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McMillan's "Manon


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#1 Ed Waffle

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Posted 03 October 2000 - 07:56 PM

Nanatchka, in discussing “Edward II” had written: “This ballet has all the vulgarity and misogyny of MacMillan's Manon, taken to a truly staggering extreme.” Since the lady in question (Nanatchka, not Manon) has been an excellent guide to what is gold and what is dross over the years that I have read her, I decided it was time to see just how bad it was. Having never seen it on stage, since it is not often presented by touring companies who make it to the provinces, I resorted to videotape. The always reliable Robert Greskovic in “Ballet 101” says, “Using none of Massenet’s music from his opera of the same name, MacMillan’s ballet tells the same story, with slight adjustments of the ballet medium.” I viewed the tape he discussed, with the Royal Ballet featuring Jennifer Penney, Anthony Dowell and David Wall from 1982.

It is difficult to even call the balletic Manon a character—she is more an objectified target of lust. MacMillan does bad guys well—Monsieur G.M. is reptilian enough to serve as the material for Manolo Blahnik—but the gentler human emotions seem beyond him. Evil, especially extreme evil, is easy to depict since there is so much energy in evil characters.

The penultimate scene in the gaolers room is particularly egregious, since it depicts torture and the torture is not only unnecessary but also completely at odds with everything that we have seen of Manon up to that point. She has not hesitated to spend the only currency she possesses in the past and for significantly less return. The opulence of the life that Monsieur G.M. offered might have seemed worthwhile, but the captain in New Orleans has the power of life and death over the inmates.

It is true that characters on the stage don’t (and shouldn’t) act like “real” people but they should act according to the way they have been shown to develop or not develop within the work in question. One does not complain that princesses aren’t really turned into swans, that a magic kiss can’t really awaken a girl from a coma or that a jealous lover didn’t kill Attila before he could sack Rome. It is enough that the work of art which encompasses such events is sufficiently profound to allow us to suspend our disbelief. If Attila does not attack Rome because he completes an anger management class or if Sleeping Beauty hadn’t eaten a poisoned apple but was suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome the drama loses much of its effectiveness.

Once she arrives in New Orleans, MacMillan’s Manon does not act in the way she has invariably done until then and our willing suspension of belief becomes too difficult to maintain. Her recalcitrance in submitting to the captain is no different from a person with access to cash refusing to buy her way out of this situation. In the more debased argot of today, she refuses to “give it up”, even though she has done so countless times in the past and with much less at stake.

Earlier, the pas de trois between Manon, her brother and Monsieur G.M. is not erotic, bawdy or sensual. It is simply in bad taste. The material is there for much more, of course. The depiction of sexuality with lyricism will do for comedy. The same sexuality tinged with authentic rapture, the shadow of death and the struggle for nobility in an ignoble world becomes tragedy. Since Manon is simply an objectified representation of lust, she is incapable of being the touchstone for either comedy or tragedy.

The two treatments of this story with which I am most familiar are the operas by Massenet and Puccini. In both cases the title character is actually a person with whom we can identify. Which is not to say that women have fared well in opera. They jump from parapets, waste away from consumption, or (especially in Wagner) simply expire. But we can weep when they do because they have become characters that we care about. This is the case with the way Massenet and Puccini and their librettists handle this story. In neither case is Manon a complete innocent who is led astray, although she has some of that aspect in Massenet. The Frenchman was constrained by the conventions of the Opera Comique, a very bourgeois theater. In addition to making the title character somewhat naive, he also added a stern father for Des Grieux and a confrontation between Manon and Des Grieux in a church (Saint-Sulpice) with some of the most ravishing music ever written for the lyric stage. His Manon is carefully observed, tender, sensuous and subtle, as is his music for her.

