All-time great Manons
Maria Kochetkova and Johan Kobborg. Photography Erik Tomasson

All-time great Manons

Our friends at The Ballet Bag are based in London (and do a fair amount of ballet-based travel, as well!) so they’ve seen some of the world’s most acclaimed ballerinas take on the title role of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon. Here’s their hall of fame.

Drama, drama, drama! As we have said before, Manon is all about how the leads project Kenneth MacMillan’s sweeping choreography. The ballet can fall flat with the wrong cast, but great dance-actors bring highly individual interpretations to the story. In particular, Manon’s complex relationship with des Grieux – and with her amoral brother Lescaut, to an extent – can make or break the evening. Des Grieux is clearly pining for Manon, but does she love him, or are diamonds a girl’s best friend? Do tight family bonds (perhaps tinged with incest) trump all of that?

In this guest post, we’ll be looking at some of the dancers who have left an indelible mark as Manon. Do share with us your own favourite portrayals of MacMillan’s ultimate flawed heroine! Here are our picks:

Alina Cojocaru

Cojocaru is one of the world’s finest ballerinas and, as Manon, she is able to flesh out all the different shades to her dancing. Her Manon is complex; in her portrayal you can see the character’s evolution, from the naive girl in Act I to the flirty courtesan who is truly torn between love, family and money. She takes you along for a ride that is simply devastating. In this clip from a gala, you can also observe the musical and fluid quality of her movement. Despite the bare setting, one is pulled into the midst of this naturalistic interpretation where Manon dances out her love for des Grieux.

Diana Vishneva

When it comes to heightened drama and emotion, few can rival Vishneva. In Manon, she uses her ability to convey raw feelings to her advantage; one can see Manon become infatuated with des Grieux and, subsequently, with wealth, reaching levels of obsession. Here the stakes are always high, and there is no slow awakening to love: Vishneva goes for raw passion, and her movements reflect this. She also shapes her Manon to be the dominant force in the relationship, as we can notice by comparing this clip to the one above, where Cojocaru’s Manon seems on more equal grounds of passion with Kobborg’s des Grieux.

Leanne Benjamin

Australian dancer Leanne Benjamin retired last year at the age of 48, a rare feat for ballet dancers. We Londoners were fortunate to see her Manon many times and to observe how her portrayal evolved and matured through the years. As a “MacMillan dancer”, her reading of Manon was particularly effective, as she showed us a woman who is trying to be in complete control, conscious of the power she has on men and attempting to have it all.

MANON by Macmillan

Leanne Benjamin and Steven McRae. Photography Johan Persson

Justine Summers

There are several renowned Australian Manons – including Kirsty Martin, who won the Benois de la Danse prize in 2009 for her interpretation – but we are fortunate to have Justine Summers’ Manon preserved for posterity. With a sure-fire technique, Justine surely has to be one of the most coquettish, fleet and fickle Manons, and in this solo from Act II her Material Girl antics show us why the eternally romantic des Grieux would have been scandalised at Madame X’s party:

Tamara Rojo

Look no further than Rojo for excellent acting combined with lush steps. She gives us a very individual interpretation, which is full of intelligent details. Notice for example how she shapes the innocent Manon of Act I in the smallest of gestures, clutching the money purse so tight, smiling coyly, casting *that* fatal glance (0:40 mark). Poor des Grieux, who could possibly resist all this coquetterie?

Maria Kochetkova

Masha recently danced the Manon bedroom Pas de deux opposite one of the finest des Grieux of our generation, Johan Kobborg, at a San Francisco Ballet gala. Not only does she have the physique du rôle – she is indeed a “delicate dynamo”, as described by Pointe magazine – Masha is one of the most versatile and exciting ballerinas of our times. This first stab at the role was praised by San Francisco Chronicle writer Allan Ulrich as “voluptuousness personified” and we hope to see more of her Manon very soon.


Maria Kochetkova and Johan Kobborg. Photography Erik Tomasson

See Alina Cocojaru and Johan Kobborg – one of the most acclaimed of the modern Manon pairings – dance with The Australian Ballet on the 19th and 22nd of April 2014. Book tickets

27 February 2014

7 Responses to All-time great Manons

  1. Chris Martin says:

    Manon..beautiful ballet.. and as much as I agree that Justine Summers video is preserved for prosterity & was a beautiful dancer.. it is a shame that others such as Kirsty Martin and others have not been showcased for prosterity as well..It would be lovely to be able to watch over and over again those dancers who have been a big part in your life of dance and to remember the joy one gets from watching their special dancers…

  2. Joanne Lau says:

    I think credit must also be given to a great des Grieux who makes a Manon shine, and agree, Justine Summers and Steven Heathcote’s pairing is one of my favourite from The Australian Ballet.

  3. Sue Bebarfald says:

    As a member of U3A Highvale, I present DvD’s and videos from my collection to a group of people who love ballet, but can no longer get to the theatre. Tomorrow I will present Manon, which I will be lucky enough to see during the Melbourne season. I have been a subscriber since the days of Borovansky. I do wish that there were more DVD’s/videos available, that I could even borrow, to show my group. I have all the ones commercially available.
    (U3A….University of the 3rd Age) Sincerely Sue Bebarfald

  4. Andre Mehler says:

    Most useless piece of journalism I have ever come across. No historical references what so ever, just a very limited view/opinion of the lasted generation of dancers. Even worse, no mention of the most influential ballerina of the 21st century dancer Sylvie Guillem….. Back to research and much further investigation

  5. Josephine Neal says:

    How can you seriously identify a dancer as an “all-time great Manon” who has never danced the entire ballet and who has danced the pas de deux apparently only once? And name that dancer as a “great Manon” over Antoinette Sibley, Jennifer Penney, Alessandra Ferri, Lynn Seymour, let alone Irina Dvorovenko, Julie Kent, Polina Semionova and many other ballerinas who have put in the work and time in rehearsing and dancing the entire ballet repeatedly. Your focus is skewed and questionable.

  6. Rose Mulready says:

    Andre and Josephine: this is not intended to be an exhaustive list of greatest ever Manons through the ages – it’s a personal roll call of great Manon experiences by London-based balletomane bloggers. The title (which was added by The Australian Ballet) was meant to suggest that these were great Manons, but not a comprehensive list of best-ever Manons. Perhaps if you read the introduction, both by The Australian Ballet and The Ballet Bag, you’ll get a better sense of what was intended here.

  7. Nakis says:

    I think the greatest Manon and it has become her signature role for more than twenty years now is Sylvie Guillem. She just seems to embody such a light, carefree Manon, capricious, sensual, frivolous, not so much calculating as free spirited. I have seen her several times on stage in Paris, London and her latest triumphant Manon at La Scala in 2011 and she is incomparable. With other Manons there is something missing in my mind. Some are more at ease with the innocent girl at the beginning or the pas de deux joyful with De Grieux. Others fit more at the variation dance scene at the brothel and others like Ferri come into their own at the final scenes. With Guillem everything works. She has that irrestible Grench touch and she embodies fully her character with great charm, precision, lightness, sensuality and a great diversity of expressions.

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