When a ballerina sweeps her foot seductively past the nose of an old lecher in Kenneth MacMillan’s 1974 Manon, brought to the Kennedy Center last weekend by The Royal Ballet, you sense a small revolution in dance. It’s not the motion, the dance step, the gesture that matters. With MacMillan, it’s all about the pretty little foot. Dance has been fundamentally changed, from an abstract representation of sexual beauty to a medium for its open display. When dancers look at each other it isn’t with the mask-like face of classical ballet; it is with passion, desire, lust, need, the full panoply of erotic expression. And when the lead dancer interrupts his routine to kiss his lover’s hand, it’s a powerful sign that the integrity of classical dance—as a language, a contained form for translating ideas about desire and beauty—is breaking down. Dance isn’t just more theatrical, it’s become inextricably bound up with the sexual beauty of the body.
Thirty years ago, Arlene Croce described MacMillan’s “remarkable sex scenes” as a significant step into new territory: “they’re as far beyond the sex scenes in Tudor’s ballets as contemporary movies are beyond movies of the forties, yet they’re never inhuman or exploitative…” There’s a loss and a gain here, as Croce observed: “MacMillan pushes so insistently against the nature of his art and what it is equipped to express that now and then he achieves breakthroughs and returns a kind of strength to it which has long been absent.”
It can be horrifying watching MacMillan’s work, the way the body, which was meant to be immaterial in an earlier era, becomes drastically physical. Manon is tossed around like a rag doll through this brutal retelling of the Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel. As Sarah Kaufman wrote in The Washington Post, she is a “human mop, dragged around the stage by one man after another.” And MacMillan doesn’t stop there: “…we even see the ballerina on her knees performing fellatio flagrante.”
Sarah reviewed Tamara Rojo in the title role, who, she wrote, “made you believe this pulp fiction was some kind of great art.” I saw Alina Cojocaru, and she too made me feel in the presence of something more than pulp fiction. Unlike Sarah, I have begrudging but real respect for MacMillan’s accomplishment in Manon. I think his treatment of Manon—a flighty courtesan—is a portrait of misogyny rather than a misogynistic work, though I admit that the sexuality has a very 1970s, leather-and-chains theatricality which is wearing thin. MacMillan, like other artists of his time, seemed to process feminist ideas in a heavy-handed and self-serving way: He too readily accepts the radical idea that all sex is aggression, then settles complacently into a voyeur’s appreciation of the brutal spectacle.
But MacMillan got lucky with this work, a drama that serves his hyper-sexualized choreography very well. The original Manon, the novel that inspired not just MacMillan’s ballet, but operas by Auber, Massenet and Puccini, is about sexual desire that can’t be contained within an elaborate, hypocritical and powerful system of permission and restraint. The young lovers are easy prey. Des Grieux, the young nobleman who sacrifices everything for Manon, is overwhelmed with adolescent sexual desire and while he’s smart enough to see the hypocrisy of the rules that contain it, he isn’t wise enough to realize how much is at stake. Manon is easy pickings because she has no protector, she is easily spoiled by luxury, and she has what seems a basic cognitive defect: When introduced to new pleasures, she can’t remember old ones, so the world seems to start anew with each fresh enticement.
So what MacMillan is doing in dance terms—breaking down its abstract, formal language—Prévost was doing in novelistic terms. The novelist is asking questions that threaten the refined and ritual system of sexual cheating—the taking of mistresses, the channeling of extra-marital love into courtesans, kept women and the pleasure of the demimondaine. Can real, burning, unquenchable passion be contained within this quasi-legal world of getting it on the side? What would happen if a fine, good-looking, bright young man of qualities were suddenly consumed with more than extra-curricular love? Can the system contain that? And what would happen if women behaved exactly as this system defines them: as self-aware commodities, trading themselves for their own greatest gain?
When Des Grieux runs off with Manon the first time, his father and brother rush to Paris, kidnap him, drag him home, and then joke about it at dinner:
[My father] asked me first whether I had always been simple enough to believe I was loved by my mistress. I told him boldly that I was so sure of it that nothing could make me lose the least bit of my trust.
