Like other 18th century French classics such as Les Noces de Figaro and Les Liaisons dangereuses, this tale highlights issues of gender and class during the ancien régime.
God, that sounds boring. To restate: this ballet about all kinds of social and sexual relationships will be danced out by extraordinarily limber people wearing really spiffy period costumes. And that’s never boring at all…
L’Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel continues to perplex readers. Is his rags-to riches-to rags heroine immoral or amoral? A vicious man-eater who merely pretends to be innocent or a clueless innocent corrupted by men and drawn into vice? Or does the pro-active Manon now represent the anti-Cinderella outlook for many enlightened girls?
If there is such a thing as “woman’s nature,” men — from randy politicians to religious zealots — continue trying to figure that one out.
You might know of the more famous adaptations of this tale into operas by Jules Massenet  and Giacomo Puccini . Sir Kenneth MacMillan certainly did in 1974. In love with the story, working on a deadline for England’s Royal Ballet, he felt hamstrung by two gorgeous scores. How could he avoid making dancers mime to well-known arias? Here’s how: use music by Massenet…lots of juicy bits of it, but not one note from the opera!
ACT ONE (43 minutes)
– Scene one: at a stagecoach inn near Paris
The first person we see under the spotlight is Manon’s corrupt and venal brother, Lescaut. Equally at ease with riff-raff and raunchy aristocrats, he first tries to pass off his mistress to the rich Monsieur G.M. and then guffaws when his beggar friends make off with the pompous ass’s watch.
Into this decadent scene stumbles a shy and handsome student, so lost in reading a book he’s utterly oblivious to all the commotion. His name is Des Grieux.
The stagecoach finally arrives, with Manon in it. While still trying to fend off the old guy who was trying to pick her up during the voyage, she’s faced with her brother immediately trying to set her up with the lecherous monsieur G.M. No wonder her parents are sending her to a convent, men just can’t keep their hands off of her. Her fault?
To very delicate music, Manon tries to hold on to her liberty, her freedom to at least choose only one of these disgusting men whom her brother encourages. Lescaut’s mistress flashes lengths of perfect thigh. She wouldn’t mind being propositioned by any of the leftovers.
Then Manon’s eyes meet those of Des Grieux, the first and only man she will ever desire. After all those miming and stumbling old farts, here’s a man who really knows how to dance!
At the end of this scene, we are treated to the first of all the glorious pas de deux [duet]’s that all dance lovers associate with MacMillan: how can two bodies be taken to the limit of push-me-pull-you? The point of each of their duets in this ballet will be about how far you can go without breaking your ankle/wrist or fall down head-first while transmitting pure emotion. And each duet will end with the exquisite ways MacMillan will invent for the lovers to float back down off their high: literally ending up sweeping the floor — oh so deliciously — with their bodies.
The old guy returns only to discover that Manon has eloped with his purse and his carriage. Monsieur G.M. offers Lescaut even more money to find and bring him this tantalizingly frisky creature.
– Scene two: in Des Grieux’s humble garret [at least it’s in Paris, not at some awful old dull country mansion].Des Grieux tries to write a letter to his father along the lines of “listen, this is a great girl, please send more money.” He’s from a good family, but doesn’t control his fortune yet.
In love, but bored by watching him write, Manon — to put it mildly — distracts him (see here Cléopold’s second by second analysis).
When he finally tears himself away in order to go mail the thing, Lescaut sneaks in with Monsieur G.M., who tantalizes her with all kinds of promises and jewels and even a fur-lined cape. What girl could resist? O.K., the guy seems to have some kind of foot fetish, but ballerinas have been all vaccinated against that old cliché since, like, forever.
Lescaut stays behind in order to rein in the understandable anguish of a horrified Des Grieux. And to try tempt him to listen to reason. “Why not let her suck that bloodsucker dry? We could all be rich!”
INTERMISSION (20 minutes)
ACT TWO (46 minutes)
– Scene one: an elegant evening chez a most shady lady
We saw her in the first scene, grandly sweeping along with Monsieur G.M. That was no lady.. .and not his wife either. “Madame” is actually what is known as a “Madam.” Those girls we saw with fans in the first scene were not ladies, but prostitutes.
Swords should be left at the door, but other metaphors may enter.
A very drunk Lescaut arrives, dragging along the reluctant and droopy Des Grieux. Lescaut’s ever-optimistic mistress gets caught – sideways – in the fun.
Manon enters, stunningly outfitted, and is carried aloft à la Marilyn Monroe by besotted customers to the creepy Monsieur G.M.’s proud delight.
Manon’s thoughtless vanity cannot at first be worn down by Des Grieux’s lovelorn glances. When he finally gets her alone, she makes it clear that she loves him, but not his poverty.
Manon tells him what to do: fleece G.M. by cheating at cards…Des Grieux may be cute, but he botches the job. Real swords are drawn. Taking advantage of the confusion, the lovers elope again.
– Scene two: back at the garret
The lovers dance all over the bedroom as usual.
At one point, Manon realizes that she “forgot” to leave her jewelry behind…
Bad idea. G.M. knows where to find the love-nest and bursts in with a police escort, dragging along a bound and bleeding Lescaut. He threatens to have Manon arrested for theft and prositution. For the first time in her life, she must face the ugliness of the vengeful cruelty of which some men prove most inclined.
INTERMISSION (20 minutes)
ACT THREE (25 minutes)
– Scene one: arrival in New Orleans
A shipload of unfortunate prostitutes have been deported to the New World. Des Grieux’s love knows no bounds: he got himself on the ship by pretending to be Manon’s husband and even seems oddly happy despite the circumstances.
Even broken in spirit and with a shorn head alas alas Manon, despite herself, still attracts unwonted attention.
– Scene two: the jailor’s office
This one is gross. The jailor will give her privileges if she…and he forces her to do so. Des Grieux acts out the audience’s shock and kills this gloating perv.
– Scene three: lost in the bayou
On the run with nowhere to go, the couple clings to hope in different ways. Haunted by her memories, Manon –not made for this kind of life — dies of swamp fever and exhaustion in the desperate Des Grieux’s arms, completely burned out by the force of other men’s great expectations.