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The Shifting Fortunes of Manon, Ballet’s Femme Fatale


The Shifting Fortunes of Manon, Ballet’s Femme Fatale

The choreographer Kenneth MacMillan was famous in his day for taking ballet where it had not previously gone. Notorious, too. From “Solitaire” (1956) to “Different Drummer” (1984), he presented many of his protagonists as outsiders. In his six full-length ballets, he created sophisticated societies onstage, only to show why the leading characters would reject or be rejected by them.

MacMillan (1929-1992) repeatedly took the degradation of women as a central subject. The adolescent heroine of his one-act ballet “The Invitation” (1961) experiences a sexual initiation that turns into rape. When the final curtain falls, it’s evident that her trauma is changing her into another of MacMillan’s outsiders. (Though MacMillan showed male outsider figures too, he makes more of his women’s humiliations, which are often sexual.) The heroine of his full-length “Anastasia,” (1971), surviving the hypocrisies of the Romanov dynasty and the horror of the Bolshevik Revolution, has to weather the often harrowing trials of a psychological clinic.

And in the three-act “Manon” (1974), which returns to American Ballet Theater this week, most of the female characters are using sex to beat poverty, if they can. When this ballet was new, its presentation of women prompted some hostility. That’s unlikely to have changed in the #MeToo era — and yet “Manon” has proved increasingly popular in the 21st century.

MacMillan was adapting the once-risqué novel “Manon Lescaut” (1731), written by the Abbé Prévost; the ballet retains the novel’s early 18th-century setting. The title character is a penniless young woman who chooses the path of money and the demimonde. When, sentenced for prostitution, she’s deported to New Orleans, her long-term lover, the devoted (possessive, obsessive) des Grieux accompanies her. Other men still pursue her; des Grieux finds he’s prepared to kill for her sake. When she dies of exposure in the swamps of Louisiana, he realizes he has nothing left.

Prévost’s Manon was the prototype for the many femmes fatales of literature and other arts whom men follow to their doom: the Lady of the Camellias, Carmen, Lulu. (More often than not, these heroines die; yet the narrative is about their part in the man’s downfall.) These women can be seen as fabulously subversive — or as constructs of misogyny. The novel’s tragic arc, though, belongs not to Manon but to des Grieux, who sacrifices both inheritance and principles for passion.

So how much did MacMillan make Manon a projection of self-deceiving masculine desire (“she drove me to my ruin”)? How much is she a gold-digger, an active agent in her own ascent to bejeweled finery? And how much is she the victim of a profoundly sexist society in that rise and then in her fall? Her story is not interesting unless all these questions keep arising — as MacMillan intended they should.

In a 1974 interview with The New Yorker he said, “My clue to her behavior is her background of poverty. Manon is not so much afraid of being poor as ashamed of being poor. Poverty in that period was a long, slow death.”

His ballet would be uninspiring were it not for his skill in showing the strong erotic current between Manon and des Grieux. Sexual passion was another recurrent theme in MacMillan choreography; and though Manon is seen with other men, it’s with des Grieux alone that she shows intimacy, trust, rapture. The ballet’s four extended pas de deux for this couple chart their relationship from initial, quickly ignited, infatuation to the abandon of final despair.

And MacMillan makes it as much Manon’s story as des Grieux’s — or more. Whereas Prévost’s main angle is how des Grieux is debased and wrecked by the irresistible Manon, MacMillan shows how she too travels a long journey: a darker one. Yes, the ballet’s des Grieux changes from a chivalrous idealist into a wracked, tormented obsessive — but nobody hassles him just for being good-looking, as happens to Manon in all three acts. More important, he’s still alive at the end. Although Manon attains the pinnacle of luxury that has always been her goal, she loses it all.

The ballet and its maker have always had ardent adherents and exponents. When “Manon” was seen in New York, two months after its London premiere, Arlene Croce observed in The New Yorker that MacMillan was making the best roles for women in European ballet. Many have gone on saying, long after his death, that his dramas are the greatest in ballet on either side of the Atlantic.

