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MacMillan’s Manon at SND: Sin and Spectacle

Manon had its premiere at Slovak National Theatre last week. The full name of the ballet is L’histoire de Manon or The Story of Manon. Despite the 19th century story ballet costumes and even music, Manon is a relatively recent creation, exactly fifty years old, first performed by the Royal Ballet in Covent Garden on 7 March 1974. The choreographer was Englishman and principal choreographer of the Royal Ballet, Kenneth MacMillan.

Story ballet

While a modern work, Manon is at least as fusty as Giselle or Sleeping Beauty, all costumes, decorations and melodramatic music. Since Manon is no transcendental work of genius, its prurience makes it even more part of another epoch. Manon‘s closest relative in the pantheon of story ballets is probably the amoral and vapid The Corsair.

Tatum Shoptaugh as Manon, Andrea Schifano as Des Grieux, other performance © SND

The message of the first half of Manon seems that crime is lots of fun and pays off in riches and love. Then in the second half, the message becomes “until it doesn’t” and everyone associated with even theft is murdered, exiled and raped. Finally even Manon dies of consumption in the swamps of Louisiana.

Early critics of Manon loathed the story. In the Guardian, Mary Clarke wrote “Basically, Manon is a slut and Des Grieux is a fool and they move in the most unsavoury company.” The Morning Star critic Jane King was even more categoric in her condemnation: “An appalling waste of lovely Antoinette Sibley, who is reduced to a nasty little diamond digger.”

Why Manon

Sin and spectacle sell though and Manon has been popular where it has played. The elaborate 18th century ancien regime French costumes and décor, along with the prurient story lead to a lively evening. SND designers and costumers did excellent work in recreating the story ballet costumes. Manon looked very good, if old school. There is not much innovation here.

SND director Nina Poláková built her own career at Vienna Staatsoper on excellent performances in the great costumed story ballets like La Bayadère, Giselle, Le Corsaire, La Sylphide, Swan Lake, Nutcracker, Manon, Mayerling, Onegin, The Pavilion of Armida, Raymonda, Romeo and Juliet and Sleeping Beauty. Poklakova’s choice of Manon as a new work for the SND makes a great deal of sense.

The company is mostly smaller dancers, with few great stars. Leaning on pomp and decorations, with less demanding dancing is the right artistic strategy for the major works and to bring in a wide public. The best SND performances are usually sparked by a single great dramatic performance, who pushes the other dancers to reveal themselves in the emotion of the show, drawing in the audience more from emotion than technique. Manon’s dark fate seems to promise such an opportunity.

Manon Music

Massenet’s music in the orchestration of Martin Yates is surprisingly deep. While Jules Massenet did write an operetta Manon, the ballet score is taken from Massenet’s weightier orchestral scores. Adam Sedlický did splendid work at the conductor’s podium with strong support from a charismatic lead violinist.

Well-played, as it was in Bratislava, on the night we saw Manon, the score is one of the highlights. I’d like to listen to the score at home or work.1 Without extraordinary dance, astonishing decorations or an uplifting story on which to lean, Manon mostly leans on the performances of its dancers.


Konstantin Korotkov as Des Grieux came across as a bit old and tired to be Manon’s impulsive and infatuated student lover. While always he cuts a handsome figure, Korotkov’s astringent Des Grieux didn’t make much sense to me. Home grown Evy Jaczove Choreographic School graduate, Mergim Veselaj played GM effectively. In his aristocratic finery Veselaj was a persuasive aristrocratic, drawing attention to himself whenever on stage, drinking in the attention to his person as a celebrity or spoiled noble would do. While SND stalwart Andrej Szabo as the New Orleans Prison Governor dripped cruelty, Szabo’s actions lacked the necessary lasciviousness to truly chill the audience’s blood.

Romina Kolodziej as Manon, Viacheslav Krut as her brother Lescaut, different cast © SND

Artemyj Pyzhov as Manon’s brother Lescaut was the performer who brought the most convincing energy and conviction to his performance. His ill-conceived plans to lure his sister out of the convent and to betray his master GM at cards sincerely flashed the symptoms of a misguided chancer.

And Manon, the centre of the story and star of her eponymous show? Sadly, after twenty years as a dancer, the lovely Tatyjana Melnyik has become exceptionally thin and austere. This is not unusual among ballerinas, the strict eating regime and endless training slowly takes its toll. While there was nothing wrong with Melnyik’s dancing per se, she lacked the youthful sexual ebullience and nonchalance of a budding femme fatale.

One felt Manon had already done her twenty years in prison. Melnyik’s emaciated Manon at this point in her life would do whatever necessary to avoid deportation and enjoy a seat at a warm, well-laden table. She’d be old enough to be more careful in terms of risk. Her Phrygia in Spartacus is a better role for Melnyik today.

It’s not just a case of visible age, which we observed seated close to the stage. Age is also in movement. Young people move differently, with a livelier bounce in their step. Without a sex kitten Manon, in my opinion, the whole work falls apart. The motivation of the men, all falling over each other for a night’s attention from Manon, makes no sense.


We sat back and enjoyed the live orchestra and the costumes. Manon at SND is a pleasant musical evening, though on the evening we saw it much less piquant than it could be.

Preferred Casts: Tatyjana Melnyik performed as a guest artist from the Hungarian National Ballet. Based on past performance, I’d aim for one of Romina Kolodziej‘s performances. Tatum Shoptaugh is the other Manon. The key role is Manon so choose your performance based on your preferred Manon.

  1. Strangely, there seems to be only a single performance of Yates’s orchestration on either Spotify of Qobuz. There’s an alternative version on YouTube of the earlier arrangement of Leighton Lucas. 

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