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"Manon" in Mariinsky

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This is article from "St.Petersburg Times".

#557, Friday, April 7, 2000


dancers grapple with manon

by Slava Gepner and Galina Stolyarova

photo by Natasha Razina

The story of Manon Lescaut presents quite a departure from a

traditional ballet plot, a fact recognized in particular by

choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, who premiered his

interpretation of Abbe Prevost's novel in 1974 at London's

Covent Garden.

The controversial main female character still inspires ballerinas

throughout the world, with the Mariinsky Theater soloists

being no exception.

Last Thursday, the Mariinsky began a series of four premieres.

The program concluded an active period of preparation for

Kenneth MacMillan's "Manon," set to the music of Jules

Massenet. The audiences were given a chance to compare as many incarnations of

Manon as they could survive. Altynai Asylmuratova, Diana Vishnyova, Svetlana

Zakharova and Yulia Makhalina demonstrated their Manons one after another.

Kenneth MacMillan, once considered alongside Frederic Ashton as the mainstream of

English classical ballet, is mostly famous for his duets and beautiful upholds. His style

demands a high level of technical preparation and maximum engagement from the

dancers with regard to their performing roles.

MacMillan's choreography - a whimsical juxtaposition of ballet art and psychological

drama - was inspired by the balletmaster's desire to explore human nature. Sometimes he

found his topics in classical literature, which is the case with "Manon." And that is

probably why the theatricality and the dancers full engagement means so much to him.

"Manon" represents the so-called choreodramatic direction of 20th century ballet well

familiar to the Russian audience, a tradition popular in the 60's and still present today in

the choreographic work of Boris Eifman.

Both the duos of Asylmuratova and Zelensky, Vishnyova and Ilya Kuznetsov, were

bright and convincing. The ballerinas approached their roles in different ways, however.

The evolution of Manon's amoral nature, which was what most interested McMillan in

the story, Asylmuratova revealed to the fullest, to the smallest nuances. Her Manon

survives a dramatic transformation on stage, from a naive girl to a great self-confident

beauty who knows all about life, to a tormented, imprisoned prostitute. She also

demonstrated the qualities of a skilful manipulator, along with perhaps more intelligence

and will than Prevost might have desired. Zelensky appears as an excellent "second

fiddle" in the duo, showing more timidity in his character than strength.

While rail-thin Asylmuratova demonstrates refinement and a stunning precision of

gesture as well as the remarkable intuition she has always been famous for, Vishnyova's

character has other strengths. Bursting with energy and spark, her coquettish Manon is

also impressive, though being of a different, more spontaneous, nature. Though

appearing a femme fatale, she doesn't seem to suffer much over the paths she chooses.

Vishnyova showed high professionalism and yet again proved her extreme flexibility in

the modern repertoire. She embodied fully the title Manon, following her destiny to the

end in a thoroughly convincing performance which touched the audience with its

emotional depth. She had a fantastic stage presence, at times as intensive as the famous

adagio from the second act and the final tragic scene. It seems that Vishnyova is a most

sensitive and highly professional young ballerina, an encouraging sign for the future of

the Mariinsky ballet.

Perhaps most enigmatic was the Mariinsky's decision to put Zakharova forward as

Manon. "Sleeping beauty" personified, the reserved and ice-bound dancer lacks the

artistic potential to allow her to perform an emotional, hypersensitive, tormented and

unpredictable woman.

Unfortunately, however, not all the corps de ballet was able to enter deeply into the

atmosphere of the roles, and sometimes their performance was perilously close to

overacting. The courtesans did not appear to be courtesans, while the beggars were

reminiscent more of poor bourgeoisie. At times the plot may have been difficult to

follow without any prior knowledge of the story. But dramatic plot is a fundamental

factor in MacMillan's style.

The Mariinsky Theater is showing much goodwill to bring more contemporary

choreography on its stage. There is hope that it will eventually - let us hope, soon

enough - open the way for really modern productions, such as those by Mats Eck or

William Forsyth, for instance.

This would show that Mariinsky can be not only a museum for the brilliant

choreography of Petipa, but also a center for contemporary productions, in line with

such theaters as London's Covent Garden or the Paris Opera.

There are always things to be criticized in any performance, but that does not change

the fact that the premiere of "Manon" was on the whole a success, and highly


I'm flying to Russia today and hope I'll see it myself.


[This message has been edited by Andrei (edited April 08, 2000).]

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That was a really interesting article, Andrei, thanks for taking the effort to put it up here (did you have to translate it as well?)

Can you tell us a little more about the writers if you know them? Are they reflecting the general thought about ballet at present in Russia? It shatters a few misconceptions I had about the current state of ballet there.


