Sarah Kaufman's Review of Royal Ballet Performing 'Manon' at Kennedy Center

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 27, 2009

Kenneth MacMillan's three-act ballet "Manon" contains enough sex, deceit and sudden disappearances to rival South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's recent news conference. But it is even more unnecessarily rambling. And it goes into many more sordid details you really wish you didn't have to see.

If as a ballet, "Manon," which the Royal Ballet performed Thursday at the Kennedy Center Opera House, has a certain appeal -- there are some lovely pas de deux -- as a portrait of a woman it is utter garbage. I saw a few little girls in the audience, and I wanted to cover their eyes. When we meet her, the titular heroine is a pickpocket and a flirt; she later becomes a whore and a full-scale thief, then a prisoner and human mop, dragged around the stage by one man after another. Then she dies. All along, MacMillan pours on the misogyny and humiliations; why, in this ballet we even see the ballerina on her knees performing fellatio flagrante.

So, no, I don't like "Manon." Never have. The story, set in 18th-century Paris, is puerile. The music -- a pastiche of compositions by Jules Massenet (none of which comes from his opera "Manon") -- is atmospheric but doesn't sweep you along as a strong organic score might. But the ballet's popularity is unfailingly high -- it is in the repertoires of American Ballet Theatre as well as the Royal, and both troupes perform it fairly regularly. The Royal considers it a signature piece. It was created for the troupe in 1974 by the prolific choreographer (though we know him on these shores chiefly for his "Romeo and Juliet") who was then the company's director. His frothy, swooning way with a dance phrase is highly prized by this company, and its dancers have honed it to a glorious sheen. Hate "Manon" or love it, the dancing of it Thursday was sublime.

I'm deeply in the debt of dancers who can soar above such base material. But by any measure, the cast led by Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta was solidly top-flight. As Manon, Rojo captivated from her entrance, with those dark, expressive Audrey Hepburn eyes. A waif of a dancer, she has a certain majesty about her, in her bearing, in the way she swept the Parisian setting with an awed gaze that told us she was not at all ready for the convent her brother, Lescaut, meant to put her in. With her extremely pliant feet -- curved like feather quills, a lyrical statement in themselves -- and delicate build, she is a bit reminiscent of Gelsey Kirkland. But her physical and technical gifts aside, she was meltingly, touchingly human. She made you believe this pulp fiction was some kind of great art. With her finely detailed, full-body expression, she gave it fleshly dimension and a tender poetry it hardly deserved.

Acosta, one of the world's great virtuosos, is also a great dancer-actor, and his passionate response to Rojo was what truly drove the story forward. Interestingly, the traditional ballerina role was flipped here. Acosta's character, Des Grieux, is desperate to lift her out of the mud, and he is the one who, though wronged, remains pure of heart, striving to lift their bond beyond the physical to the spiritual. This is usually the female lead's position, but instead, Manon is the rascal. Acosta's Des Grieux was uncommonly sympathetic; you ached for him to find happiness, but instead he ends up with Rojo's limp body. In a swamp. In Louisiana.

How they get there from Paris is a circuitous route encompassing an at times confusing, at times over-elaborate sequence of events: love scenes, lust scenes, card games and a roomful of harlots and the men who pull them into their laps. "Manon" shoots very, very low, but at least the Royal dancers fly it high.

"Manon" repeats through tomorrow afternoon, with cast changes.

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