Dance Review: Parisian Sexcapades

The time is right for the revival of ballet about a country mouse who becomes a Parisian courtesan.

The Royal Ballet’s production of “Manon,” presented by the Bank of America Celebrity Series and the Wang Center for the Performing Arts.

By Debra Cash

We’re living in a gilded age when everything and everyone seems to be for sale, so perhaps it makes sense that the late Sir Kenneth Macmillan’s 1974 “Manon” is being revived in both the Royal Ballet production that opened in Boston last night and at American Ballet Theatre later this month.

An inexorable melodrama of sex, crime and depravity, “Manon” takes place in designer Nicholas Georgiadis’s sumptuous environment of gilded carriages and autumnal brocades. Based on Abbe Prevost’s famous 18th century novel and two even more famous operas by Massenet and Puccini, MacMillan envisions a world of gentlemen in tricorne and sweeping greatcoats and women who cheerfully raise their skirts for jewelry, of pickpockets and rat catchers only marginally more desperate than the cruel aristocrats. When Manon’s young suitor, Des Grieux, tries to cheat at a card game, it just underscores that in “Manon,” everyone is trying to trade up. MacMillan was always a lucid storyteller with a taste for the torrid. Tracking the plot twists in this ballet doesn’t require a synopsis (which is good, because the one in the program is full of odd elisions). Manon, a country mouse turned Parisian courtesan ends up a prostitute exiled to the New World, raped by her jailer and dying under the Spanish moss of the Louisiana swamplands.

As portrayed by Royal Ballet principal Tamara Rojo, Manon is less calculating than heedless. Sex is something she knows how to do, so why not take advantage of what it can bring her? She simply doesn’t think through her decisions and pays for it with her life. Rojo, who is alternating in the title role with Alina Cojocaru and Zenaida Yanowsky, is petite, with sparkling dark eyes and amazing feet so deeply arched they seem cupped. When the student Des Grieux sees her, he can’t help but be captivated, although MacMillan has already indicated he is a noble sort who would rather cozy up to a book than to a harlot.

Carlos Acosta, who danced Des Grieux on opening night, is alternating in the run with two Danes, Johan Kobborg and Kenneth Greve. Acosta is not a natural legato dancer. The role of Des Grieux calls for a lot of effortless extensions, and Acosta sets up each step too obviously. He is a convincing actor throughout — besotted, desperate and protective — but only comes into his own as a dancer when he is able to let loose with some passionate energy. But with the Royal Ballet’s color-blind casting — Acosta is Afro-Cuban — the plot takes on an extra edge, as if Manon was having an inopportune affair with Pushkin.

During their “getting acquainted” duet, Manon keeps turning to look into De Grieux’s face and moves her legs as if to walk away but he lifts her in the opposite direction. She is literally being “carried away” by the young student’s sincerity. No wonder she beds him on the first date.

“Manon” has not one but two bedroom scenes. Both are reminiscent of the bedroom scene MacMillan created for his “Romeo and Juliet” which became a famous film with Rudolph Nureyev partnering Margot Fonteyn. Playful, sexy, and punctuated with naturalistic kisses and embraces, these love scenes are full of tricky lifts that probably looked more inventive thirty years ago.

MacMillan’s choreographic intermingling is more meaningful when he has Manon dance with her pimp of a brother who is procuring her for the wealthy Monsieur G.M. (played with hauteur and big walking stick by William Tuckett). Lescaut (Jose Martin) steers her free leg over Monsieur’s back and offers her pointed foot for the aristocrat’s delectation. Manon’s transformation into a courtesan is abrupt but convincingly creepy. We’re watching a woman decide to be objectified. Later, at a brothel party, she allows herself to be passed among a crowd of men like a trophy or a plate of hors d’oevres.

Much of “Manon” takes place in public and private sex supermarkets. Former Boston Ballet principal Sarah Lamb, returning triumphantly to her hometown two weeks after having been named a principal in London, danced the key role of Lescaut’s Mistress opening night and repeats the role on Saturday. The security of her classical technique with its balances and calibrated shifts of direction conveyed the character’s sassy confidence as clearly as her hiked petticoats. At the party, Lamb strode among the girls for sale like a deposed queen. Partnered by Martin, dancing “drunk” as if his very joints had been lubricated, Lamb conveyed Lescaut’s Mistress’ real talent: she could make her fool of a man look competent.

The Royal Ballet’s production of “Manon,” presented by the Bank of America Celebrity Series and the Wang Center for the Performing Arts, is at the Wang Theatre through Saturday, June 17, 2006.

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