Leigh Witchel -dae@panix.com

Personal Page and Dance Writing

Dance as Ever

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It's an English-language newspaper. The article is at http://www.times.spb.ru/current/features/danser.htm

Here is another one, published in the "Nezavisimaya Gazeta" ("Independent Newspaper", a central newspaper owned by Berezovsky), April 4. This one is in Russian, at http://www.ng.ru/culture/2000-04-04/7_method.html, and the translation is mine. Since I'm not a professional interpreter, I was unable to translate certain words and expressions very closely; had to very often change the sequence of words in sentences; and in one instance wasn't able to translate a phrase at all (I simply omitted it). Nevertheless, I think that the translation is decent. Still, if you think that certin passages are incongruous and feel the need to throw a stone, please do so at me. smile.gif


Ballet "Manon" on the stage in St.-Petersburg.

By Irina Gubskaya.

The premiere of Kenneth MacMillan's ballet "Manon" took place at the Mariinsky Theater on March 30. This production continues the repertory direction of the theater: the meeting of the Mariinsky Ballet with famous foreign productions of the past years. This policy, which has gotten the definition "second hand", is now represented by the works of Roland Petit and George Balanchine. Now "Manon", born in 1974 and loosely based on the novel of Antoine Francois Prevost "Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut", has been added to it.

It seems that the main effort of the company is devoted to the exploration of Western choreographic styles. Even the choreography of Perrot and Petipa is transferred to a "balanchinean" linoleum---probably, in striving to find a "universal" manner of performing. It turns out that the company has had immeasurably fewer problems adopting the English style than Balanchine's style. Probably, this is due to Russian foundations of the English technique and ballet structure, when MacMillan and Ashton's works seem more Russian than Russian ballets themselves. "Manon" represents the result of translating from Russian to English and back.

"Manon" is an emotional, melodramatic ballet, made with a student-like meticulousness; ballet in which the dances are staged as if for the last time in one's life, indiscriminatingly representing everything that can be created by the inventive fantasy of the choreographer. Here are all forms of ballet action: solos, ensembles and duets---male and female, soloists with corps de ballet's accompaniment, male and female corps de ballet, even a dancer en travestie, fencing---in duel and in a group, and barefoot dances. This is a ballet in which all structural forms are present, and a unifying plastique is absent. It is replaced by the public's supposed knowledge of the literary source.

The beginning of the ballet does not identify theatrical action. An opera and a play could begin this way. The music is even more appropriate for a dramatic play. The ballet itself, conscientiously retelling the subject of the book, starts with Lescaut's variation, which appears very unexpectedly and which is almost a concert piece. Danse classique gives way to grotesque and to danse noble. The dances in principle are separated from the development of the story: dance characterizes the relationships among the characters and their conditions, whereas the story develops in mime scenes (in which the company did not turn out to be strong). The two directions chosen by the Mariinsky Ballet lately (dancing---Balanchine, pageantry---the last version of the "Beauty"), are not synthesized by "Manon", even though it includes both.

The main merit of the new production is the fact that willful primadonnas of the Mariinsky Ballet all got the coveted role---let them shine as they please. Duets and variations for the prima-ballerina is that which Kenneth MacMillan is able and likes to do. As to other merits---for Savina we used to watch all kinds of garbage. [if the author means the only Savina I'm aware of, she is talking about a great dramatic actress who apparently had many roles in bad Soviet films/plays.--IP] One cannot deny this ballet visual appeal a la "mass demand for something balletic, accessible, dramatic, with love story and costumes".

The conductor at the premiere was Renat Salavatov. The part of Manon was danced by Altynai Asylmuratova, who, starting this year, is the Artistic Director of the Vaganova Academy (the age-sake of the director of Mariinka's ballet is in a sparkling dancing and acting form and has the unique possibility to teach her students not only theoretically). In other casts, this part is performed by Diana Vishneva, for whom this production was conceived, and Yulia Makhalina. (Abroad, this role used to be superbly performed by the former prima of the Kirov Theater, Natalya Makarova.)

Asylmuratova's character starts out as a little doll who shines in the reflected light of the universal admiration. The first duet of Manon and des Grieux (to the music of the famous "Elegy") is about the meeting of two people destined for each other, and Manon's problem of choosing between love and defense from the horror of poverty, between the mundane and an impulse of the soul. Manon's culminational variation in the gambling house is the apotheosis of a woman-phoenix, powerful over men yet slipping away, desired as the sparkle of jewels, and reveling in this power. The finality of the choice of Manon, who lost everything but love, is the refusal of violence and wealth: the knife and jewels, abandoned before the flight. Before the flight into nowhere---into American jungle, delirium, and death. The final duet of Manon and des Grieux is the power of the awakened spirit in a weakening body, when the spiritual incinerates the physical. This chain of the dramatically shining dances for shining ballerinas is the most interesting thing in "Manon".

