In the iconic Sydney Opera House, the Joan Sutherland Theatre is more intimate than one might expect. With wood floors and red seat cushions, every spot in the house offers an exceptional view of the stage and not a single row is too far out. Nicolette Fraillon conducts the orchestra as they open the evening, and as the music fills the theatre the standard is set. The Australian Ballet's Manon is going to be good.

Manon © Australian Ballet
Manon
© Australian Ballet

Manon is not your usual ballet story. Yes, there is a prized ballerina, and she is surrounded by supporting men, but she is far from innocent and the men are much more than props. Manon is a young Parisian beauty whose lust for wealth and inability for fidelity soon lead to her downfall. Though she loves des Grieux, she lets her brother Lescaut profit from her matching with the wealthy Monsieur GM. Swapping sex for the opportunity to be spoiled and steal from older men, Manon finally loses in her own game and is shipped off to America as a prostitute. Disgraced and powerless, she dies while trying to escape the prison of her new reality, leaving des Grieux alone to mourn her.

The curtain rises on Lescaut, danced by Chengwu Guo, in a cape and large hat, eerily looking out on us all. As his eyes come out of the shadows, the festive scene comes to life and he disappears into the crowd, his dark look from seconds before lingering in our mind’s eye. The set design is beautiful, with sumptuous structures filling the stage but not overtaking it. The lighting is classic, if not a bit dated, fitting the period of the setting.

Manon © The Australian Ballet
Manon
© The Australian Ballet

Lescaut and his mistress, the seductive and precise Ako Condo, could have a show all their own. Condo is a vixen, sharply hitting every step then playfully softening each move, grasping our attention and never letting go. Condo is perfect as the mistress, displaying strength and softness at once. Her flirtatious acting is irresistible, countered only by Guo as Lescaut himself. Somehow the most endearing character of all, even as he pimps out his sister and beats his mistress, Lescaut’s troubled darkness is so well hidden by his charm. Guo is impeccable as he stumbles across the stage as drunken Lescaut, an unforgettable scene where the man truly shines even as he lifts and spins his beautiful pointe-shoed partner.

When Manon steps on stage, she is a ray of light. Leanne Stojmenov is breathtaking in a stunning blue dress that flows to highlight her every turn. Her tight, fluid bourrés and brilliant smile are but two elements of her perfection. Her arms, so expressive and elegant, set her apart from the other highly talented dancers. Arms cannot be taught like this. Stojmenov is a star. Whether it is because he is overshadowed by his partner or because his jittery portrayal of des Grieux just didn’t translate well, Daniel Gaudiello just doesn’t hit the same high. Not until the final scene where he flings Stojmenov through the air in desperate passion and grief does Gaudiello really commit to des Grieux. In the entire buildup to that moment, he is simply forgettable.

Beyond the many star characters of Manon, there is a full cast of greedy, raunchy, slimy and desperate men and women to complete the carnival. Overall they give us a break from the drama of the main storyline, but are filler at best, and disappointment at worst. The female duo play up the acting so much they seem to forget that we came to watch dance above all. The men’s trio is a hot mess, with the group’s timing completely out of sync. Blame it on a Monday daze, but there was nothing worthwhile going on here.

For a first experience of the Australian Ballet, their performance of Manon was good, but not great. Glamorous costumes and décor met the quality of the orchestra and the ballet’s principal dancers, but this only makes up two thirds of the show. A lackluster des Grieux and unimpressive demi-solos are blemishes on what is otherwise a beautiful, mature production.

***11