On Thursday night, Houston Ballet kicked off their season with a tremendous bang!-- the opening of Manon.
A short description of Manon could easily sound like the tagline for The Virgin Suicides-- "Love/Sex/Death/Passion/Fear/Obsession." There's drunken debauchery! There's rich guys hitting on beautiful young women! There's hookers and gambling and sex and murder! I have never seen so much sinning look so beautiful.
The show opens in an inn's courtyard, where many of Paris' finest are gathered. The set (designed by Peter Farmer) is one of the most gorgeous and elaborate I've ever seen. The corps dancing here is magnificent-- most notable was a group of men dancers, who danced with explosive energy and boyish excitement.
Among the characters present in this scene are the affluent Monsieur G.M. (Nicholas Leschke), a student named Des Grieux (Connor Walsh), his friend Lescaut (Simon Ball), and his sister Manon-- who, ironically, is on her way to a covenant (Amy Fote). Des Grieux and Manon dance together, fall in love, and decide to run away together with some money that she has stolen.
The one issue I had with this scene was trying to figure out who was who, as it became confusing between all the featured dancers and solos. "That must be De Grieux. Is that one Lescaut? Is Manon the one in the green dress?" It became much more clear after Manon made her grand entrance. In the next scene, Manon and Des Grieux profess their love with a beautiful pas de deux. Walsh and Fote have wonderful onstage chemistry, and practically melt into each other during this lovely dance for two. Jules Massenet's music was absolutely perfect for this ballet-- every note matched every mood and every movement. Ermanno Florio and the Houston Ballet Orchestra sounded lovely!
Act Two opens with a party scene (and another lavish set). The corps work by the women here is fantastic-- the women of Houston Ballet pull off this tricky choreography with precision and exuberance. After their dance, they retreat to the back of the stage on continue with some ad-libbed "business" chatting with one another, fighting over men, etc. It was cute, but became distracting after a few minutes. Peter Farmer also designed the costumes for the ballet, and the costumes in this scene are particularly stunning.
There are many dances between the four main characters as Manon tries to decide between Boy She Actually Loves and Wealthy Sugar Daddy. There is a pas de trois containing some of the most beautiful three-person lists I've ever seen; Ball dances a hi-larious drunken solo. There's an amazing series of "roller coaster" lifts, where Fote is lifted into the air with the help of six people, who duck her headfirst toward the ground and then back up again. The scene concludes, and we have another dazzling, passionate pas de deux between Walsh and Fote. Oh, and then they get arrested (Des Grieux got caught cheating at a card game against M. G.M.). And then the curtain falls.
Act Three brings us to justice-- literally, a harrowing scene with the convicts from France (convicts are played by the HB Women, who are dancing barefoot). It's not a happy scene, but all involved dance it well. Des Grieux, claiming to be Manon's "husband," goes with her when she is deported to America. And now we meet the Jailer.
The scene with the Jailer (James Gotesky) is one of the more brutal scenes I've seen in a ballet. The Jailer (danced with demonic conviction by Gotesky) is like a sugar daddy gone horribly bad-- he sexually assaults Manon, then tries to bribe her to marry him with jewelry. Fote plays the role of the victim here very convincingly, thus this scene is quite painful to watch. Finally, Walsh storms in with a vengeance, stabs the jailer, and runs off with Manon.
Manon collapses soon after, and visions of her former glamorous ambitions dance before her eyes, as steam roles onto the stage and the high-society dancers from Act II dance behind them. The vision fades, and Manon dances one last, lethargic pas with her lover. As the ballet fades, Manon dies in her lover's arms. It's a beautiful ballet with a tragic ending.
My overall rating of Manon: A+