The Royal Ballet goes on tour to the Principality of Monaco later this month, to perform one of the classic works from its repertoire – Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon. In a co-production with the Grimaldi Forum Monaco and the Ballets de Monte-Carlo, this work of passion, betrayal and tragedy, set to Jules Massenet’s score, will take place in the Salle des Princes of the Grimaldi Forum, with the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Martin Yates.
The Royal Ballet has a special relationship with the Principality, as the founder of the Company, Dame Ninette de Valois, was a member of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes when it was based in Monte Carlo. The origins of The Royal Ballet go back to 1931, the year in which Dame Ninette assembled a small group of dancers, known originally known as the Vic-Wells Ballet. In 1939, the Vic-Wells became known as the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, taking its name from the theatre at which it was based until 1946, the year in which it took up residence at the Royal Opera House.
In 1956, Queen Elizabeth II granted the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet and Sadler’s Wells School a Royal Charter, and The Royal Ballet and Royal Ballet School were created. Under the Charter, a body of Governors was set up to safeguard the future of a Company (now The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet) and School, and to be the custodians of the traditions established by Dame Ninette de Valois in 1931.
It was during the time of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet that Dame Ninette recognised the choreographic talent of the young dancer Kenneth MacMillan, and she it was who encouraged him to develop the creative genius which would lead to his emergence as one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century. Kenneth MacMillan was the first British choreographer to be produced entirely by the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, where he trained as a dancer from the age of 15. He enjoyed a very successful career as a dancer, but stopped dancing at the age of 23, mainly because of the terrible stage-fright which he experienced.
“I turned to choreography as a release from dancing,” he said, “and I was lucky enough that the first thing I did everyone liked.” That classic understatement preceded the creation of a vast repertoire of works for The Royal Ballet, earning MacMillan his place in history as “a choreographer who changed the nature of classical ballet”, according to Cristina Franchi, Exhibitions and Heritage Publications Manager of The Royal Opera House.
As Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet from 1970 to 1977, Kenneth MacMillan expanded the repertoire of the Company with the introduction of more works by George Balanchine, Glen Tetley, John Cranko, Hans van Manen and John Neumeier, and persuaded choreographers of the calibre of Jerome Robbins to take their work to London. Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering was staged at Covent Garden in 1970.
Having retired after seven years as Artistic Director, MacMillan held the dual roles of Chief Choreographer to The Royal Ballet and Associate Director of American Ballet Theatre until 1992. He collapsed and died backstage, during a performance, on October 29th of that year.
MacMillan wrote Manon in 1974 – his second three-act ballet as Artistic Director for The Royal Ballet. Following scathing criticism of the subject of his previous work, Anastasia, he opted for a less controversial story, and one which had already been used for an opera by both Massenet and Puccini. Based on the 1731 novel L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prévost, it is set in 18th century Paris, at a time when decadence, corruption and depravity were rife.
Manon, beautiful but desperately poor, is adored by Des Grieux, a young student. Having confirmed their love – in what must surely be one of the most exquisite pas de deux in the repertoire – their idyll is interrupted by the intrusion of Manon’s brother, Lescaut, and Monsieur GM, a wealthy older man to whom Lescaut has sold her. Attracted by the life of luxury on offer, Manon deserts Des Grieux.
She and Des Grieux meet up again at a night of revelry in the establishment of a local Madame, and they escape together after he’s caught cheating at cards. Manon is later arrested for prostitution, and – followed by Des Grieux – finds herself being deported to the penal colony of New Orleans. She escapes from gaol and the two lovers flee to the swamps of Louisiana, where Manon collapses in Des Grieux’s arms and dies.
Composed in 1884, Manon is one of Massenet’s most popular works. He was born in 1842, and his future involvement with the arts was influenced by his mother, a talented painter and pianist. In 1853 he entered the Paris Conservatory and rapidly became something of a sensation. In 1859 he won the Premier Prix, Piano, and four years later the Premier Grand Prix de Rome, after which he departed for the French Academy in Rome at the Villa Medici.
Massenet started composing his operas in the early 1870s, and in 1878 was offered the position of Professor of Composition at the Paris Conservatory. At the age of 38 he was elected a member of the Academy of Fine Arts. During the 1900s Massenet forged strong links with the Principality of Monaco. His work was much admired by Prince Albert I and opera director Raoul Gunsbourg, and he composed Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame (1902), Chérubin (1905), Thérèse (1907) and Don Quichotte (1910) for the Principality. He died that year.
The Royal Ballet’s production of L’Histoire de Manon takes place from 27th to 29th June, 2013, at la Salle des Princes du Grimaldi Forum, 10 avenue Princesse Grace, Monaco. For information on ticketing please visit the Grimaldi Forum website www.grimaldiforum.com
Ballets de Monte-Carlo, Royal Opera House