Natalia Makarova, looking back in her “Dance Autobiography” (1980) wrote that Manon had been her most rewarding role. The British dance critic Jann Parry, MacMillan’s biographer (“Different Drummer,” 2009), has likened the Manons of several recent ballerina interpretations to immigrant sex workers, making what they can from a system that ultimately rejects them like used pulp.

Nonetheless MacMillan’s treatment also caused offense from the first. The critic Mary Clarke, usually a MacMillan admirer, wrote in The Guardian after the premiere, “Basically Manon is a slut and des Grieux is a fool and they move in the most unsavory company.” Jane King, reviewing for the British Communist daily Morning Star, wrote, “You do not have to be a militant feminist to resent MacMillan’s repeated representation of the female sex as deceiver and destroyer of the male.”

MacMillan let his interpreters make their own decisions within the framework he established. To Antoinette Sibley, for whom he created the title character, Manon was not a schemer: “She only makes decisions when she has to.”

No Manon has relished Manon’s jewels, furs, and glamour more happily than Ms. Makarova. For Lynn Seymour, a central MacMillan muse who danced the role in the 1970s, Manon and her brother Lescaut are ‘cut from the same cloth, both bandits, using all they have to achieve what they want … she broke the rules and the punishment crushed her.”

In Act II, when Manon enters the party scene in full splendor as the mistress of Monsieur G.M., she has to pass des Grieux. Most Manons have pointedly averted their eyes from him; Ms. Seymour, chillingly, looked through him as if he had never existed.

Later in the same act, there is a long duet when Manon, having returned to him, tries to enjoy his attentions while retaining the expensive bracelet she has earned from her last protector. Usually it’s resolved by des Grieux ripping it off her wrist — forcing her to choose his love rather than another’s money. But Ms. Seymour made the decision herself, removing the bracelet in a flash of temper: She then embraced him, but not without annoyance.

Diana Vishneva in recent years has addressed the death in a state of feverish exaltation — expiring on a delirious high. More often this century, however, Manon’s death has been shown as the final breaking-point of a series of punishments: Alina Cojocaru, for example, has been limp amid the acrobatics of the final pas de deux, tossed and dropped by her partner as if her will has been broken.

When MacMillan created “Manon,” over eight months in 1973-1974, he was director of the Royal Ballet, a job he had inherited in 1970 from Frederick Ashton. “Manon” abounds in Ashtonisms; Ms. Sibley and Anthony Dowell (her des Grieux) had become a world-class star couple under Ashton’s tutelage. Few people noticed that MacMillan was not just learning from Ashton but criticizing him too: “Anastasia,” “Manon” and “Mayerling” all began with the polished period sophistication in which Ashton excelled, before showing the social, political, and sexual forces that would corrupt those realms.

“Manon” was also made for opera-house audiences, among whom many knew the full-length treatments of the same story by Massenet (the five-act “Manon, 1884)” and Puccini (the four-act “Manon Lescaut,” 1893). Acting on advice from the general director of the Covent Garden opera house, where the Royal Ballet performs, MacMillan made “Manon” to an arrangement of other Massenet music. In 1974, however, Massenet’s stock was low: This new Massenet score was widely criticized.

Today, the ballet’s music is an important part of its popularity. And MacMillan’s ballet — to some his masterpiece — is performed more than either the Massenet or Puccini operas. In London, it is now regularly danced by not one leading company but two: the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden and the English National Ballet. It’s also danced by many other companies around the world.

Yet the tale it tells is far less pretty than the one shown by any “Manon” opera. It remains a ballet to argue about (not only for its presentation of the sexes). But it does remain. Its theatrical achievement still demonstrates the ways in which MacMillan needed to challenge ballet itself.

“Manon,” American Ballet Theater

June 17-22 at the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center;

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