Manon Designs Now & Then

Manon Designs Now

If you have seen the beautiful promotional video for English National Ballet’s Manon, with Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernández, you cannot fail to have been struck by the location and designs: the building through which the dancers move, with their longing glances and soft sensuous caresses, is furnished with plush deep red drapes and sparkling chandeliers; and yet, at the same time, it shows signs of disrepair in the crumbling walls and ragged upholstery.

This video, lasting only 32 seconds, encapsulates some of the driving themes of the three-act ballet by Kenneth MacMillan, choreographed in 1974.  Based on the 1731 novel by Abbé Prévost entitled Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, the ballet is frequently described as a tale of Manon’s struggle between love and riches, for example on the current ENB promotional flier: “The young and naïve Manon is torn between two lives: privilege and opulence with the wealthy Monsieur GM, or innocent love with the penniless student Des Grieux”.  Equally it could be interpreted as a battle for survival versus a desire for love.

manon-by-jason-bell-crop-square
English National Ballet, Manon. Dancers: Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernández © Jason Bell. Art Direction and Design Charlotte Wilkinson Studio.

Autumn 2018 saw a rare UK tour of the ballet, by ENB, and this month the Company brought it to the London Coliseum. But not with the original designs by Nicholas Georgiadis. Instead ENB uses the designs by Mia Stensgaard, which she created for the Royal Danish Ballet in 2003, almost three decades after Manon’s premiere.  Although the choreographer’s widow Deborah MacMillan describes the production as “a very worthy alternative to Nicholas Georgiadis’s version performed by The Royal Ballet”, Stensgaard’s designs give the ballet a very different visual impact, and some aspects have come up against criticism.  However, being more familiar with the Georgiadis designs, and having now seen ENB’s production in both Milton Keynes and in London, we were struck by a number of design features that to us seemed to bring new life to the ballet.  Here are our thoughts …

The lighting

alina-cojocaru-and-fabian-reimair-in-manon-c-laurent-liotardo
Alina Cojocaru and Fabian Reimair in Manon © Laurent Liotardo

Stengaard’s sets and costumes are complemented by Mikki Kunytu’s evocative lighting.  Two moments in particular were literally and metaphorically illuminated by the lighting: the fight in Act II and the opening of Act III. As the swords clash and Monsieur GM’s rage flares up, shadows of the combatants loom over their brawl, making the tension palpable, creating a sense of foreboding, and highlighting the centrality of this scene for the narrative.

As the curtains rise on Act III a feeling of stifling heat seems to emanate from the stage and engulf the auditorium air.  In the narrative Manon is transported to New Orleans as a convict; in the theatre the audience is transported with Manon, as bright haze and shadows conjure up the heat and with it the sense of discomfort and alienation Manon feels in her new unknown environment.

The make-up

james-streeter-alina-cojocaru-jane-haworth-and-jeffrey-cirio-in-manon-c-laurent-liotardo
James Streeter, Alina Cojocaru, Jane Haworth and Jeffrey Cirio in Manon © Laurent Liotardo

Before tanned skin came into fashion in the early part of the 20thcentury, pale skin was prized.  The faces of 18thcentury portraits are pale, even white, the paleness accentuated by pink cheeks of various shades.  This look was fashionable amongst the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie for men and children as well as for women.  It denoted a particular status, or at least aspiration to that status, as tanned skin was associated with outdoors manual labour of the lower classes that exposed them to the sun.

In this production artificial pale skin is prominent amongst The Clients perusing the prostitutes, but two pivotal characters stand out for us in particular: Monsieur GM and the Gaoler. As performed by Fabian Reimar and James Streeter respectively, even at a distance from the stage their white faces seemed mask-like; and in the production photographs by Laurent Liotardo, where the roles are reversed, equally so.  In performance their denaturalised/synthetic features remind us of the Diplomats from Kurt Jooss’ 1933 The Green Table, whose masks strip them of their humanity as they debate the fate of the land.  The 18thcentury trend for prominent dark eyebrows, particularly for men, is a conspicuous addition to the Gaoler’s make-up, starkly framing his features and hiding any emotion or compassion that might live beneath the surface, if indeed there is any.