"Manon", by definition, a ballet for the ballerina, unexpectedly revealed the recognized virtuoso dancer Igor Zelensky (des Grieux) as an actor. Needless to say, the duets, on which the development of the heroine's character is built, were danced flawlessly. But, besides that, the tragedy of des Grieux was not inferior in its emotional strength to Manon's theme.

As to the rest of the cast, it was at the level which is usual for the Mariinsky today. Strong performers of supporting roles, interesting dancing and acting by men; by women---sufficiently strong dancing and weak acting. Corps de ballet and ensembles are not harmonious---but here it is not that important. Intriguingly forbidden world of the demi-monde allows to ascribe many nuances to its characteristic peculiarities.

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Thank you very much, Ilya. It reads very smoothly.

It's interesting that the reviewer's opinion is very close to many English and American critics when the ballet was first done -- that it's choreographically and dramatically thin, and yet, "One cannot deny this ballet visual appeal a la "mass demand for something balletic, accessible, dramatic, with love story and costumes"."

I was also very interested in the phrase "second hand ballet." I think that's a good sign. Other companies have been very eager to become "international." I hope the Russians fight for their heritage.

Thanks again for taking so much time and trouble to translate this.


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I'm glad you liked the sentence about "balletic, accessible, etc": it was very difficult for me to translate, since she wrote these five descriptives as one hyphenated word! biggrin.gif

It looked a little odd to me that she spoke disapprovingly of the "second-hand" ballet, yet seemed to imply that Perrot and Petipa are authentically Russian. wink.gif

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Perhaps the "second hand" means not that they're not Russians, but that the Maryinsky had a proud tradition of dancing only works created on them. Even "Giselle" (as I'm sure Ilya knows) was changed a great deal by Petipa, so much so that it might be considered a "firsthand" work.

There are quite a few Balanchine ballets that are his revisions of Petipa ballets, yet NYCB considers them indigenous repertory.

Again, thanks for these reviews, Andrei and Ilya. Most Americans never get to know what is being written in Russia. (Don't be afraid to start a trend smile.gif )

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Yes, of course I hope they can preserve all those wonderful ballets and have interesting new ones created for them; however, I think that experimenting with "second-hand" works is quite healthy (also, probably very interesting for the dancers and especially for the public, most of whom cannot afford to go to New York to see Balanchine or even to London to see MacMillan)---as long as it doesn't *replace* the "first-hand" works.

[This message has been edited by Ilya (edited April 10, 2000).]

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Ilya, long may you keep your optimism, but I don't think I'm afraid within the foreseeble future we will see artistic directors (not necessarily just at the Maryinsky) so incomptent they would not even understand that sentence.

Alexandra, who was once optimistic too (and is probably still naive)

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Thanks, Andrei and Ilya, for these reviews.

I was most struck by this bit: It seems that the main effort of the company is devoted to the exploration of Western choreographic styles. Even the choreography of Perrot and Petipa is transferred to a "balanchinean" linoleum---probably, in striving to find a "universal" manner of performing.

I'm not exactly sure what the reviewer meant, given the problematic nature of the Balanchine works the Kirov brought to the Met, however.

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My guess is that to a European, "balanchinean lineoleum" would mean technique at the expense of everything, "just dance it dear," "it's the steps, stupid," "I hate soul," [only two of these comments were supposedly made by Balanchine]; a lack of polish: lack of port de bras, head/arms/eyes -- no attention paid to anything higher than the waist. It also connotes a smoothing out of styles, turning everything into "ballet blanc," "pure dance," etc., a difference in attack, line and dynamics that is not beautiful to all eyes. Some of this is really post-Balanchine, not truly attributible to Balanchine, more to his descendants and imitators. When a genius has left, his genius is turned into "rules," often simplifications of what he really meant.

This is a guess on my part, and if I'm missing something particular to Russian ballet, of course, please correct or amend this.

I also wanted to pick up on something Ilya wrote (I was too tired last night to write this), his comments on the benefits of "secondhand" ballet. I agree that both dancers and audiences can benefit. We have two models now: Paris and Copenhagen, when there was no longer a supply of first-rate "firsthand" works, both began to dance secondhand works and, when well chosen, this formed a very workable repertory. They kept their identity -- style and approach, dramatic ability in the Danish case (one colleague of mine joked that "we make bad ballets look good" should be the company's model) and a crystallization of a crystalline style in the case of Paris. The other model, still evolving, is NYCB, still unwilling to give up its "branding" as the company that's a creative institution, and so is committed to "firsthand" works that -- well, has there been a first-rate work created on that company since 1982? (18 years and counting.)

