Kenneth MacMillan may have created Manon in 1974, but forty years later his themes resonate as strongly as ever. In a society that not only struggles to establish an equal gender footing, but is still in the process of figuring out what that equality might be, the dialogue between what is and what should be is especially important. One need look no further than the recent allegations of sexual assault about CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi, and the did-he-or-didn’t-he debate, to see just how relevant the issue of gender equality still is.
The National Ballet of Canada’s Manon, which opened on November 8 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto, presented the ballet with morally ambiguous characters and blurred the edges between right and wrong, light and dark. There were no clear-cut goodies and baddies, and each character possessed more than a bit of both within them.
At the heart of the piece is Manon (danced by Sonia Rodriguez on opening night), who very quickly shows herself to be not so pure-hearted, as she maintains an innocent façade whilst stealing money from an older gentleman. When Rodriguez first glides in, dancing lithely and elegantly, all eyes — including the cognoscenti onstage — immediately turn to her. It’s not the first time Rodriguez has danced the principal role in a ballet that requires its lead to be complex and a little tarnished (Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, Romola Nijinsky in Nijinsky), but she’s taken the ambiguity to a new level. As a seasoned interpreter of roles, Rodriguez chose to dance her Manon with a tasty bit of darkness. While a younger dancer might have leaned more to interpreting Manon as an ingenue, Rodriguez, who is forty-two and married with two children, was able to add considerable bite and depth to her role.
Des Grieux, Manon’s young lover, was danced by Guillaume Côté on opening night. He’s a penniless young student with not much more to offer the world than good looks, strength and a noble sense of honour, with his lack of riches, in particular, dictating his sense of right and wrong in the world. Those qualities are good enough for Manon, and Côté spins, pirouettes and leaps his way into her heart, while she responds at first with shyness, and then by handing herself over wholly and unyieldingly. It’s a beautiful pas de deux that’s tinged with sadness, as both dancers convey a joyous innocence of what’s in store for them.
Manon’s brother, Lescaut (danced by Francesco Gabriele Frola on opening night, who was plucked from the corps at the last minute because of a rash of injuries), is trying to marry her off to the highest bidder, who turns out to be Monsieur Guillot de Morfontaine, played by Rex Harrington. She submits to his advances with unseeming haste, but it’s clear there’s more to the picture than that: Manon seems to realize that in order to effect any sort of change, she has to do it from the middle, even if it means letting herself be bought like a shiny trinket.
Rodriquez and Côté’s second pas de deux has considerably more heat and takes on an almost paso doble form, but there’s still a gentleness to it. These young lovers still haven’t anticipated the conflicts they’re about to encounter, but Rodriguez foreshadows it by dancing with a bit of distance, which Côté’s Des Grieux either takes no notice of or doesn’t want to admit to seeing.
When Des Grieux discovers both who his beloved is betrothed to and what she appears to find security in, a resolute acceptance passes over Côté’s face. If this is the baggage that comes with the woman he loves, then he’ll take it, albeit with conditions, and that’s where Manon starts to sink its teeth into humanity. This ballet doesn’t give the false illusion that relationships are a carefree fairytale, but rather that they require compromise, acceptance and sometimes even looking the other way. During their final pas de deux, there’s a push-and-pull between forgiving and forgetting, with neither dancer quite able to do both. Something’s been permanently lost and Des Grieux can’t hide his roughness, but there’s enough of a connection to sidestep that.
Apart from a few minor missteps and errors, the dancers all performed admirably with an agility and lightness during even the darkest moments. The orchestra, led by Martin Yates, was impeccable in its call-and-answer complementation. The lighting design by Robert Thomson was subtle, illuminating Rodriguez and Côté when need be, but not in an overly ostentatious way.
One of the biggest pleasures of the ballet was the set design (Peter Farmer, also the costume designer for the eighteenth-century garb), which was magnificent and breathtaking. Whether it was his trompe-l’œil village to open Manon, richly curtained ballroom or haunted-looking forest, complete with sheer, ragged drapes the proportions of each set, which stretched way up to the rafters, metaphorically underscored just how vast and potentially overwhelming the characters’ troubles were.
And though the set and costumes were clearly from another era, what really anchored Manon was the dancing. Rodriguez and Côté showed the issues and themes of gender imbalance are as topical as ever.~
The Emerging Dance Critics Programme is a partnership with The National Ballet of Canada, grounded in The Dance Current’s educational mandate. Reading Writing Dancing is one of The Dance Current’s educational programs, providing workshops, seminars, mentorship and professional development to emerging and established dance writers alike. As part of our commitment to the field, we partner with like-minded organizations, such as The National Ballet of Canada, to educate dance readers and dance writers, providing public access to dance art and culture, and facilitating dance literacy and appreciation.