There is a harder edge in Puccini—from the beginning there is little doubt that Manon would never make it to that convent under any circumstances. In Act II there is an exchange between Manon and her brother which makes their current relationship clear—he is her pimp—and could point to an unnatural union in the past. She is most definitely not an innocent young lady from the country. Her first line, however, “Manon Lescaut mi chiamo” (My name is Manon Lescaut), whether sung by sopranos as different in temperament, looks and vocal color as Kiri Te Kanawa or Maria Callas, is unforgettable. It makes her a real character and we can remember it throughout the opera.

There is a problem, of course, with the music that accompanies the choreography. It is taken from a number of Massenet’s operas, generally ones that have not held the stage. Massenet, like Strauss, was a second rate composer, but an excellent one. He produced a few masterpieces “Manon”, “Werther”, and large parts of “Thais” “Cendrillon,” and “Herodiade”. Possibly others—my knowledge of French opera is neither deep nor wide. However during his long, productive and successful career he also produced a LOT of commonplace scores as well as the few masterpieces. The score to MacMillan’s “Manon” seems to come from the lush but empty scores that made up the bulk of Massenet’s work. Which is only fitting, since music of real genius would overshadow the wretched activity on the stage and show its real lack of merit.

#2 Alexandra

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Posted 03 October 2000 - 08:43 PM

Ed, I'd certainly agree with your objections. To me, aside from the padding, which bores me senseless, I find "Manon" very simplistic. Mary Cargill has written in "DanceView" and here, I think, that a big part of the problem is that the characters don't grow. To me, that's an insurmountable flaw.

It's a problem shared by many "opera ballets" (in this sense of the term, i.e., operas denuded of both lyrics and sense), which is perhaps why people bred on opera find them less appealing than do others.

#3 dirac

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Posted 04 October 2000 - 03:55 AM

While I would agree that "Manon" is far from MacMillan at his best, I can't go quite as far as Ed. No, it's not great. It's not awful, either. It's a good undemanding vehicle for a star ballerina, with lots of dance at the expense of the story, as seems to be preferred these days. Perhaps it seems worse than it is because we know MacMillan could have done better; we know Sibley or Penney could have taken the role further, done more with the character.

I would also say that some of MacMillan's dances -- the pas de trois that Ed mentions above, and the section at the brothel where Manon is passed from man to man -- are well done. Not great art, but skillful craft.

As for Manon's pas de deux with the gaoler -- isn't it possible that a courtesan could draw the line somewhere, even one as lightly characterized as Manon is here?

#4 cargill

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Posted 04 October 2000 - 09:00 AM

I don't think it is just that there is so much to dislike about Manon that is what makes some people so agitated about it. I certainly can see why it is popular, it packs an emotional whallop, the music is accessible, and it is at its heart super-sentimental. I also think there are a couple of interesting bits in it that are hard edged and striking--unlike Ed, I find the pas de trois between Manon, de Grieux, and Monsieur GM very good. Macmillan finally does seem to me to get the mood through steps and not just gratuitous hugging and rolling around. And the scene in the gambling hall where Manon is carried around by men she has enraptured seems to convey her position in choreographic terms. She is both a slave unable to escape (or touch the ground) and the enslaver. But other than than the ballet seems insufferable padding, but no worse than say, the Merry Widow.
But what is most worrying, to me anyway, is that it is becoming to a large extent the Royal Ballet's signature, bread and butter ballet, and there is so little opportunity in it for other dancers to develop, as opposed to the classics, were there are so many different pas de trois, das de deux, and solos, especially The Sleeping Beauty. If a comapny exists on Manon and Co. the only really needs a few big emotional dancers and not much in the way of classisicm.

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Posted 04 October 2000 - 09:34 AM

Thank you, Ed!!! I think it's way past time that this dreadful ballet gets a good swift kick. Boring, thin, sentimental. That's a start.

I'd also like to second what cargill wrote about the harm that "Manon" does. Of course, people are welcome to like anything they want, and "Manon" is certainly not the worst ballet I've ever seen, but the notion that it is a great work is unfathomable to me. One reads interview after interview with these little ballerinas who speak of how difficult it is, how it stretches them, how it torments their souls -- and you remember how, a generation ago, it went to the dancers (Sibley and Penney aside) with, shall we say, rather fragile techniques, who couldn't get through a "Swan Lake" or a "Sleeping Beauty" and remain vertical. And, as cargill, I think, also said on the pet peeves thread (forgive me if I'm confused) of how its sentimentality and obviousness make many of its fans oblivious to more subtle ballets.

