“MacMillan used all the modern dramatic techniques at his disposal to engage our emotions, then filled his scenes with choreography that is a wonder to watch.” — Toronto Star
“It is difficult to imagine that MacMillan’s masterwork has ever been staged with more polish, care and enthusiasm than it was by the artists of The National Ballet of Canada. Manon is a story ballet in three acts that is nearly flawless as both theatre and dance” — Toronto Sun
“Raw, earthy Manon a superb ballet. With its artful juxtaposition of tender love duets and carnal trios, Manon is a work that provokes compassion for the human condition... The high inventiveness of the choreography makes for compelling spectacle all on its own” — The Globe and Mail
“Teasing and languorous, tender and ardent, these duets rank among MacMillan’s most passionately detailed accounts of love” — The Independent
Manon, Nijinsky and the Legacy of Realism
By John Reardon
Unlike other narrative art forms, ballet was late to the party when it came to realism. The reasons for this are endlessly debated, but it’s fair to say that while the novel, opera and theatre had long before begun to explore in an unvarnished way the darker, less refined and more troubling elements of life, society and human psychology, ballet, cocooned in its rarefied manner of expression, its obsession with fantasy and its inescapably stylized aesthetic, remained largely immune to this impulse.
The novel, virtually by definition, was a document of the mundane, of the here and now, and from its inception found its raison d’être in the travails and adventures of ordinary people. Its essentially democratizing vision and endlessly flexible form made it an ideal vehicle through which to explore the messiness and unruliness of the everyday. Opera, even as popular entertainment, clung to its aristocratic origins into the 19th-century, but with the rise of verismo, it too found an expanded range of theme in the raw, violent emotions of the peasant and working class. With Ibsen and Strindberg modern drama took on a naturalism that brought a tough-minded and clinical attitude to exploring contemporary bourgeois malaises. But well into the 20th-century, at least when it wanted to tell stories, ballet seemed content with swans and fairy tales. And then Kenneth MacMillan came along.
MacMillan brought the postwar anger and disillusionment of the British theatre into the staid world of ballet. (Seeing John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956 was, he claimed, a transformative moment for him.) He thought narrative ballet had become polite, enervated and irrelevant and wanted to inject it with a jolt of life. If that life included sexual violence, madness, drug addiction, unromantic death and physical and emotional cruelty, then so be it. If ballet was to be a legitimate artistic force in the contemporary world, MacMillan felt, it would have to be able to deal with all kinds of subject matter and not worry about offending establishment sensibilities. This would mean creating a new vocabulary for dance, a vocabulary that would be adequate to the harsh new themes he wished to explore. And that is precisely what MacMillan did. As Alastair Macaulay wrote, he came to be seen as a choreographer “who enlarged ballet by deprettifying it and by forcing upon it new aspects of seriousness.”
Of all MacMillan’s full-length story ballets, Manon is perhaps his greatest and most representative triumph. Premiering in 1974 with the Royal Ballet, the Manon story, which had been explored previously in opera by both Massenet and Puccini, gave MacMillan a perfect vehicle for both his thematic and choreographic concerns. The narrative is rife with class tensions, commodified desire, betrayal and sexual coercion, with the whole dire edifice beginning in the decadence of ancient regime Paris and collapsing in tragic ignominy in the Louisiana swamps.
At once a cry of despair for the possibility of actual love in a fallen and emotionally misshapen world, Manon nevertheless embodies an astonishing tenderness, too, revealed most poignantly in the several unforgettable duets MacMillan created for the role of the ballet’s ill-fated lovers, Manon and des Grieux. These moments, choreographed against the poverty, venality and carnality of the story’s larger social backdrop, are all the more arresting for the brief moments of reprieve they offer the audience. While never entirely absolving them of individual agency and responsibility, MacMillan insists on seeing all the characters in his ballet in a historicized light, shaped as much by social causality as by their innate urges. This is especially true of the ballet’s central character of Manon. Both victim and predator, Manon stands as one of MacMillan’s most complex characterizations and one of contemporary ballet’s greatest interpretive challenges.
The doors that MacMillan so unceremoniously kicked open with his work and its frequently confrontational aesthetic (it has to be mentioned that MacMillan also gave ballet the touchingly elegiac Song of the Earth and the droll Elite Syncopations) were knocked down by subsequent choreographers, who now felt free to use their art to tackle hitherto taboo topics. Even in artists whose work bears little stylistic connection to MacMillan, one can see this inheritance.
John Neumeier is a case in point, specifically in a work such as Nijinsky, his ambitious and emotionally overwhelming kunstlerballet created in 2000 that, along with Manon, is a highlight of the National Ballet’s Fall Season. Although not precisely a “story ballet” and still less a strict biographical work, Nijinsky still retains many of the features of the post-MacMillan realist agenda.
While exploring the life and character of its eponymous subject in a prismatic, multi-faceted manner, Neumeier’s approach does so without recourse to myth, symbol or allegory, the standard features of the traditional full-length ballet. His Nijinsky is a real man in a specific set of personal relationships and alive in a very specific historical context. (As well as the choreography, Neumeier created the set and costumes for the ballet, and his perspective as one of the world’s foremost authorities on Nijinsky’s life and times enhances the richly detailed effect of the ballet’s mise en scene.) At its heart is the issue of the legendary dancer’s madness, and its links with his personal relationships, his conflicted sexuality, the horrors of the First World War and ultimately his own creativity. All themes, one feels, that would have found a comfortable place in a MacMillan ballet.
Yet for all its directness of expression, for all its realism, Nijinsky, like Manon, resists the simplicity of documentary. Nor is it ever just an inert slice of life. If Nijinsky is a biography, Neumeier says, “it is a biography of the soul, a biography of feelings and sensations. . . . In the end, it’s important that it is a ballet, a work of art in itself, understandable, enjoyable, and moving—without having read a single word about Nijinsky.” It’s a sentiment that MacMillan, who sought to communicate in dance the importance of contemporary reality, would surely have embraced.
The National Ballet invites you to attend the Manon Ballet Talk one hour before every show.
Our hugely popular Ballet Talks take place in R. Fraser Elliot Hall in the Four Seasons Centre one hour before every performance. All ticket holders are welcome. Seats for everyone!
Enhance your experience and learn more about our productions from Lindsay Fischer, Artistic Director, YOU dance/Ballet Master.