Misty Copeland Triumphs in “Manon”

Image courtesy of dancetabs.com

Since 2015, Misty Copeland has been a principal ballerina with American Ballet Theatre (ABT). Since her promotion, Copeland has had success dancing leads in “Swan Lake,” “Giselle,” “Romeo and Juliet,” Kitri in “Don Quixote,” Swannilda in “Coppelia,” Lise in “La Fille Mal Gardee,”  Gamzatti in “La Bayadere, ”and many other great works from ABT’s classical ballet lexicon. Though some of these roles were bestowed on Copeland while she was still a soloist, with rave reviews in “Romeo and Juliet” and “Swan Lake,” Copeland is moving into the realm of ballerina royalty.

That said; Copeland’s performance as the main character in Kenneth McMillian’s “Manon” solidifies her ascendancy. Serving as a testament to Copeland’s expansion into dramatic roles, Copeland brought a new-found confidence to a role that could have easily eclipsed her. Instead, Copeland brought nuance, charm and a steely determination to the lead character that requires an emotional range of character that evolves from adolescent innocence to savvy manipulator to a convicted throwaway.

Modern-day ballerinas must not only excel in the great Petipa classics, as well as certain neoclassical Balanchine ballets, with a smattering of Fokine, Ashton, Robbins, DeMille, Tudor, Ailey, and Tetley thrown in for good measure, they must also prove that they are great dramatic ballerinas. All the great ballerinas were able to rise to that challenge. Cynthia Gregory was a great Lizzie Borden in DeMille’s Fall River Legend, Antoinette Sibley excelled in “Manon,” and the great Natalia Makarova brought her special brand of stagecraft to Ashton’s “A Month in the Country.”

And now Misty Copeland is on her way to being added to that hallowed constellation of ballerinas that have excelled in an extensive ballet repertoire. And no choreographer stretches a ballerina’s dramatic abilities than Kenneth MacMillan. From the dramatic heroines of his “Romeo and Juliet,” “Anastasia,” “Mayerling,” and “Winter Dreams,” Macmillan brilliantly combines technical virtuosity with stage authenticity.

Image of “Manon” rehearsal courtesy of American Ballet Theatre

That said; MacMillan’s Manon gives a ballerina the opportunity to expand her dramatic possibilities in some distinctly unique ways. First, there is the emotional complexity of the main character, Manon, who must evolve from an innocent young girl right out of a convent education to a skilled courtesan with the ability to manipulate wealthy suitors. This character evolution is beautifully demonstrated in MacMillian’s choreography. As a convent-educated, chaste young woman, MacMillan employs beautiful, creamy bourrées, small intricate parre terre, and petite allegro steps. As Manon enters the world of the demimonde, her choreography becomes sensuous, deliberately displaying her worldly charms. MacMillan aptly inserts lots sensuous ronde de jambes, sexy undulations and the ultimate come-hither, dress pulled up to show lower thigh.

For Copeland, the role of Manon opens up a wealth of possibilities. As much as Copeland is loved for her beautiful legs and feet and bringing a reverence to her Petipa roles, one of the things that she often lacks is lyrical abandon. Copeland, at times, is so careful about being correct and delivering the choreography perfectly that it seems that she might be holding back a bit. Not so, in “Manon.” Though she does use her exquisite feet and legs to stunning effect, but what stands out most for Copeland is pulling off the restraints and throwing caution to the wind.

It is also obvious that Copeland is being coached to bring her more authentic self to dramatic roles. In “Manon,” Copeland was fully invested in the character, finding all the appropriate nuances to bring more relevance and tangibility to the role. This was not a Manon that was easily manipulated or a victim to her brother Lescaut’s (Calvin Royall III) craftiness. Copeland’s Manon knew what she was doing even when she is torn between her for Des Grieux (Cory Stearns) and Monsieur GM (Roman Zhubin). Not to be judged, Copeland’s Manon makes choices and pays a heavy price for her choices.

This production also has notable performances for Cory Stearns as Manon’s lover Des Grieux.  Steans performance was on an operatic scale, exhibiting incredible ballon in his leaps and an impeccably clean technique. Yet, his portrayal of Des Grieux went beyond Stearn’s pyrotechnical acumen. Stearns’ Des Grieux was passionate, if somewhat reckless, and committed to his love for Manon, is spite of her dalliances.

Calvin Royal III’s Lescaut was full of wit, charm and technical brilliance. Royal has the potential to be a great dramatic danseur in the mold of Antony Dowell, Irek Mukhamedov, and Kevin McKenzie. Notable mention goes to Catherine Hurlin and Lescaut’s mistress and Roman Zhubin as Monsieur GM.

Image courtesy of ABT

Still, the star of “Manon” was Misty Copeland. With her conquest of Manon, let this be a signal to American Ballet Theatre that other great dramatic roles should be in her future.

William S. Gooch

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