“Hah,ha,ha!” he exclaimed, laughing with all his might. “that’s excellent. You’re a fine dupe, and I like to see those sentiments in you. It’s a great pity, my poor Chevalier, to put you into the Order of Malta, since you have so much aptitude for making a patient and accommodating husband.”
He added a thousand mockeries of the same caliber…
And near the end of the novel, when Des Grieux tries to explain himself to his father, he cites the very public nature of the system as part of his defense:
“I am living with a mistress,” I said to him, “without being bound by the marriage ceremonies: The duke of … keeps two in the eyes of all Paris; Monsieur de … has had one for ten years whom he loves with a fidelity he never had for his wife; two-thirds of the gentlemen in France feel honored to have one…”
Des Grieux can’t find his place within this world because he loves a woman who is equally unable to adapt to it. We never really know much about Manon—she is almost a cipher in the novel—but we do know that she loves Des Grieux, and she loves luxury and can’t make up her mind between the two. If Des Grieux had a simpler mistress, he’d be a happier man; and if Manon had a more fickle boyfriend, they’d both move on and do very well for themselves in this sordid system. The two, together, are the source of each other’s trouble and her tragedy.
Massenet best captures the psychology of the two lovers. Puccini gets at the elemental tragedy of their passion. But MacMillan is brilliant at depicting the sexual economy of their story. It is a choreography of glances, of torn psychology, of dancers who change direction at unpredictable moments, erratically turning to look in new directions. He captures the powerful distraction of desires as well as its obsessive single mindedness. And he allows Manon to mature, to retain her independence and dignity right through to the very end, something that neither Massenet or Puccini could tolerate.
He also takes up hints that Des Grieux is emasculated by love just as the ancients so often warned us about unregulated passion. At one point, Des Grieux is forced into the humiliating position of posing as Manon’s little brother (“‘I think he is much like Manon,’ the old man went on, raising my chin with his hand…”), at another, Manon spends the morning dressing Des Grieux’s hair, only to show him off to one of her would-be lovers with a contemptuous declaration: If I can sleep with this, why would I sleep with you? He is a pretty boy, not a hero.
So MacMillan’s Des Grieux is not represented by athletic dance, but by long extensions of the body. He poses, he shows his fine line, his elegant carriage, his width and breadth and perfect proportions. Des Grieux is a bit like a black-and-white photograph from a perfume advertisement come to life, and Manon dances around him. When she’s on point, it isn’t the ethereal point of classical ballet, but a restless, precarious balancing of a body that is constantly inclining in new directions. She is tossed around plenty, to be sure. But when under her own locomotion, she moves among men like a pinball. And is she flighty? Literally. At one point, she makes a swan dive onto the lover’s ever-present, dishevelled bed. I don’t think this is any more or less misogynistic a story than the one that Prévost tells.
MacMillan adds further sexual instability to Prévost’s drama by making Manon’s brother, Lescaut, a far more charismatic figure than he is the novel. He has the morals of a pimp and a pickpocket, but the superficial manners of a gentlemen (a tension very well captured by Ricardo Cervera’s brilliant performance with the Royal). And it is just possible that we’re supposed to sense erotic interest between the passively beautiful Des Grieux and the actively charming Lescaut, who seem to conduct some kind of affair with each other through Manon.
It’s the ideal story for MacMillan, who does for ballet what Manon does for the love story: He reduces it to its essence, pure sexual need and passion. MacMillan also manages to retain a hint of Prévost’s moralizing, a dubious sort of moralizing from a Jesuit and priest who (very likely) knew the depths of squalid passion first-hand. Both Manon and her lover are punished, she more severely than Des Grieux. This is the weakest part of MacMillan’s ballet, the last scene of the last act, with its cheap phantasmagoria and dream sequence.
Up to now, Prévost’s 18th-century characters have been thoroughly modern, but now they must die like 19th-century lovers. MacMillan can’t really believe this is how the story should end. People don’t leave Studio 54 and die romantic deaths in the wilderness. They use sex to torture each other and then move on. But this is his nod to Puccini and Massenet, to the aesthetics of opera, and you can forgive him the indulgence because he’s managed to compete, so well, on that turf for the previous two hours. By corrupting dance he’s managed to describe a corrupt world, which is an honest night’s work even if the last scene is an old-fashioned lie.