L’histoire de Manon, generally referred to as Manon, is a ballet choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan to music by Jules Massenet and based on the 1731 novel Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost. The ballet was first performed by The Royal Ballet in London in 1974 with Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell in the leading roles. It continues to be performed and recognised internationally.
Below is a YouTube link with Aurelie Dupont’s final performance as an etoile of the Paris Opera
To illustrate the particular choreographic style and its impact upon the genre of ballet, this case study will apply frameworks such as Rudolf Laban’s Effort Factors of space and weight for the final Pas de Deux in comparison to the Wedding Pas de Deux from Sleeping Beauty(1890) by Marius Petipa (1818-1910). Laban’s sphere of space around the body is called kinesphere theory and will be used to underpin the discussion (Brooks 32). In a broad sense, the concept of style relates to the choreographer’s choices in relation of movement vocabulary and the theme of the particular ballet, for this instance within the genre of ballet (Rowell 108). Placed in the genre of modern ballet MacMillan’s choreographic style includes taking basic classical steps and reshaping them to look almost natural (Wright 20). Key features such as shifts of weight, use of en dedans, utilising near-reach and outer-reach space of Kinesphere with the upper body as well as extended legs, all determine a realistic approach to the modern choreography rather than earlier classical era ballets where the choreography relied on imaginary fairy-tale stories with uplifted centre of gravity, en dehors steps and polished movements such as seen in Sleeping Beauty (Cohen, Bremser 891).
Early modern ballet up to 1980s was considered to be concerned with emotion and true expressiveness that were conveyed through storyline and movement (Walker 34). Modern ballet is rooted in classical ballet having similarities to the classical vocabulary steps such as arabesques and pas de bourée, however infused with factors connected to modern dance such as contrast in weight, sharpness and use of turned in feet or en dedans. Furthermore, the en dedans, the vulnerability in movements, particularly the use of upper body in the torso, the near-reach space using the arms and hands and play with the use of dynamics are used to display intense feelings within the dramatic theme chosen (Cohen 130). In this sense MacMillan “reinvented the narrative ballet as psychological drama “and “forged his own distinctive vocabulary of movement expanding the conventions of ballet to encompass realistic, even grotesque physical reactions” (Parry 6). Some of the well-known narrative ballets include Manon, Romeo and Juliet (1964) and Mayerling (1978) (Parry 8).
The fused elements, classical and more modern steps, of Manon’s choreography bring expressiveness to the dramatic story which is based on Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost, written in 1731. It was a romantic drama that felt present for the era in which MacMillan choreographed. Manon is a female character prostituted by her brother, conflicted between a life of true love next to DeGrieux or luxury and wealth with Monsieur G.M. The three act ballet displays the exploration of the woman’s inner psyche in relation to social pressures and discovery of self -sexuality, emotions and needs. The end of the ballet which consists of couple’s final Pas De Deux is a key moment of tragedy where Manon gives up fighting and gives into love and final death (Bremser 893).
MacMillan’s journey as a choreographer began by creating works on themes such as symbolism and fantasy. Being inspired by post-war French choreographers MacMillan’s particular choreographic style and interest came with the appearance of the““new wave” of young British playwrights such as John Osbourne, Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker and John Arden, and this inspired him to create a ballet that dealt with real flesh-and-blood characters in a world of harsh reality” (Bremser 892, Parry 6). Moreover, the interest in the psyche came as a response to the post-war theatre and dance such as Roland Petit’s musicals of existential dramas (Crisp). Throughout the years the choreographic style was more evident after the 1960s Cultural Revolution of which impact served as an influence for MacMillan’s modern ballets such as Romeo and Juliet, Mayerling and Manon. This period was emphasizing unusual approaches and freedom to express oneself by breaking and extending boundaries therefore fading the distinction “between art and life” as there were “limits tested in many sectors of society whether artistically, socially, or politically” (Potaznik 2). People expressed themselves through anti-war manifests, sex, drugs, rock and roll and experimentalism (Baumgartner; Miles; Savage; Ramzy). This shift of perception is clear in MacMillan’s Manon through the choice of tragic storyline more so intertwined with present times. For this aspect, MacMillan’s interest in realism was brought into choreography and offered the audience a new experience in viewing ballet.There was a concern to “manifest a certain area of feeling… for which to discover a dramatic situation or character that will enclose the idea” (Walker 36).