Monsieur GM and the Gaoler (who are frequently performed by the same dancers on different nights) are both characters who benefit from the lot of the prostitutes and more particularly play a decided role in the events that lead to the doom of Manon and Des Grieux. Again, The Green Table springs to mind: the Profiteer, the figure who gains from the loss of others in war, has a painted white face that makes him more visibly impervious to the suffering of those around him.  In contrast to the depersonalised faces of Monsieur GM and the Gaoler, the faces of Manon and Des Grieux look natural and real, underlining their social status, as well as their humanity and vulnerability.

The dresses

english-national-ballet-in-manon-c-laurent-liotardo-2
English National Ballet in Manon © Laurent Liotardo

Brightly coloured frou-frou dresses with their frills, flounces and ruffles fill the stage in Act II.  Vibrant pinks, reds, yellows, greens and blues vie for attention with lustrous whites.  The girls are adorned with cute hats and fascinators.  A sense of light and fun pervades.  And into this hive of colour and light walks Manon in her shimmering white cloak and gown bringing a focal point to the drama that radiates over the stage.

This atmosphere of frivolity and youthfulness never returns to Manon.  So, in our opinion, the costumes in this scene in all their decorativeness and blasts of colour serve a crucial purpose in highlighting the mood of this scene, which seems so distant from the dark drama of the ensuing scenes.

Manon Designs Then

Ballet productions are regularly redesigned to give them a fresh “look”, or when a work is taken into the repertoire of a different company.  Frederick Ashton’s 1948 Cinderella has acquired fresh sets and costumes several times over the years, while Birmingham Royal Ballet and La Scala Milan all have their own designs for MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet (1965).

The nineteenth century classics are sometimes retained in the same production for decades, as in the case of Anthony Dowell’s Swan Lake, replaced by Liam Scarlett’s production last year only after thirty-one years.  And a new production comes with a new design concept, which can suggest new meanings to the viewer.

The Royal Ballet has kept Nicholas Georgiadis’ original sets and costumes for Manon, perhaps because choreographer and designer were frequent collaborators, working together over a substantial period of MacMillan’s choreographic career.  In addition to Manon, notable collaborations were The Burrow (1958), The Invitation (1960) Romeo and Juliet, and Mayerling (1978).

Like Romeo and JulietManon is a work performed by companies across the globe, including Australian Ballet, The Mariinsky and Paris Opera Ballet.  Mia Stensgaard is not the first to have created new designs for the ballet, but Peter Farmer’s sets and costumes for the Australian and Mariinsky Companies strike us as closer to Georgiadis’ original concept than Stensgaard’s version of Manon’s world.  So let’s have a look at why that might be …

The rags

In the tradition of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, such an influence on the development of British ballet, MacMillan believed that design was absolutely integral to the identity and meaning of a choreographic work (Woodcock, 19).  One of the aspects of Manon’s story that he felt passionate about and wanted to convey in no uncertain terms was the poverty that was a driving force in her life and the decisions that she makes.  Therefore, crucial to Georgiadis’ décor is a cyclorama of rags cascading down the full height of the stage space.  Characters emerge on to the stage through these rags from their carriages, representing the poverty that divides the population of Manon: the Beggars and the Gentlemen; Des Grieux and Monsieur G.M.; the Gaoler and the deported Prostitutes.  Manon herself is a liminal character, who in the course of the ballet inhabits different worlds according to the decisions she makes.  But the rags are a recurring reminder of how fragile the border is between survival and destitution.

The richness

Critics have highlighted how rich the original designs are compared to Stensgaard’s more recent offerings, which in comparison can look quite sparse.  The word “sumptuous” has been used to describe both the costumes (Clarke 31) and the sets (Mead).  There are undoubtedly a number of reasons for this, the first being Georgiadis’ style. Consider the splendour of the ballroom scenes in both Romeo and Juliet and Mayerling for example.  You will probably be less familiar with his designs for Rudolf Nureyev’s Nutcracker (1968), which have been described by critic and historian Jack Anderson as “far too grand”, “autumnal” and “somber” (168).

