Manon – The Australian Ballet

Lucinda Dunn and Adam Bull in Manon_photo_Jeff Busby.Kenneth McMillan’s dramatic full-length ballet, charting the rise and downfall of a beautiful courtesan, was originally choreographed for the Royal Ballet in 1974. The Royal Ballet brought it to Australia in 1988 as part of the bicentennial celebrations.

In 1994 the Australian Ballet premiered its own production of Manon, which 20 years later, with Peter Farmer’s sumptuous costumes and settings intact, still remains a beautiful and compelling work with inventive choreography and central roles which lend themselves to a variety of interpretations.

Through the course of the ballet, Manon’s journey takes her from innocent girl-hood to rapturous love, sexual awakening and decadent wealth, finally humiliating deportation as a prostitute only to die exhausted in a swamp of Louisiana. It is a role prized by dancers for the opportunities and challenges it offers as both dancer and actress.

The Australian Ballet’s performance in the Joan Sutherland Theatre in the Sydney Opera House on 16th April was particularly memorable because it was the penultimate performance by Lucinda Dunn as Manon. One of The Australian Ballet’s most admired and accomplished ballerinas, Dunn had announced that she would be retiring from dancing at the end of the Sydney season of Manon after a 23 year career with The Australian Ballet.

From the moment she made her entrance as the young girl enroute to a convent, it was clear that Dunn was savouring every moment of this performance. So completely was she immersed in the role that the intricate choreography seemed to hold no terrors for her, as she abandoned herself completely to ballet.

Her total trust and confidence in her partner, tall, elegant, Adam Bull as des Grieux, was obvious and he supported her with a passionate, thoughtful performance that made her instant attraction to him totally believable. Their ecstatic lifts, explosive jumps, headlong rushes into each other’s arms in the post-coital pas deux were sensuous, exhilarating and thrilling to watch.

Not only was Dunn’s dancing wonderfully detailed but so too was her acting. The look of surprise which momentarily crossed her face at the beginning of the sensual pas de trois when her brother, Lescaut (Andrew Killian) offers her to Monsieur GM (Stephen Heathcote), and her growing awareness of the power of her sensuality as she succumbs to Monsieur GM advances was beautifully portrayed.

Among the other central roles Andrew Killian was superb as Manon’s mischievous brother, Lescaut. His dancing throughout, but particularly in the hilarious “drunk” pas de deux at the ball, for which he was teamed with Laura Tong, excellent as his fiery mistress, was nothing short of brilliant.

Bringing his considerable experience to the role of the sinister Monsieur GM, Stephen Heathcote exuded charm and elegance, throwing his money around at every opportunity. The interplay between Monsieur GM and Madam X, (played by Olga Tamara) the accommodating proprietor of the salon in the Hotel Particulier, provided a chilling counterpoint to the festivities taking place as the “actresses” plied their trade.

Brett Chynoweth deserves special mention for his splendid dancing as the beggar chief, as does Brett Simon who, as the gaoler, provided perhaps the most confronting moment of this fascinating production. .

Although cobbled together from a number of Jules Massenet compositions, the atmospheric, tuneful score was superbly played by the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra under the baton of Nicolette Fraillon, and provided a wonderfully lush and romantic soundscape for a ballet which proved to be the perfect vehicle in which to showcase the prodigious talents of a remarkable and much-loved ballerina making her final farewell appearances.

Music: Jules Massenet  Choreography: Sir Kenneth McMillan  Designer: Peter Farmer  Conductor: Nicolette Fraillon

Manon – The Australian Ballet
Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House
Performance: Wednesday 16 April 2014 – 7.30pm
Season: 3 – 23 April 2014

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Image: Adam Bull and Lucinda Dunn – photo by Jeff Busby

Review: Bill Stephens