Two MacMillan Marathons: Manon and Romeo and Juliet

A.B.T. decided to give us a double dose of Kenneth MacMillan during the season just ended: a week each of Romeo and Juliet and Manon. But although the two ballets are similar in many ways, there’s a difference in kind. Romeo is a carefully mounted romantic spectacle, tedious at times but relatively stage-worthy. Manon is a piece of junk.

Let’s compare and contrast.

Romeo (which MacMillan created in 1965) benefits from a compulsively theatrical plot: It was, remember, devised in the first place by someone who knew what he was doing. It’s also the world’s most famous love story, and not only do all young actors and dancers want to appear in it, but audiences inevitably want to see it—it’s worked in every kind of theatrical situation: stage productions, operas, Broadway musicals, movies, as well as numerous other dance versions, including ones by Lavrovsky, Ashton, Tudor and Cranko. (And, rumor has it, a Peter Martins version on the way.)

Manon (created nine years later), from the 1731 novel by Abbé Prévost, is a sordid, not a romantic, story. A young girl comes out of the convent, and although her brother is pimping her to a rich man, she runs away with a much younger one minutes after meeting him and, despite her frivolous good nature, slides into moral corruption and crime, is transported to Louisiana and dies in a swamp. There are, of course, the two superb operas, Massenet’s Manon and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, but opera has more latitude in subject matter than ballet—and Massenet and Puccini had more talent than MacMillan. The real interest of Manon lies not in the overexcited story but in the revelation of our heroine’s conflicted nature (loving vs. greedy)—not something easy to suggest through dance, although Manon ballets were attempted all through the 19th century.

For Romeo’s music, MacMillan—like Ashton and Cranko—used the great Prokofiev score composed for Lavrovsky’s magnificent production starring Galina Ulanova, whose Juliet was a revelation to America during the company’s first season here in 1959. (She was 49.) This is one of the most exciting ballet scores of the 20th century, and although there may be too much music for a ballet to fill, it didn’t seem that way back in 1959. MacMillan’s powers of dance invention don’t stretch to three hours, which may be why everything in Romeo seems to happen more than once: There are three rhapsodic duets, plus the one with Juliet’s corpse. (Manon and Des Grieux indulge in them too—the same exaggerated lifts and throws and plunges.) Mercutio prances around … and then prances again … and again. Tybalt glowers, and then glowers some more. Still, as the dueling goes on—slash, clang, stab—from one overlong mêlée to another, and the three harlots rush downstage shaking their booties for the umpteenth time, you can sit back and drown in the music.

(The Bolshoi version was carried along by the thrilling suggestion of Russian barbarity—the famous cushion dance at the Capulets’ ball, where men were boyars and treated their women accordingly; Lady Capulet borne away on Tybalt’s bier, beating the air with her fists in grief and fury. The MacMillan version is all good-taste Renaissance—true to Shakespeare, perhaps, but not to Prokofiev.)

Manon is set to music that’s not even taken from Massenet’s opera but is a pastiche from all over the place: from 11 other operas of his, plus seven of his orchestral pieces. It’s disorienting when, now and again, we recognize a Massenet tune that has nothing to do with Manon. And let’s face it, this isn’t prime dance music to begin with.

Manon follows the same outline as Romeo, only diluted. R. & J. spot each other in the midst of a crowd; ditto Manon and Des Grieux. Manon’s brother is killed in Act II; ditto Mercutio. Harlots in Verona? Courtesans in Paris. The sets and costumes for the two works have the standard Nicholas Georgiadis look—all heavy opulence, with enough brocade to sink a ballet. The difference is that the crowd scenes in Romeo have a point and are well organized—perhaps too well organized—while the crowd scenes in Manon are pointless. The entire endless scene in the gambling-club-cum-bordello, in which Des Grieux is caught cheating at cards with Manon’s connivance, could and should be reduced by half; in fact, the character of the brother’s mistress, who dances up so many storms, not only has no name but has no story function (she isn’t even referred to in the plot summary). She could be neatly excised from the ballet and it would make no difference at all, except to shorten it by 10 or more precious minutes.