Manon was created for the UK’s premiere ballet venue – the Royal Opera House in London – and as full-evening narrative ballet of high drama, a certain degree of ostentation would be expected.  But also, in terms of the subject matter, Manon is a sombre tale, so that a heaviness of tone and hue – the burnt orange, dark brown and olive greens worn by Lescaut’s Mistress, for example – seems appropriate.  And the richness of the costumes makes for a thought-provoking contrast with the rags of the cyclorama.

The dress

Despite the fact that we love Stensgaard’s designs for Act II, and Manon’s light luminous dress is both in keeping with the colour palette and marks her out as the jewel in the crown onstage, we miss Georgiadis’ glorious gown for Manon.  Here she is at her most ravishing.  As she whirls seductively through her solo with Des Grieux and Monsieur GM circling around the rest of cast freezes.  The solo crystallises Manon’s predicament and the choices available to her. And the dress with its ornate black lace embellished with silver detail complements her tantalising but perturbing dance.

Georgiadis’ sets undoubtedly emphasise the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, in accordance with the choreographer’s wishes.  In Stensgaard’s designs this theme is perhaps not so prominent.  However, characterisation, drama and atmosphere, all vital to MacMillan’s oeuvreare writ large in her costumes and sets.  In our opinion, we are really fortunate to have both of these productions in the British ballet repertoire.   With two such distinct design concepts, the choreography is enriched, opening further opportunity for insight and interpretation from performers and audiences alike.

 

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then… March sees the world premiere of Cathy Marston’s new ballet Victoria commissioned by Northern Ballet to commemorate the bicentenary of the monarch’s birth.  So we will be discussing bio-ballets with some thoughts on this new work and Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling based on the life of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austro-Hungary.

© British Ballet Now and Then

References

Anderson, Jack. The Nutcracker Ballet. Bison Books, 1979.

Clarke, Mary. “Manonin Copenhagen”, The Dancing Times, vol. 93, no. 1113, 2003, pp. 31-33.

MacMillan, Deborah. “Manon”. Manon, English National Ballet, Oct.-Nov. 2018.

Mead, David. “Jurgita Dronina Spellbinding in English National Ballet’s Manon”, SeeingDance, 4 Oct. 2018, http://www.seeingdance.com/enb-manon-26102018/. Accessed 21 Jan. 2019.

Woodcock, Sarah C. “MacMillan and Design”, The Dancing Times, vol. 93 no. 1108, 2002, pp. 19-25.

 

Spotlight on James Streeter of English National Ballet

James Streeter as Carabosse in English National Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty © Laurent Liotardo
James Streeter as Carabosse in English National Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty © Laurent Liotardo

On October 5th Julia and Rosie went to Markova House, headquarters of English National Ballet, to watch company class and talk to James Streeter.

 

In our last Britishballetnowandthen post we wrote about male dancers and their impact on the development of performance style and repertoire in British ballet.  One of the dancers we focussed on was James Streeter and the way in which he brings each character that he dances to life, no matter how varied or disparate.  As we researched, discussed and wrote about James, remembering his performances in various roles, we became increasingly intrigued … How does James ignite the choreography with such real-life substance? How does he give the characters their lifeblood? And what is it that makes James Streeter the dancer seem to disappear and leave us with the human being of the story?

Our curiosity led us to ask for an interview with him in which we discovered that his ability to inhabit a role seems to be intrinsically connected to a particular view of life: James sees life as a constantly evolving journey peopled by fascinating human beings all with their individual histories and ways of being.

James’ relish for life is evident in the bright enthusiasm of his features, and his love for his work permeated the discussion, which was continually peppered with lively gestures and facial expressions culminating in a demonstration of the different ways a man and woman might get up from the table – a mesmerising “performance” in itself.

Although James seemed unsure whether he has a natural thespian talent (a doubt not shared by ourselves, having watched him perform in numerous roles and now having sat for an hour seeing him spontaneously transform himself into a plethora of characters mid-sentence), the trajectory of his career from joining the English National Ballet straight from the school leaves no room for doubt as to his dramatic flair.  His first stage role was the Lead Capulet Servant in Rudolf Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet (1977), but as a young Company member he was also given the role of Tybalt in the same ballet, as well as the Duke of Courland in the traditional version of Giselle (Coralli/Perrot, 1841).  This information was delivered to us accompanied by hilarious stories of puzzled looks from the wigs department or disgruntled remarks from more senior colleagues sharing the same role at the sight of so green a performer taking on roles of some maturity.

