Manon is not the easiest ballet heroine to feel sympathy for. Young and beautiful, she is at first easily taken for a kind of Juliet, pining for a man she can't marry.
But it turns out this is a Juliet who jilts. Faster than you can say "unrequited love," Manon sleeps with her tender but poor sweetheart, then pops out the door with someone whose wallet is bigger.
Yes, it \o7 is \f7 18th-Century France, and lower-class Manon has a dread fear of poverty; this is explained in writings about "Manon," the Kenneth MacMillan ballet featured last week during American Ballet Theatre's engagement at Orange County Performing Arts Center.
But a ballerina has only her body and skills to tell the story. And Manon's body is featured nonstop. Led into upscale prostitution by her brother, Lescaut, she is sinuously passed from male hand to hand, enjoying her power as she is devoured limb by lovely limb. Eventually, she must die painfully, of course (as so many heroines who enjoy sex do), but she has so much fickle fun along the way, one may feel she has made her bed and must die in it.
Not, however, when Manon is danced with complex emotions visible, as occurred in the debut performances of Julie Kent and Susan Jaffe. Each ballerina made Manon utterly believable in different ways.
On Friday night, Kent was a revelation. Her long limbs, on which MacMillan's sensuous choreography found new amplitude, led Manon away from the realm of the coquette, into a more coltish enthusiasm. In each luxurious step she seemed to find fresh delight in her sexuality and wonder at its power. Because we discover it innocently with her, a sensual gift she gladly--not calculatingly--gives away, we forgive her weaknesses.
Kent is that rare combination of a perfectly sculpted dancer whose intelligence and intuition impress at every turn. In Manon's frozen arabesques of desire, she stops your heart. As her imposing form is lifted and manipulated by "suitors," she sometimes seems literally too much for them, a woman who can be consumed but not possessed.
Certainly, Kent overshadowed the respectable debuts of Robert Hill, who warmed up to the role of her lover, Des Grieux, and Keith Roberts as a smartly comic Lescaut. Christina Fagundes displayed an admirable wit and ease as Lescaut's mistress. Dramatically, Kent met her match only in a chillingly effective rape scene with Christopher Martin.
On Saturday afternoon, Jaffe centered her Manon in a petulant, crafty playfulness. More scheming than Kent, she also was a marvel of small dramatic touches, amazingly effective in quiet moments. As a wonderfully earnest Des Grieux, Charles Askegard tossed off dreamy pirouettes and a charming, noble awkwardness. When the partnership becomes smoother, Askegard's towering height should work well with Jaffe's smaller frame for MacMillan's passionate toss-and-lunge pas de deux.
The duet of drunken Lescaut and his mistress got its laughs from Ethan Brown and Christine Dunham, as it had with Roberts and Fagundes. No one gets hurt, which is more than can be said for most of MacMillan's dramatic couplings.