Manon | The Australian BalletKirsty Martin & Robert Curran. Photo Justin Smith

The three act narrative ballet, Manon, begins in the bustling streets of Paris and ends in the murky swamps of Louisiana. Along the way there is jealousy-infused fighting, elicit love, stealing, murder and sexual bribery – not unlike your average soap opera, but with much better dancing!

Choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan was a man known for ballets that teetered on the dark side and didn’t have the happy endings often characteristic of the genre. Manon is a woman torn between a life of material luxury with Monsieur GM, an old man whom she doesn’t love or a poverty-stricken existence with her paramour, the poet Des Grieux. Both options have their drawbacks, but Manon’s choice to flee Paris (after a series of unfortunate events) with Des Grieux proves fatal. Emaciated and weak, she dies in the arms of her lover.

Although it looks dated at times, Manon is a richly textured ballet, especially for the principal dancers. Many ballerinas view dancing Manon as a highlight of their career, as the character must express such a rollercoaster of states, from coy flirtation to deep love and, ultimately, untimely death. Olivia Bell, who debuted as Manon on Saturday night did just this, inhabiting all the variations of the role. In Act Three, with chopped hair and ragged clothes, she was barely recognizable as the same woman who was previously draped in furs and jewels in Act Two.

Bell’s fluid arms that seemed to extend forever matched her crisp leg and footwork. Later, on her death bed, she shifted to a limp, rag doll body, yet stayed in control of the movement. Whether reveling in the ecstasy of being with her lover in his bedroom or having to endure the vileness of pleasing a prison guard, Bell’s interpretations were well paced and convincing.

Damien Welch, who can be stoic at times, came alive as Des Grieux, especially in the more euphoric love scenes, and in his quieter, contemplative solo moments. Andrew Killian played Manon’s drunk and violent brother Lescaut, with clear posturing and Jane Casson as Lescaut’s fiery mistress was a strong counter. The character role of Monsieur GM and Madame were ably acted by Steven Heathcote and Sian Stokes, respectively.

Manon is not a particularly uplifting ballet, but its appeal is in its intense emotions and choreography that ranges from complex and eclectic lower body work to the rolling, dropping to floor and jumping choreography of the townspeople and beggar men. MacMillan mixes ballet styles and incorporates trio as well as pas de deux and solo work. With its storyline, setting and music by Massanet, Manon is often over the top, but within its decadence and depravity there is enough clean and impressive technical dancing to please ballet fans. 

The Australian Ballet presents

with Orchestra Victoria
State Theatre, the Arts Centre
12 – 23 September
Bookings: 1300 136 166

Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House
28 November – 17 December
Bookings: 02 9250 7777

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