All-time great Manons

27 February 2014 | By Behind Ballet

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.

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