During the last night of The Royal Ballet's summer Season in 1973, Antoinette Sibley discovered that a book had been left in her dressing room. A note from Kenneth MacMillan informed her: 'Some holiday reading for you _ which will come in handy for March 7, '74.'
Sibley was intrigued but confused. The Everyman's Library edition contained two novels: the Abb_ Pr_vost L'Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut coupled with Merim_e's Carmen. Which story did MacMillan intended to turn into a ballet? Sibley, about to go on stage as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, whispered to Anthony Dowell in the wings, 'Could you find out before the interval?' Dowell, who had been given the same edition in his dressing room, sought out MacMillan: Pr_vost's novel was to be the source of the ballet, with Sibley as Manon and Dowell as Des Grieux.
The idea of a three-act ballet tell- ing the story of Manon Lescaut had been germinating in MacMillan's mind for some time. He had seen a French Film, Manon 70, with Catherine Deneuve as an amoral modern Manon; Puccini's opera had entered The Royal Opera's repertory; and behavior was her dread of poverty: like her brother, Lescaut, she would do anything to escape the humiliation of being poor. Above all, she needed a protector, a man rich enough to keep her luxury: love in a garret was not for her. The 18th-century Parisian society in which she had to make her way was morally and financially volatile; great wealth and corruption flourished along- side absolute degradation. The ballet's setting, lavish through it appears, exposes these contrasts. Behind each change of scene hangs a background of rags; urchins scrabble for coins as women parade their finery, acquired in exchange for sexual services. Everyone has a price.
Although there had been an early Manon ballet in 1830 (well before the Massenet and Puc- cini operas), MacMillan was challenging conventions by making the 'heroine with all the vices' the leading role in his new work. Heroines in full-length ballets, even 20th-century ones, were usually good girls: if not virtuous, then at least golden-hearted, like Marguerite in La Dame aux Cam_lias. Faced with moral dilemmas, they were prepared to make great sacrifices, as Marguerite does in Ashton's ballet. Manon has few redeeming qualities other than her charm: she is ruthless about every choice she makes; Lescaut's courtesan mistress is more honest than she is.
MacMillan would take depravity far further with the role of Mary Vetsera in Mayerling (1978), his next three-act ballet. Because ballerinas nowadays relish these immoral roles, it can be hard to appreciate how outrageous Manon seemed in the 1970's. To compound the shock value, Antoinette Sibley, purest of classical dancers, had been cast against type: 'An appalling waste of lovely Antoinette Sibley, who, as Manon, is reduced to a nasty little diamond digger' (Morning Star); 'Basically, Manon is a slut and Des Grieux is a fool and they move in the most unsavoury company' (The Guardian).
Sibley, however, relished the chance to develop her acting ability in the first full-length dra- matic role to be created on her. She had read Pr_vost's novel during the 1973 summer break, ready for MacMillan to start work, as was his custom, with the pas de deux. The first encounter between Manon and Des Grieux, and their two bedroom scenes, where swiftly completed, MacMillan's invention flowing freely. Then Sibley and Dowell left for the other side of the world to perform as guest artists with The Australian Ballet. Already established as The Royal Ballet's golden couple, they were making their names as international stars: the Australian dates had been agreed before Nicholas Georgiadis, MacMillan's frequent collaborator, had suggested Pr_vost's 18th-century novel would make a good 'operatic' ballet scenario, with pas de deux taking the place of lyrical duets. Georgiadis, who had been re-reading the book, described the decadent milieu he envisaged for the ballet's designs. (A Manon proposal had earlier been put to Frederick Ashton by Jean-Pierre Gasquet, a friend and teacher of French whose students had been studying Prevost's novel. When Ashton dismissed the story as too close to that of Marguerite and Armand, which he had created for Fonteyn and Nureyev in 1963, Gasquet mention it to MacMillan.)
Three years into his artistic directorship of The Royal Ballet, MacMillan wanted to create a large-scale work that would display the Company's Principal dancers and corps to audiences at home and abroad. His first full-length ballet, Romeo and Juliet (1965), continued to be a huge popular success. His second, Anastasia (1971), had been criticized for its unorthodox structure, the first two acts a prequel to the expressionist one-act work he had previously made in Berlin. He decided that Manon's tragic downfall would serve as the basis for a more conventional narrative ballet, relying on a literary source but avoiding familiar music that might make it seem silent opera.
The composer Leighton Lucas, an experienced conductor for ballet, agreed to arrange a selec- tion of Massenet's music (which was out of copyright) to suit MacMillan's needs. Returning to Pr_vost's 1731 novel, MacMillan drew up his own scenario. For him, the clue to Manon's capricious Manon entered The Royal Ballet's schedule. A recurring knee injury meant that, on Sibley's return, she was unable to continue to take part in the ballet's creation. MacMillan had prom- ised that she should reclaim her role as Manon as soon as she was fit enough. In the mean- time, he turned to Jennifer Penney to replace her in the months leading up to the premiere on 7 March 1974.
Manon's solo after her Act II entry into the hêätel particulier ballroom had been cho- reographed before Sibley was injured. Pen- ney took over for the rest of the scene in the high-class brothel, entrancing the male clients and making her choice between Monsieur G.M. and Des Grieux. Manon's first appear- ance in Act I, arriving at the inn on her way to a convent, was created on Penney; so was Act III, with its scenes in New Orleans and the swamps of Louisiana. MacMillan worked out the death-defying lifts in the swamp pas de deux with Penney and Dowell, coming up with moves no one had tried before. Sibley then had to learn how to accomplish them when she re- turned to the ballet in time for the premiere. She danced the opening with Dowell; Penney was the next Manon, with Wayne Eagling as Des Grieux.
Both ballerinas contributed elements of themselves to the choreography, as did Dowell and David Wall, who alternated in the roles of Des Grieux and Lescaut. In the thirty-odd years since the ballet's creation, other dancers have developed their own interpretations, discovering different ways of understanding the characters. Though the choreography remains the same, the production has evolved since its first performances: scenes have been edited, orchestration and d_cor revised. References to our own society's mores have hit home as the ballet has gradually acquired the status of a modern classic. Though critics received it coolly at first, audiences have always enjoyed it. Manon's popularity has spread to other countries as ballet companies clamour to dance it: there have been productions in France, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Chile, Australia, Canada, Russia, Estonia and the USA.
Jann Parry is the author of the biography Different Drummer: the Life of Kenneth MacMillan, published by Faber and Faber.