It seems clear that one of the keys to James’ success in giving life to characters is the fact that he recognises the complexity of human nature.  Tybalt, for example, he perceives not simply as the aggressive villain of Romeo and Juliet, but as a young man who loves his cousin Juliet, and is aware of his status within the family, even though he as yet lacks the maturity and stability of mind to be able to recognise the consequences of his seething temper.  James is very aware that what might feel right to him in terms of his reading of the character when preparing a role may not be clearly perceived by the audience, so he makes sure that checking his character in the mirror is integral to the preparation and rehearsal process.  And reviews of his performance in this role do suggest that his reading of Tybalt reaches over the footlights, with both Zoe Anderson and Mark Monahan recognising a duality within Romeo’s enemy: “James Streeter’s Tybalt has affection for Juliet as well as family pride” (Anderson); “Streeter dared to be almost sympathetic in an early scene with his cousin, but later tapped wells of white-hot ferocity in his disappointment at her choice of beau” (Monahan).

One of James’ most celebrated roles is Carabosse in the classical Sleeping Beauty (Petipa, 1890), a character who on the surface could be interpreted as a straightforward symbol of evil.  Although we didn’t manage to see James in this role in the recent run of performances at the London Coliseum, (we saw a terrifying, chilling Stina Quagebeur), we were captivated by Luke Jennings’ description of James’ “fabulously vicious Carabosse, who prowls the stage with the sallow features and madly crimped hair of a vengeful Tudor queen”.  We queried James about the reference to Elizabeth I, wondering whether he made a connection between the two women, their childlessness highlighted by the celebration of a long desired baby princess. He responded with a vision of Carabosse as an individual who has been ostracised for no good reason, maybe simply for being different, whose bitterness and desire for revenge are to some degree forgivable.  An evil fairy she may be, but one who experiences the depths of human disappointment and hurt, who can therefore give us insight into human nature, and for whom James clearly has some sympathy.

James Streeter as Carabosse in English National Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty © Laurent Liotardo
James Streeter as Carabosse in English National Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty © Laurent Liotardo

As we discussed the whys and wherefores of Carabosse’s nature, James showed us with ever-changing dynamics in gestures and mien the difference between a camp depiction of Carabosse and the same character portrayed through feminine body language. During the conversation he observed and mimicked to a T Julia’s hand and arm gestures, giving them as an example of how he draws on everyday life and people’s changing demeanour in creating believable and relatable characters.

From James’ perspective he has only a few weeks to create a whole life history for the character he is portraying and to discover ways of moving true to the character’s history and temperament.  He constantly asks himself how the person would react to everyday occurrences, such as being jostled in the tube.  Tube journeys are one daily opportunity to observe people’s body language, features of which he then incorporates into a reservoir of visible traits that he uses to depict character.  Early on in his career it was suggested to him that if he could behave in character during a tube ride without drawing attention to himself, he would know that he “had” the character, so to speak.

But this doesn’t quite address the question of exactly how James manages to look as if he is walking into a room rather than walking onto the stage, so real and apparently spontaneous is his demeanour.  So probably the most pressing question for us was the relationship between preparing for a role and allowing himself “to be truly in the moment” (qtd. in O’Byrne). In this part of the discussion James acknowledged the influence of both Akram Khan and Tamara Rojo.  He smiled at his younger self, remembering how after preparing and rehearsing with great rigour he then wanted every performance to be identical in accordance with his painstaking preparations, as if he wanted it to be “exactly right”.  But with experience came the confidence to be more spontaneous in performance.

We have experienced watching Tamara Rojo in a run of performances in the same ballet and revelled in the immediacy of her renditions, varying as they did from night to night, as if she were reborn into the role each time.  James explained to us that in rehearsals of Akram Khan’s Dustan Giselle Tamara Rojo and he would spend a lot of time discussing character, motivation and feeling, but also experimenting and discovering the limits of movement and emotion.  This then enabled them to give performances that were authentic to the characters, their feelings and relationships, without being overdramatised.