#6 Ann

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Posted 04 October 2000 - 06:35 PM

Ed, are you not taking 'Manon' rather too seriously? McMillan surely only intended his ballet as a piece of dance theatre/entertainment rather than the deeply serious classical ballet suggested by the lengthy comparisons you make with the music of Massenet and Puccini.

Also, I cannot agree that any of it is 'simply bad taste' because taste is such a subjective thing, and your view of bad taste seems to me to hint at prudery (I mean no offence). The particular piece you refer to in this context, the pas-de-trois between Manon, Lescaut and GM is one of the most brilliantly effective set-pieces in the ballet. A writer could take a whole page to describe how the dissolute Lescaut 'sells' his sister to GM; McMillan does it in the choreographic equivalent of half a paragraph. The same economy applies to the big pas d'action in the brothel, where Manon is passed from man to man like a plate of cakes and we are left in do doubt whatsoever as to what is really going on.

I won't try anyone's patience further, but I do want to say that I think McMillan is a hugely underrated choreographer, despite my agreement with many of the criticisms made here. If I ever had any doubts, they were dispelled when I saw his much-criticised 'Different Drummer' his dance interpretation of Alban Berg's 'Wozzeck'. It was deeply flawed, but I cried, not because it was sad (though it was) but at the sheer courage and ambition of the piece; he was trying to move ballet into the future. Only time will tell if he succeeds.

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Posted 05 October 2000 - 10:37 AM

I've always thought that MacMillan had become a hugely OVERrated choreographer. I've been aghast at reading (more on the Net than in print, at least so far) that he's considered by some to one of the great ones, on the level of Balanchine and Ashton and Petipa.

I don't hate all of MacMillan's works. I have vague memories of "Song of the Earth" which I thought brilliant and moving (I was quite young) and I liked "Gloria." But I think his full-length ballets are pretty much dreck. Vulgar, choreographically and thematically thin -- I very much agree with Ed that one doesn't care about Manon. One may care about the dancer, but not the character.

I feel I must comment on Ann's remark that "Also, I cannot agree that any of it is 'simply bad taste' because taste is such a subjective thing, and your view of bad taste seems to me to hint at prudery (I mean no offence)." This, like the notion that there is no longer the possibility of saying a work is "good" or "bad," seems to me an unfortunate byproducts of PC. We all have to be polite and not dare say that anything is bad because we might offend someone. Saying that a ballet is "bad taste" isn't the same thing as saying that someone who likes the ballet HAS "bad taste." I've liked a lot of tasteless things. There's a perverse pleasure in this, sometimes. But I think learning to tell the difference, learning why works of art are considered "good" or "bad" or merely mediocre, is an important part of forming one's own personal esthetic.

To say that having such a view "hints at prudery" IS offensive. Isn't that a bit like saying, "And if you don't agree with me you obviously have no taste?" Not liking to see women dragged about and dashed to the floor and tossed around like sacks of flour means someone is being prudish?

I also understand what several people here have said, that the center of the Royal Ballet has shifted from Ashton and Petipa to MacMillan, and that that has had a negative effect on Ashton's ballets. I saw a performance of "The Dream" several years ago in which the ballerina, in that beautiful love-and-reconciliation pas de deux, at the crest of a lift, shivered in an unmistakable fake orgasm. This, in a work of exquisite subtlety. This is just to say that when "Manon" becomes the standard, both for choreography and performance, there are issues beyond whether it's an entertaining work.

#8 Alexandra

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Posted 05 October 2000 - 10:50 AM

Kip, I saw that performance of "The Dream" too! (Or maybe that's just the way they're doing it now, and there are many such performances.) It was one of the nasty signs, like a dead sparrow in the snow, that all was not right with the world.

