ABT's 'Manon' lively, wicked, well-done

March 02, 1995|By J. L. Conklin | J. L. Conklin,Special to The Sun

"Manon," Kenneth MacMillan's star-studded ballet that opened American Ballet Theatre's engagement at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday night, is a morality tale in a soap opera.

The story revolves around Manon, danced with wonderful abandon by Amanda McKerrow, a convent-bound teen-ager who makes bad decisions. She chooses physical love over the spiritual, then money over love, and consequently destroys her friends, her true love and herself.

The music of Jules Massenet moves "Manon" along through its three acts. Snippets from various operas and compositions are woven together, and music connoisseurs may recognize the parts from "Thais" or from "La Vierge." Set in France in the late 1700s, the ballet has wonderful, muted sets and costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis.

The first act's courtyard was filled with weathered awnings and frayed swatches of sepia, old rose and ocher fabrics that looked like rags hung out on a line to dry. In the second act's party scene, the walls are a soft scarlet, accented by decorative painted screens and the illusion of antique mirrors. Mr. Georgiadis wisely opts for the understated rather than the garish, and "Manon" has the patina of well-worn satin.

American Ballet, now under the artistic direction of Kevin McKenzie, boasts a coterie of thoroughbred dancers. Ms. McKerrow interprets the willful Manon with pure hedonistic delight. She revels in the attention of the men in the courtyard and teases an old man to distraction -- it's no wonder this girl was heading for the convent. When she meets Des Grieux (Guillaume Graffin), it's love at first sight, and she swoons through their pas de deux as if each gesture and movement is filled with the joy of discovery. Later, her flying leap into the four-poster bed is pure adolescence.

As Manon entangles herself in a relationship with the wealthy Monsieur G. M., her demeanor becomes chillingly crystallized. Her dancing in Act Two, Scene One recalls the movements in the prior scene, but her gestures are calculated. Ms. McKerrow's dancing is exciting and soulful, and her Manon is both waif and wanton.

One of the highlights of the ballet is Keith Roberts as Lescaut, Manon's friend who persuades her to sell herself to wealthy Monsieur G. M. Mr. Roberts' drunken solo and duet with Christina Fagundes is intoxicating in its humor. Staggering prances and off-balance barrel leaps are performed with perfect comedic timing as Ms. Fagundes tries her best to keep him dancing, and he collapses nonetheless.

While "Manon" is overly long, -- Act Two is unbearably prolonged -- the caliber of dancing makes up for the deficiencies. This company of stars will present Twyla Tharp's new ballet tomorrow.

DANCE REVIEW

What: American Ballet Theatre

Where: Eisenhower Theatre, Kennedy Center, Washington

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Tickets: $27.50 to $54

Call: (202) 467-4600

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