So there are pleasures and possibilities, but it's also a large can of worms, this taking in of other ballets. The current direction seems to be very international, collecting ballets as McKenzie is doing at ABT, like someone on a deranged shopping spree at Wal-Mart, taking anything off the shelf that will fit in the cart. If it's done carefully, if ballets are taken in that really suit the company's style or even particular dancers, it can be positive. If the dancers are made to fit into foreign clothes without the proper alterations, it will not.


[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited April 09, 2000).]

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Well, this "cross-pollenization" only goes so far. If nobody's making decent new ballets, what happens after awhile? I mean, Eskimos really can't get rich selling ice to each other.

And, Alexandra, I don't recall you ever sounding so sanguine about the current state of the Danes. Didn't you used to bemoan the energy they were putting into non-Bournonville works?

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Spasiba balshaya, Andrei & Ilya! This is awesome.

Yes, something told me that McMillan would be a 'hit' in St. Petersburg, as much of his theatrical choreography is similar to that of Boris Eifman. It is no surprise for me to read a comparison of McMillan with Eifman in the same sentence. "Mayerling" comes to mind as a quintessentially Eifmanesque sort of ballet. Oh, they would love "Mayerling" or even "Anastasia" at the Mariinsky. [i'm not so sure about the comparison of McMillan with Ashton as similar English classicists, in the St.P Times review, though...I'm certain that a few of my UK friends must be boiling over about that one. wink.gif He-he-he...]

It's also no surprise that Zakharova's rendition of the title role would be deemed less-than-successful, compared to that of Assylmuratova or Vishnyeva. When will the Mariinsky ever learn to cast the leading roles properly, instead of automatically assigning them according to rank in the roster or political pull? Geez...

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A quick response to Manhattnik. I'm not at all sanguine about the *current* state of the Danish ballet. I've never said they should do only Bournonville; they can't exist on eight ballets, no one could. I've always admired their performances in certain well-chosen non-Bournonville works that were the company's staple repertory until recently. Ballets that didn't look top drawer elsewhere (Carmen, Miss Julie, Onegin, to take just three) were transformed there through incisive casting and coaching.

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Hello, everybody!

I'm back and, unfortunately, I didn't see "Manon". But I read a lot of reviews and can say the common tone is negative.

They don't like the choreography (good duets, but nothing between), corps de ballet's work (dancers complained me about lack of rehearsals) and very contradictory opinions about main performers (some pray Zacharova only, some Asylmuratova and so on...).

About "Balanchean lineoleum"... It's not just "do the step" policy. When Mariinsky use marly floor on the stage they can't use traps wich were common place in ALL Petipa's ballets. "Giselle", "Bayadere" and, specially, "Sleeping Beauty" lost a lot of charm in productions because dancers can't disappear in the middle of the stage or make sudden appearance. And, certainly, all critics hate this new mode.

Leigh, I don't know personally all those critics, but I know that Stolyarova has a good reputation and I can believe her.

Meanwile, I saw "Bayadere" and "Raymonda" on this trip and if you are interesting I can make a short reviews, just give me some time to sleep, I'm still don't know where I am smile.gif.


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Yes, we are *very* interested, Andrei. Please sleep quickly (but soundly, soundly smile.gif )

Interesting that the Russian criticisms of "Manon" are exactly what the American and British criticisms were.

Thank you for the explanation of "Balanchine linoleum." I had no idea it should be taken so literally (I don't think Balanchine can really be blamed for the marly floor, though.)

I think all of us will look forward to reading what you saw and what you thought of it. Thank you!

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Guest Jfan

One of the interesting things in ballet, is the differences in taste between different countries. The current Royal Ballet production of 'Manon' in London has received an enthusiastic response from both critics and audiences. Although the original production seems to have received luke warm enthusiasm, through the 90s it has received much acclaim.

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I received the June issue of "Dancing Times" today. In Igor Stupnikov's monthly letter from St. Petersburg, he quoted Clement Crisp's opinion of the Kirov's Manon when he was interviewed by the "Moscow Commercial Daily".

"The Maryinsky company dances Manon better than the Royal Ballet does. This is how matters stand - and think what you will about me...The Maryinsky has extraordinary dancers who perfectly understand the connections among choreography, drama and emotion and they wonderfully put this connection into practice...."

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