By JOHN DeMERS
It’s not exactly The Greatest Story Ever Told – Boy Meets Girl in Paris, Girl Meets Diamonds in Paris, Girl Runs Off With Rich Old Man, Boy Chases Girl, Girl Arrested for Prostitution, Girl Dies in Desolate Place Called Louisiana. But it seems to have considerable resonance with audiences, having inspired one popular opera in French by Massenet and another popular opera in Italian by Puccini. Oddly, Manon may find its greatest psychological depth in a world without singing or even words: in this full-evening story ballet choreographed by the late British master Sir Kenneth MacMillan.
I say “oddly” because, with the condensation of motive and meditation forced by dance, full-evening ballets are often (too often for some!) a few strong ideas, a handful of memorable moves, and a bunch of happy peasants holding what seems a folkdance festival. Thanks to MacMillan and some of his 20th century contemporaries, however, this limitation began to be twisted into a strength. In works like 1974’s Manon and another hit from the Houston Ballet playbook, John Cranko’s Onegin, ballet finds not only its well-established flair for showmanship but its true power as storytelling.
To do this, of course, it helps if your chief dancers are terrific actors in disguise, which explains why the cast to open this season with Manon was applauded so wildly. In company with several other women who move gracefully in and out of this role and others in Stanton Welch’s repertoire, there is no one more remarkable than Amy Fote. Welch first chose her years ago to pour layers of meaning into his intense Madame Butterfly during a tour, and she’s been doing the same number on characters here in Houston ever since.
As Manon, Fote is absolutely believable as a flighty young girl in love with a poor divinity student, just as she’s absolutely believable as a calculating, only slightly older young woman on sale to the highest bidder. Fote apparently uses two or more different bodies in the course of the evening: her movement language is that different. Through both extremes, as she does in nearly all her roles, Fote poured an incredible vulnerability into this Manon, a fragility to underlie her strength, that made us care what happened to her. And she danced her final, dying moments in Louisiana, wavering between her true love’s arms and a parade of frightening memories, with such abandon that I often feared for her safe landings.
To carry off such magic, Fote had the perfect partner, ever-impressive dancing-actor Connor Walsh. It seems Walsh can take on any role, from the noble and tragic within ballet’s canon to wild, almost improvisational slapstick to modern and thoroughly weird. In this instance, we simply had to believe he was a young man who’d do anything for his great love, which in the course of this ballet he pretty much does. I was reminded, watching Walsh’s descent from religious studies to cheating at cards in a high-toned Parisian bordello, that the original 18th-century French novel by Abbe Prevost is at least as much about a man’s fall from grace as a woman’s love of creature comforts.
Strongly danced vignettes fill in around the four (count ‘em!) pas de deux that MacMillan gives his two young lovers – each one so passionate it’s tempting to think it’s better than the others, until all four are finished and you can’t begin to decide. Special praise goes to Simon Ball as Manon’s brother Lescaut (a character called upon to do both a stumbling solo and then a pas de deux while falling-down drunk), Nicholas Leschke as rich-old-man Monsieur G.M., and, very late in the ballet, James Gotesky as the loutish Louisiana jailer who tries to be the last man to take a little something from the dying Manon.
The production is lovely to look at, three acts that begin in crowd scenes and end in spaces both intimate and electrifying. Scenic design is by Peter Farmer, who prefers willowy drops full of suggestion to big, heavy set pieces rolling about, with highly effective lighting by Houston Ballet’s own Christina Giannelli. Under the baton of maestro Ermanno Florio, the orchestra made terrific work of the score by Massenet, not actually from his opera but pieced together from his entire songbook. Manon – well, it might not be the Greatest Story Ever Told, but it’s certainly The Story Told All Too Often.
Photos by Amitava Sarkar: (above) Connor Walsh and Amy Fote, (below) Amy Fote, Nicholas Leschke and Co.