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Kenneth MacMillan's Manon - Queensland Ballet

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There are periods in French history where stepping back in time would be a delight or the source of abject misery, depending on which rung of the social class ladder your footsteps landed.

In the performing arts world, two landmark works come to mind which powerfully depict the struggles of the poor and the demimonde; one is arguably the best musical of all time - Les Miserables, and the other is this ballet Manon, choreographed by Sir Kenneth MacMillan.

MacMillan, no stranger to poverty being born to a labouring family in Dunfermline, Scotland, endeavoured to bring realism and emotional truth into his choreographed works. This piece based on the 1731 novel The Story of the Chevalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut depicts the role of women's financial dependence on men in all strata of society. Poverty for women was a brutal descent into an underclass that left them vulnerable to use and abuse. Poverty in that period, especially for women, was described by MacMillan as "the equivalent of a long slow death".

This hopefully sets the stage of what this ballet uniquely offers the audience who tonight rose to their feet in thunderous applause. A charming "Nutcracker' this was not. A classical ballet that was visceral, emotive and left you feeling changed by its powerful story-telling, superb staging and dramatic dance this production was in spades. If this is what you want from your performing arts experience and your special night out, then this reviewer would suggest you get on the phone ASAP to book your tickets.

So what made this production standing ovation worthy? Several clues are available. Manon can only be performed with approval from Kenneth's widow Lady Deborah MacMillan and Queensland Ballet is one of only a handful granted this honour. And of this handful Lady MacMillan, who was present tonight for opening night, described Queensland Ballet's performance as one of the most enjoyable and one that provided one of the most engaging character performances she has seen. Everyone on stage played their part to make this an immersive experience in 18th century Paris. The bustle and chatter on the streets, the lecherous and drunken behaviour of nobility circling their prey, the pretentious affectations and strutting of upper-class women in their fineries, the courtesans' desperate competition for the richest customers, and all the avaricious behaviour on display in its many forms; anything from the feeding frenzy when coins were thrown to the poor to the pompous behaviour of those deriving an income from the misery and destitution of others. Madame, performed by Li Cunxin's wife, Mary Li, executed her high-handed role as brothel proprietor with great aplomb and cleverly used her fan like a conductor's baton to cajole, bully and press her commercial interests.

Another factor in tonight's success was the sheer bigger-than-Ben-Hur size of the production. As an example, there were 75 dancers on stage, there were 1500 costume pieces with accessories which, together with soft backdrops, required two 45 foot semi-trailers to transport them to QPAC. It required 1300 hours to bump in and 10 days to prepare the stage lighting. The monumental efforts of the behind the scenes crew paid off in evocative staging, sumptuous and expressive costuming and integrated lighting effects.

Last but definitely not least was the powerful interplay between Massenet's beautiful orchestral pieces and the dance performances. There was an alchemy between the orchestra and ballet dancers tonight that was bigger than the sum of its parts.
The Queensland Symphony Orchestra, ably conducted by Nigel Gaynor, provided the musical springboard for some highly expressive dancing. Both Mia Heathcote (Manon) and Patricio Reve (Dex Grieux) tonight performed their roles with exquisite tenderness and clarity of movement and I am pleased to report that these two senior soloists have, as of today, been promoted to principal artists. Alexander Idaszak and Vito Bernasconi were utterly convincing as the conniving brother Lescaut and the arrogant noble Monsieur GM. D'Arcy Brazier played the role of seedy sexually- Gaoler so well that he had better dance a more sweet natured role next time lest he get typecast! Lescaut's mistress is not as strongly written a character as most of the others but Yanela Pinera danced this role with accomplishment and verve.

In summary, this is an evocative and outstanding production and possibly one of Queensland ballet's finest. And judging by the positive response of the audience I wasn't the only one who left the QPAC lyric theatre feeling powerfully moved.

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Why? World-class ballet
Cost: $81-$101
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