Kenneth MacMillan’s 1974 Manon, based on Abbé Prévost’s novel, entered the repertoire of American Ballet Theatre in 1993, and this year returns after a 7 year hiatus. This Tokyo performance kicked off their revival. This time the company has set this ballet on a new stage production by Peter Farmer, consisting of pastel-color tones much lighter than the previous Nicholas Georgiadis designs. So the decadent touch of the 18th century demi-monde society of courtesans looked a little slighter, but the company was successful in creating a truly dramatic atmosphere  nonetheless, thanks to strong leads.

Vishneva and Gomes in Manon © Gene Schiavone
Vishneva and Gomes in Manon
© Gene Schiavone

Manon’s character is a complicated one, although deeply in love with the unworldly student Des Griuex, she is infatuated with wealth, lush life and jewels. The innocent girl expected to enter a convent is exploited by her brother Lescaut and the men surrounding her, thus entering a corrupted realm. It is a challenging task for the ballerina to make this role truly plausible and coherent.

Diana Vishneva as Manon showed her transformation dramatically, she looked exactly like the enchanting temptress that everyone would have dreamed of. With her radiant wide eyes, her eloquent arms, supple back and expressive arched feet, she expressed her heart throbbing in rapture encountering Des Grieux with overwhelming sweetness. She can tell the story in detail with her upper body, each part so fluid. She is the femme fatale, very much aware of her allure, enjoying being the object of desire and naturally obedient to her lusts. During her solo in the second act and being lifted, swirled and tossed by the gentlemen in Madam’s salon, while looking as glamorous as a goddess, we can see she has lost hold of her emotions and become empty inside. Her yearning to Des Griex heavily conflicts with her love of luxury, and leads to her destruction along with Des Grieux’s naïvety. In the final swamp scene, she looked terrified with the visions and nightmares of her past while wandering around in the Louisiana desert and clinging to Des Griuex. But Vishneva’s Manon was not just a victim of the men surrounding her, she could die in the arms of the man she loved, purified of her sins in the end.

Marcelo Gomes is known for his marvelous partnering skills, and his chemistry with Vishneva was breathtaking. Each of the pas de deuxs were fluent and dramatically enhanced, enabling her to make bold daredevil movements with confidence. His wholehearted obsession with Manon was one cause of her fall but still, his sincerity and despair – appearing in his prolonged arabesques and appearing high speed turns – made the audience feel much compassion towards him. His loyalty and despair shown in the last swamp scene was pierced with a silent scream, Gomes touching Vishneva's face gently and caressing her was with such deep affection. The outcome of his journey from the innocent, vulnerable theological student to the ill-fated but ardent lover was truly touching. Each of his solos were performed with accuracy and emotion.

The ensemble of American Ballet Theatre did a fine job in creating the indecent atmosphere of whores, gentlemen and beggars, each of them existing on stage as a real person. Daniil Simkin in his role début as Lescaut opened the performance with a dashing solo packed with high, elevated pas de chats. Despite his youthful looks, Simkin was a gaudy brother, and his duet with his mistress performed by the coquettish Misty Copeland was hilarious with brilliant partnering. Victor Barbee played an arrogant, obscene Monsieur G.M. plausibly. The beggars lead by Arron Scott added liveliness and succeeded in bringing the audience to this 18th century world of sins and chaos.

It was such a treat to be dazzled by this convincing Manon with Vishneva, so irresistibly sensual yet never losing innocence, even through her degradation. That was kudos to Gomes for devoting himself so loyally to enhancing her exquisite portrayal, accelerating their drama to the very edge. Both Vishneva and Gomes were deeply involved in their roles, standing motionless even after the curtain rose for the bows. It was a night to remember. 

****1