And just as our feelings, moods and behaviours as human beings fluctuate from day to day, James perceives each performance to be a new day for his character.  As he prepares for each performance a kind of transformation takes place, for which costume, wig and make-up are crucial.  Now he embodies all his ideas about the character’s history, temperament, status, mood, typical gestures, posture and facial expressions, using his observations from theatre, film, art, literature and daily life, and moves into the performance as if experiencing events and responding to the people around him for the first time – as if in real life. But James did also discuss a specific unknowable factor that feeds into this sense of spontaneity and freshness, that is, the energy of the audience, a phenomenon which James clearly feels keenly and that can give the performance an extraordinary sense of occasion.  A recent example that he cited was English National Ballet’s performance of Lest We Forget to the Royal British Legion, the memory of which noticeably still fills him with awe.

Amongst the dancers whose influence and support James talked about with visible ardour and gratitude were Michael Coleman, Lionel Delanoë, Frederic Jahn, Matz Skoog, Fabian Reimair, and above all David Wall.  Because James’ admiration for this great actor-dancer was so prevalent within the discussion, and we wrote about David Wall’s interest in theatre in our last post, we asked James more particularly about the importance of theatre for his work, and discovered that James not only enjoys both cinema and theatre, but has quite an analytical approach to acting, relishing the finer points of skilful acting.  The only point at which James hesitated in the course of our conversation was when we asked him about actors whom he particularly admired: he was clearly perplexed by the number of actors that inspire his admiration.  However, given that the British ballet world seems to be entranced by the BBC’s Killing Eve, based as it is on the fictional writing of The Observer dance critic Luke Jennings, it was apt that he then proceeded to describe a scene from Episode 2 of this drama (“I’ll Deal with him Later”).  Set in the pub, two of the protagonists, Bill and Eve, deliver a minimal script:

Bill: Did you know about his wife?

Eve: Mm-hmm. You?

Bill: Mm-hmm

Eve: Oh those poor kids …

Bill: Yeah.

Yet the delivery of the script is laced with sardonic, wry humour, and James’ appreciation for the skill of the actor David Haig in giving the scene its sharp wit flowed exuberantly through his description of this snippet of the episode that had lodged itself so firmly in his memory.

During our talk James was brimming with delight regarding this profession that allows him to create a “bubble”, a world for his character who lives a completely different life from his own.  Because he enters this bubble anew at each performance, he makes fresh “discoveries”, as he calls them, that he can use to enrich his understanding and portrayal of the character in subsequent performances.  As we have witnessed on stage, this is an approach that he takes to all of his roles. He explained that in the culture of English National Ballet, the notion of a minor character does not in fact exist. When the Company first staged Petipa’s classical Le Corsaire in 2013, as Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo insisted that the curtain rise on a bustling, vibrant marketplace teeming with folks of all kinds, some intent on going about their business, others more interested in the dramatic action going on around them.

As our conversation came to a close, like the gentleman he clearly is, James thanked Julia for the hand gestures she had inadvertently introduced to him, assuring her that he would make use of them one day.

We are very grateful for the support of Alice Gibson, PR Manager, and Laurent Liotardo, Staff Photographer, for their support in the production of this post.

References

Anderson, Zoe. “Romeo and Juliet, Royal Festival Hall, London, review”. Independent, 2 Aug. 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/reviews/romeo-and-juliet-royal-festival-hall-london-review-an-uphill-struggle-a7872441.html. Accessed 14 Oct. 2018.

“I’ll Deal with Him Later”. Killing Eve, series 1 episode 2, BBC, 29 Sept. 2018, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06kc8mb. Accessed 17 Oct. 2019.

Jennings, Luke. “English National Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty review – a way with the fairies”.The Guardian, 10 June 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/jun/10/english-national-ballet-sleeping-beauty-review-alina-cojacaru. Accessed 6 Oct. 2018.

Monahan, Mark. “ENB make Nureyev’s drama soar – Romeo and Juliet, Festival Hall, review”. The Telegraph, 2 Aug. 2017, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/dance/ballet/enb-make-nureyevs-drama-soar-romeo-juliet-festival-hall-review/. Accessed 14 Oct. 2018.

O’Byrne, Ellie. “Classic Love Story gets a Modern Twist”. Irish Examiner, 23 Apr. 2018, http://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/culture/classic-love-story-gets-a-modern-twist-838618.html. Accessed 6 Oct. 2018.