American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
June 13 , 2007 (evening)

by Michael Popkin
copyright © 2007 by Michael Popkin

With the dismal ten day run of the new production of “The Sleeping Beauty” at last behind us, it was a great pleasure to see “Manon” at ABT this week. MacMillan’s “Manon” reduces the great 18th Century novel of a “femme fatale” (Manon) whose charms ruin a virtuous student (the Chevalier Des Grieux) to a fast moving series of three acts and seven scenes. The choreography sometimes doesn’t carry the action forward. It's often a case of the characters’ stopping what they’re doing to throw off a few dazzling pirouettes and yearning arabesques. A strong cast can turn this to its advantage. At least there’s splendid dancing to watch; and that was the case on Wednesday afternoon when Alessandra Ferri (substituting for the injured Xiomara Reyes) as Manon, Ethan Stiefel her brother Lescaut, and Angel Corella as Des Grieux, all danced brilliantly: this was as good as it gets at ABT.

Stiefel’s performances as Lescaut this week were debuts and Wednesday’s performance was one of the high point in his career in my eyes. Having lost more than a year to injury, he looked rusty at the opening of the season but in this performance his physical facility was superb; he danced with great elevation and clarity.  Whether his character participated in formal dances in Act I or hammed it up in the drunken and stumbling variations that open Act II, he got both the modest, pure footwork and the broad distortions of classicism just right. Dramatically he was also superb, and surprisingly so. He wasn’t trained to do it at SAB or in his early career at City Ballet and acting hasn’t seemed to come naturally to him, and Lescaut is a complex role with an alternation of broad comedy in the drunken scene mentioned above and melodramatic evil in the action sequences, but all with a picaresque element. Lescaut is a loveable rogue and that was how Stiefel played him. He looked good in the costume, held the stage, and had the right feel for the character’s charm.

As Des Grieux, Corella was, if anything, even better. It was as fine a performance as I’ve ever seen from him. He is a MacMillan Romeo par excellence and his Des Grieux — a young student and poet from a good family whose passion for a courtesan undoes him, but still he remains faithful to her, following her even to a penal colony — had a dramatic weight I haven’t often seen from him. This was particularly important because MacMillan’s Des Grieux is merely sketched as a character; it’s a role that a dancer has to make something of out dramatically. The blocking for Des Grieux in the production is often murky — he’s lost in a crowd at the beginning, for example, and again during the famous Act II scene in the bordello. At these times Des Grieux has to grab your attention and hold it, without any help from the choreography, and Corella did this superbly. His dancing was excellent throughout, and especially in the extraordiary complex partnering, in this ballet, where Des Grieux constantly lifts Manon, throws and twists her about, catches her and distorts her lines. Corella made this look natural, easy and part of the dramatic flow.

Ferri will retire next week in “Romeo and Juliet” and Manon has been at least as much of a signature role for her, particularly in her long partnership with Julio Bocca (who himself retired with this ballet last year). At this point in her career, she has lost some of the youth necessary to portray convincingly a seventeen year old nymphet-courtesan who will lure a student to his ruin. But by dint of so many performances of this she inhabits the role with her entire being and dances it with incredible ease and fluency. Her interpretation of Manon is very innocent; she portrays her as less of a  “femme fatale” than a victim of her own beauty and the passion it has inspired in so many men, and above all of her brother’s malign influence. It’s a great interpretation by a dancer with whom the role will always be associated.

In the supporting roles, Stella Abrera excelled as “Lescaut’s Mistress,” as did the entire women’s corps de ballet of harlots and hookers. They had the archetypal Sir Kenneth MacMillan “aren’t we cute ballet dancers playing whores and hiking up our dresses and showing our leg with a come hither smile” aspect of the ballet down . . . . Indeed they were cute in their regency wigs, hiking the dresses. The men’s corps also danced strongly, particularly the quartet of Julio Bragado-Young, Blaine Hoven and Daniel Mantei, led by Jared Matthews as a charming rascal of a beggar chief. Martine van Hamel was a strong Madame and Roman Zhurbin a suitably debauched, menacing and cold Monsieur G.M.

Volume 5, No. 24
June 18, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Michael Popkin

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