One thing you can say for Manon, though: It has the only scene I can remember in all of ballet in which the heroine goes down on someone.

Why is there such a disparity between the way we see MacMillan and the way they see him in England? From the time he replaced Ashton as head of the Royal and its chief choreographer, his overwrought neoclassicism started eroding the company’s classical style. Luckily for us, we hardly get any of his work apart from these two dance dramas, and Manon has been exhumed by A.B.T. for the first time in 10 years. (Let’s hope it will soon be back in mothballs.) In England, however, you can easily find yourself exposed to Mayerling, or Anastasia, or Rite of Spring, or Gloria, or half a dozen others: The Brits really love his stuff. Here’s the final sentence (by one of them) from the entry on him in the six-volume International Encyclopedia of Dance: “MacMillan’s work has established ballet as one of the most expressive forms of theatre.” So much for Petipa and Ivanov and Bournonville and Fokine and Massine and Balanchine and Ashton and Tudor ….

A.B.T.’s dancers flung themselves into Romeo and Manon with generally happy results. Alessandra Ferri has been dancing Juliet for 22 years, and she’s still right for it, if not as strong as she once was. She also was effective as Manon, appearing with her partner of many years, Julio Bocca, who’s retiring. (And barely in time—his Des Grieux wasn’t easy to watch, although the charm is still there.) Paloma Herrera was a sensitive and touching Juliet, partnered by the company’s newest principal, David Hallberg. What a vision he is, with his great height, bright gold hair and legs stretching to the horizon! He may look more like a Hamlet than a Romeo, but he was properly in love with his Juliet and eagerly supportive. What you really want is to see him alone on a vast stage, leaping effortlessly across it. The other terrific A.B.T. guys soar through the air; he sails. (He was also a perfect Paris, an aristocrat as well as a lover.)

Julie Kent is a lyrical Juliet, neither impassioned nor intense, at her best in moments of pathos. Beginning with the Potion Scene, as she crouched in fear before swallowing the drug, her third act was very moving. Her Romeo, the estimable Marcelo Gomes, was, like her, adoring rather than passionate, and as always deep into his role. But are these two yearning lovers the hotheaded, sexy kids MacMillan had in mind when he made this ballet on Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable? No one was asking that question on the night of Kent’s well-publicized 20th-anniversary performance with the company—it was bravos and bouquets all the way.

Another tough question: Is Diana Vishneva girlish enough as Juliet? Possibly not, but it doesn’t matter—her amazing strength, her passion, her intensity, her absolute command of technique gave us an evening of great dancing. (She did the same thing in Manon—and what a waste.) When someone dances at this level, you’re simply grateful to be in the presence of such mastery—to hell with Juliet! Her Romeo was Angel Corella, a star on her level and certainly the Romeo type. His technique may be beginning to erode slightly, but nothing will ever blunt his boyish charm and enchanting manner.

A word about the other A.B.T. men: Herman Cornejo, first cast as Mercutio, displays the most perfect classical technique in the company. Craig Salstein in the same role needs to refine his technique, starting with his feet, but he’s a remarkable performer, a first-rate character dancer filled with energy and constantly adding intelligent detail to his characterization (occasionally too much detail). He reminds me a little of the young Jerome Robbins, another bouncy, appealing kid before he became a Master. Sascha Radetsky was far more suited to Benvolio than to Tybalt (it was like a revolving door up at the Met). Isaac Stappas brought some of the sexy catlike quality to the role; Gennadi Saveliev was all brutality.

As for the girls, what a lunatic idea to cast all-American, brilliantly athletic Gillian Murphy (in a wig) as the nameless courtesan! (Stella Abrera was the real thing.) And in Lady Capulet, Veronika Part finally found the perfect role: Her gowns mask her somewhat sloppy technique, and Lady C. was made for her kind of silent-movie-queen emoting.