Note to Salome: I've lost your comment about liking "Manon" and "Edward II" I thought it was on this thread, but I'm obviously wrong. I wanted to encourage you to post WHY you liked "Edward II" over on the "Edward II" thread. That's been very one-sided so far. He sounds as though he could use a friend Posted Image (And feel free to post why you like "Manon" here, as well.)

#9 Ed Waffle

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Posted 05 October 2000 - 12:07 PM

I refuse to easily concede second place to anyone in the tastelessness sweepstakes. On another thread a number of months ago I had posted that before ballet became one of my interests, vulgarity had always appealed to me and that had most likely informed some of my choices regarding ballet.

Examples are Stowkowski’s transcriptions of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven played with all the lushness that steel strings on violins and valves on horns can bring, Puccini and Verdi sung by “golden age” tenors with little nuance and no understanding of the words they were singing. I have been very enthusiastic with Paloma Herrera in “Don Quixoite” although much less so with her in “Swan Lake”.

MacMillan’s treatment of “Manon” does not deserve to be taken any less seriously than that of Massenet or Puccini, especially if it is becoming a signature piece by one of the major ballet companies of the world. The much praised pas de trois among Manon, Lescaut and GM and the brothel scene do tell the story and advance the plot. It is the scene with the captain in the prison in New Orleans which most turned me against this work and made me realize that MacMillan had no respect for the character he had created or for the necessity for that character to act in a way that does not contradict everything that she has done before that.

It would be possible, of course, for Manon to have had some type of shipboard conversion and to decide that her virtue was now worth dying for when before it was worth whatever she could get for it. There is no indication that this happened, though. This is why the scene is simply one in which a woman is tortured for no reason whatever—the fear and desperation that is depicted is at odds with everything we know about this character up to that point. If she had given in to the jailer and then been killed or simply allowed to die it would have been in keeping with her character. Which is not to say that MacMillan should have done it that way—he wrote it the way he did and it should be taken as such.

No offense is taken at hinting at a hint of prudery, although I would not agree with that designation. There are outrageously erotic moments in ballet and opera that I love—some of which almost anyone would describe as extremely depraved, such as all the incestuous couplings that take place and are celebrated in ravishing music in Wagner’s “Ring”.

More on this later, but most likely under Leigh’s thread on “Sexuality” in the “News, Views and Issues” heading.

#10 wjglavis

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Posted 05 October 2000 - 12:38 PM

Oh dear, I don't have a lot of time at the moment to do this subject justice, but I have to come in here and join Ann in her defence of `Manon'. I'm not saying I don't prefer Petipa's ballets (I do), but I do think it's my favourite of modern ballets. I admit that the first time I saw it I didn't like it, but over the years I've come to love both the ballet and the music.

I've never been quite sure why so many Americans dislike `Manon'. I wonder if it's something to do with the fact that Manon herself (and, indeed, most of MacMillan's heroines) is something of a victim (though she has a go at getting her own back when it comes to the men who want to own her) - both of men and of society.

Re the scene in New Orleans with the gaoler - the point here is that Manon has finally learned what love is. In the beginning it was simply a means of getting what she wanted (money, nice clothes etc) but thanks to Des Grieux, who has forgiven her betrayal of him and shared her suffering and exile, she nows understands its value. So she will NOT sell herself any more, not even to save her life.

Perhaps, for some, the problem is that Manon has to learn what real love is, rather than knowing all about it by instinct. (On the other hand, I don't think she's the first woman in the history of mankind to trade her `favours' for some tangible return.) As a young girl, I don't think she knows that love has any value at all. She is sorry to leave Des Grieux, but I think she assumed he would understand. Love is very nice, but so are diamond necklaces; why not have both, she thinks.

Perhaps if people were to watch the ballet a few more times, they might discover more in it. I myself have found that MacMillan isn't an obvious choreographer and it sometimes takes a while to see what he's trying to say.

I wonder if the French like `Manon'? Guillem certainly seems to.