Looking beyond the distinction in story-line between Sleeping Beauty and Manon, the final pas de deux in each of them displays the female character in contrast to the other. In terms of weight the distinction relies in the full use of it in Manon as the final pas de deux encompasses emotion and despair. According to Laban “effort is the common denominator for the various stirrings of the body and mind which become observable in activity “. Therefore in this case the pressure or weight relates to emotion and is observable through the choice of resistance or giving in to gravity’s force. The result of the variation in these two opposing forces creates a vital contrast that gives sense to the dance (Moore, Yamamoto 134). Moreover, by fluctuating strong with light weight and creating the contrast in decreasing and increasing pressure, MacMillan transfers and connects the character’s inner feelings into movement. For example in the final pas de deux Manon is using a lot of her passive weight. Almost all the steps use a low centre of gravity and look to be heavy and connected to the ground. In many instances Manon is stepping (2:00, 2:43), turning (0:52, 2:26) or falling out of balance (1:10, 3:02) and into DeGrieux’s arms. This shows not only her trust in him but more so the sense of giving up, not valuing her life as she is sick and slowly reaching the end. Within the ballet and moreover in the final Pas de Peux this characterization through movements is shown through Manon’s various dragged steps such as thePas de Beurée or step towards De Grieux in which her transfer of weight is passive and determines off balance weight (0:09) .The strong and almost dead weight with which Manon is dragging her back leg towards the front one in order to transfer the now passive weight reflects feelings of giving up and the tragic story-line in which this serves as anticipation of her ultimate death.
In contrast, within the classical ballet Sleeping Beauty, Aurora’s weight is permanently active. There is evidence of strong active weight in stepping into a 90 degree arabesque supported by the partner.Moreover, as soon as the partner releases his hand from holding Aurora, there is a moment of strong independent balance demonstrating how Aurora is fully in charge of her weight (0:38). This connects to the fairy tale story line and in terms of emotion, there is love and happiness considering the wedding between the characters, however no inner deeper emotions of Aurora’s character are shown. There is a sense of uplift, reaching higher and higher towards the far kinesphere however only using the arms and legs. In this sense of looking at personal space, in Manon all classical routes of reaching towards far reach space are extended. The ballerina itself creates lines and shapes with her whole body in reaching outwards. At times her hands are also using close reach space as she is touching her face, or her chest before reaching outwards (2:11 to 2:14) with hands. To create a full extension with her body the legs extend as well in almost similar Grand Jeté pose however inverted as her body is supported by DeGrieux’s back and both character’s gaze reach towards the ground (2:15).
In terms of more contrast in weight as well as looking at the evolution from the earlier classical era, the fish pose present in both pas de deux’s represents the shift in how ballet vocabulary is viewed. This relies in the execution of the lift that therefore creates the distinctive real element of style illustrating MacMillan’s modern ballet perspective with foundations in classical style.These were taken, broken and brought into conveying the realism of story and expressiveness in Manon. In the minute 2:34 Aurora prepares herself, runs using en dehors or turned out legs, and elegantly reaches towards her partner to turn en dedanstowards the Prince and finish in the fish posewhile reaching outwards and keeping her chest and head lifted. Both Aurora and the Prince are looking beyond their fingers. As this pose comes after a spin, it almost seems effortless and Aurora is still holding herself, gracefully in control of the weight.
For Manon however, the same pose almost looks dead, including passive weight and no sense of control over the body’s limbs. There is a strong sense of visual effect that brings the element of realism of the story as well as inner feelings into the pose. Both partners are weak, Manon has lost control and seems to give in more into her feelings therefore losing sense of her body. DeGrieux continuously catches, drags and keeps Manon in place while connecting his body with hers to show empathy, the connection of love and the feeling of not giving up on it. The fishpose present at the end of the Pas de Deux represents how a movement can change when representing various different emotions specific to narrative modern ballet. Manon’s reach towards the ground with her head and barely holding into DeGrieux demonstrates full loss of weight aswell as perception over space. Within the kinesphere, her own safety in moving and her consciousness is falling towards the ground inevitably as her final breaths approach.
Dancers describe MacMillan’s choreographic style with “richly textured realism and his raw-edged characterisation” to have not been found in any other choreographer and to have “shaped them profoundly as artists”. Soon there was an understanding of his particular style of leaving the specific ballet technique away and instead incorporate more naturalism. MacMillan sought to bring the kind of revolution that he has experienced previously into his ballets. The choreographer pushed the limits of physical and emotional boundaries in an exploration of expressiveness and realism. Similarly to Manon, MacMillan’s modern ballet characters with complex personalities and inner psyche determine the dancers to have more freedom of exploring their own feelings and bodies into movement (Mackrell).
In conclusion, through the key features presented such as use of weight and space as well as through comparing MacMillan’s choreographic style for modern ballet with the earlier era of classical vocabulary such as Sleeping Beauty it is evident how the choreographer impacted the genre of ballet.
Article wrote by Rebecca Olarescu – RAD student