saw Tuesday’s performance, but it appeared that way by comparison. As fine as their execution was in – in the pas de deux and elsewhere in Act I, it appeared to me that they physically held back a bit. Gradually, however, as the evening progressed Cornejo seemed to become more secure, and the rest of the ballet was superbly done by both of them, with Lane walking the character tightrope in Act II perfectly (as did Seo, but in a different, more knowing way), and in Act III, Lane’s performance was one for the ages. It was as memorable as her mad scene in Giselle last year: it was that good. Once again, Lane exceeded expectations.
I’ll elaborate in more detail on the ballet and the performances in a subsequent expanded review.