#11 Marc Haegeman

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Posted 05 October 2000 - 01:19 PM

The French adore "Manon". And they know how to bring it, too. You only have to see how Paris Opera Ballet tackles this ballet to be convinced of that.

I just like to point out that it's not only "little ballerinas" with "fragile techniques" who are enthousiastic about it, unless Guillem, Guérin, Asylmuratova and the like belong to that category of course (not to mention somebody like Manuel Legris who considers Des Grieux his favorite role). At least they seem to find something worthwile in this ballet.

#12 Alexandra

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Posted 05 October 2000 - 01:20 PM

Wendy, I can't speak for all Americans, certainly (and I think there are many Americans who are very fond of "Manon") but my objections to it don't have anything to do with the plot or the fact that I can't see the deep subtleties -- I think MacMillan is an extremely obvious choreographer, actually; everything is surface, which is one of my objections. The more I've seen this particular ballet, the less I see in it.

[I came back in and edited this post, deleting two paragraphs that merely reiterated my reasons for disliking the ballet.]

I saw Guerin and Legris dance the bedroom pas de deux once, and thought they were wonderful in it--the best I'd ever seen. They were interesting people--multidimensional, but that came from *them,* not from the ballet.

[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited October 05, 2000).]

#13 dirac

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Posted 05 October 2000 - 01:25 PM

Just adding a general comment on the subject of "bad taste". Ann has a point when she says that accusations of bad taste can sometimes be a cover for prudishness or squeamishness generally. People don't want to own up to such reactions and so they say, "Oh, that's in such bad taste." (I AM NOT implying that anyone on this board would ever be guilty of this! Posted Image kip's reminder of the difference between saying something is in bad taste and accusing someone of possessing bad taste is important to bear in mind.

Of course, a ballerina simulating orgasm in "The Dream" is tasteless, just like the orgasmic yelp that Rysanek used to produce as Sieglinde when Siegmund pulled out that sword in Die Walkure. But I don't think that Rudolf's wedding night pas de deux with Stephanie in "Mayerling" is, even though the lady does get hauled about like a bag of mule feed, because there's a legitimate dramatic point being made.

I think there's a distinction that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle between MacMillan's merits as a choreographer and the unfortunate influence he exerted over the Royal's classical style.

Ed, forgive me for worrying this point like a terrier, but while I concede that MacMillan's characterization of Manon does not have the depth it might have, and the ballet is weakest in its final act, I still think that there is sufficient dramatic justification within the ballet for Manon's resistance to the brutish gaoler. Yes, she's a whore, and no, we haven't seen her object to anyone else's advances in the course of the ballet. Does that mean she couldn't experience terror and revulsion in her dealings with him? IMO, she could.

#14 Marc Haegeman

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Posted 05 October 2000 - 02:15 PM

(Completely off-topic), Dirac - Rysanek was apparently always producing those particular sounds, even when she sang the agonizing old countess in Tchaikovsky's "Queen of Spades"... Posted Image

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Posted 05 October 2000 - 02:44 PM

I'm afraid I'm part terrier too, dirac. I'm sure it is possible that there are closet prudes, terrified of being outed, who say, "oh, how tasteless!" as a cover. There could be a number of motivations for using the term, including the fact that one finds something tasteless. I think the whole notion of "you don't like it, you're XXXX" -- or, "If you do like that, you don't know anything about ballet" or "you must be sexually depraved" or whatever is not particularly constructive.

I'd agree with you about the gaoler, though. Just because she's a prostitute doesn't mean she can't have feelings of violation.

I've been very surprised at the way "Manon's" career has developed. When it was new, I remember it being considered rather a failure, that MacMillan had capitulated to following a formula, trying to be popular, etc. I think I remember one review saying that "Anastasia" was a mess, but at least it was an *original* mess, that he was trying to do something interesting, but that "Manon" was just dull--dancing for the sake of dancing, no plot development, all of those things. So it's interesting that it's now so important in the repertory.



[This message has been edited by kip (edited October 05, 2000).]


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