The dancers of English National Ballet are prepping their pointe shoes in readiness to thrill theatregoers with the timelessly romantic tragedy of Manon this season.
Legendary British choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Parisian period drama is a highlight of the ballet repertoire, yet it is rarely seen outside London. Indeed, this season, English National Ballet is touring Manon for only the second time in thirty years and Milton Keynes Theatre is one of just three venues outside of London to be hosting the production. (The other two regional venues are Manchester Opera House and Mayflower Theatre, Southampton.)
The late MacMillan choreographed this steamy three-act ballet in 1974. He was inspired by French author Abbé Prévost’s controversial 1731 novel, L’historie du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, which was considered so scandalous at the time of its publication that it was banned in France.
MacMillan’s Manon proved an instant hit with audiences and quickly became the paragon of adult, dramatic dance. The story follows Manon, a femme fatale who is one of ballet’s most irresistible heroines, as she artfully negotiates an eighteenth century world of radical riches and profound poverty.
While waiting to enter a convent in Paris, the beautiful and impulsive Manon is admired as a prospective courtesan. Her brother, Lescaut, is soon approached by an old gentleman who begins bargaining for her. Meanwhile, Manon meets a handsome but penniless student, Des Grieux, and the pair fall in love.
When wealthy Monsieur G.M. asserts his own interest in Manon, she finds herself tragically torn between true love with her young beau and her desire for wealth and comfort as a kept woman to a much older man. Wanting it all will be her downfall.
There is not a tutu or a tiara in sight in this ballet; it is a steamy, grown-up story of sex and money. Aristocrats, beggars, courtesans and harlots fill the stage in a large-scale production that sees the corps de ballet dancers indulging in almost as much debauchery as the main players.
Undoubtedly, Manon features some of the most demanding and fulfilling roles in the ballet repertoire and MacMillan’s choreography gives audiences a fascinating insight into each character. Look out for an exceptionally difficult lyrical solo from the love-struck Des Grieux when he sets out to sweep Manon off her feet during the first act. And be prepared to see Manon coquettishly discovering and embodying her sexual power throughout the ballet, before eventually taking her last breath while being tenderly embraced by her lover.
The onstage action unfolds to a haunting score by French composer Jules Massenet, which will be performed live by English National Ballet Philharmonic.
Audiences should expect intoxicating drama and impassioned pas de deux passages fuelled by the desires of one of ballet’s most irresistible heroines.
Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (including two intervals).
English National Ballet’s Manon runs at Milton Keynes Theatre from Wednesday 24 to Saturday 27 October 2018. The national tour will then continue with performances at Mayflower Theatre, Southampton and London Coliseum.
I wrote previews of English National Ballet’s Manon for:
Update 31 October 2018: Read my review of English National Ballet’s Manon at Milton Keynes Theatre.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.