The title character in Manon is usually played as an amoral femme fatale. After all, Sir Kenneth MacMillan's ballet -- based on Abbé Prévost's 18th-century novel Manon Lescaut -- has her betraying her true love, penniless divinity student Des Grieux, to be the mistress of a wealthy man. But as portrayed by Georgian ballerina Nina Ananiashvili in a rare appearance for Houston Ballet, she inspires more sympathy than any other character on stage.
Ananiashvili's interpretation hinges on her performance in the first act. Manon arrives on the scene -- an inn near Paris where wealthy gentlemen and well-kept courtesans mingle, sort of, with beggars and criminals -- as a virginal schoolgirl of only 16. But, as a certain pop star is wont to say, she's not that innocent. When the flick of her foot attracts attention, she does it again. Her gestures wander up to frame her pretty face as if she were suddenly realizing its power. MacMillan's sometimes unusual and difficult steps come so naturally to Ananiashvili that she and the audience are free to focus on her character development. It's clear that this Manon is not necessarily corrupted by Regency Parisian society; she is simply quick to learn how to survive in it.
And how, MacMillan seems to ask, could she behave any differently? She has no family to speak of -- aside from a brother, Lescaut, who would auction her to the highest bidder. There are no women of independent means in this world; the only options for a girl like Manon, once she has strayed from her path to the nunnery, appear to be living in poverty or attaching herself to a rich man. Perhaps it's nobler to be poor, but MacMillan portrays even the poor as undignified -- alternately stealing and begging.
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The introduction of Des Grieux doesn't help us condemn her choice. His opening solo, as performed by Dominic Walsh, is one of the slowest, sleepiest dances of the three-hour production. Walsh also seems to have some trouble early on partnering the lanky Ananiashvili, especially in the difficult dead lifts, in which the ballerina is raised overhead from a stationary position rather than helping her partner with a little jump. The student may be pure of heart, but he seems boring -- especially when compared to the wealthy suitor Monsieur G.M., danced by Nicholas Leschke with all the evil, manipulative sex appeal of John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons.
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Even Manon's brother, Lescaut (Randy Herrera), is given more to work with than Des Grieux. Sure, he profits from his sister's beauty, but he feels bad about it, as evidenced by a tragicomic drunken dance in which he tries to wash down the wickedness of what he has done. Lescaut is further humanized by the love of his understanding mistress (Leticia Oliveira). Oliveira's outstanding performance in their intoxicated pas de deux -- she patiently holds her proper balletic position, waiting for her fumbling lover to lift her out of the splits where he has dropped her -- turns what could have been a ham-handed attempt at comic relief into a moving part of the story.
But Walsh's Des Grieux is stuck on one emotional note: hopeless devotion. So it comes as no surprise when he cheats at cards to win Manon some money or when he kills the cruel New Orleans jailer who has raped her. Walsh fails to make us care about his character's abandoning his pious moral code. We care only about what happens to Manon.
Of course, it's hard for an almost archetypal "young male lover" to compete with a character as complex as Manon. That was MacMillan's genius: to introduce sophisticated, sexy psychodrama in the form of an ambiguous female protagonist to the ballet's stage. "I'm sick to death of fairy stories," MacMillan once said. "I want people to go into the theater to be moved by something they can recognize." And Manon is no ethereal fairy. In fact, when the ballet premiered in 1974, London audiences were shocked by her clearly expressed sexual appetite -- not to mention the dancers actually passionately kissing, the sensual passing of the courtesan from client to client and a scene of forced fellatio.
Some say his work is even more impressive for marrying this kind of modern content with a traditional, audience-friendly, three-act structure with all the usual Marius Petipa-inspired dance segments. But this is precisely the problem. Manon tells a modern story, but the pacing of its score, choreography and plot development can't keep up. Only Peter Farmer's elegant and simple sets -- designed 20 years later for the Houston premiere of the ballet and now used by many companies -- are quick and light enough. If MacMillan could have pared down the rest of the ballet in the same way, it would have made an excellent one-act. As it is, Manon is an exciting story trapped in a slow, heavy body.