Lucinda Dunn: On Manon and moving on

23 April 2014 | By Behind Ballet

Lucinda Dunn. Photography Lynette Wills
Lucinda Dunn. Photography Lynette Wills

Lucinda Dunn OAM is a legend of Australian dance, and The Australian Ballet’s longest-serving ballerina. Tonight, after her performance in Manon at the Sydney Opera House, she’ll bid farewell to the stage. She talks to us about interpreting Manon, her partnership with Robert Curran, and her next move.

BB: It’s unusual for a ballerina of your experience to be performing the role of Manon for the first time. How have you approached your interpretation?

Lucinda: Yes, in 2008, the last time The Australian Ballet did Manon, I was pregnant! It’s always been a role I wanted to dance. I was in the production as a young dancer in the 1990s, playing a courtesan, then the Mistress, so I know the ballet really well and I’ve watched a lot of different dancers tackle the role of Manon. Without exactly thinking, “Oh, I would interpret it like that!”, your brain is ticking away, and I had a really clear idea of how I wanted to approach the role. This ballet is such a journey for the main character, from innocent girl to woman of the world to broken victim. There are so many layers to Manon and so many different ways to interpret her.

BB: What are some of the choices you’ve made about dancing Manon?

Lucinda: For me she’s more innocent than manipulative. For instance, in the pas de trois with Lescaut and Monsieur GM … GM has a foot fetish, he’s continually grabbing at her pointe shoes, and I, as Manon, am more fascinated than anything, thinking how funny and sort of touching it is that he can get so much of a charge from such a simple thing, just from touching my foot and leg. It’s an almost pitying feeling, watching him fall so deeply under my power. In this scene I think Manon, not knowing so much of the world and how sexual these things are for GM, is kind of just amused by him, and she’s being manipulated by her brother. Of course she’s tempted by the luxurious feel of the furs, the sparkle of the jewels, all these beautiful things she’s never seen or touched before.

BB: How does the character progress in Act II and Act III?

Lucinda: As soon as I put on the costume for Act II – the “golden armour” of that amazing cloak – I feel a change. Manon has been living with GM, she’s seen life and moved in high society, she’s become a woman of the world. I think she has a certain amount of rapport with GM; she has sympathy for him, but she’s definitely in it for the wordly goods! When she makes that stately entrance into the bordello, she’s able to command every eye, and when she performs that adage where she’s handed from man to man – well, she’s able to make every man fall in love with her the instant they touch her. She’s at the height of her powers.

In Act III, you’ve done so much already, dancing-wise, in the other two acts that your exhaustion feels a little bit genuine! Again, putting on the costume helps you get in touch with that feeling, smearing on the mud and putting on the rags and shorn wig. You’re really stripped back, there’s nothing left.

For this season of Manon, we had the wonderful Patricia Ruanne, who worked with Kenneth MacMillan on the ballet, staging the production. What kind of things did she impart?

Lucinda: She just put such detail and texture into all aspects of the ballet. She paid attention to every single role: for instance, in the bordello scene, she would say to the corps de ballet dancers, “Who are you in love with, in this scene? Who do you get on badly with, and why? How do you feel when Manon walks in?” Everyone in the whole production had to know what their character was thinking.

In terms of Manon, she gave me a lot of valuable insights. For instance, she talked about migrating to Louisiana, how the journey was hard but that some of these people coming from hellish situations in Paris would have seen it as a move towards something better, how there would be hope. And I very much play it that way: when Manon disembarks she’s weak and stripped of all of her finery and status, but she’s feeling hope, like she can make a new home. Until the Gaoler turns his gaze on her, and she’s plunged back into that situation.

The scene in Act II when Manon returns to des Grieux and they’re back in his lodgings has some really tricky interpretive moments. For instance, when she runs back into the room in her petticoat, holding her dress in front of her, Patricia told us that she’s supposed to be saying, “Look how clever I’ve been, getting undressed all by myself, without the servants to help me!” And des Grieux looks at her, “Yes, very clever – but quickly, we have to pack!” It’s tough for me to say all that in a few gestures, to communicate that to the audience.

BB: How about the part of the scene that directly follows that, when des Grieux discovers the bracelet, Monsieur GM’s present to Manon, still on her wrist?

Lucinda: The way I play that is in line with my interpretation of Manon as more of an innocent. In my head, she leaves on the bracelet by mistake, she’s not flaunting it in his face. When he points it out, I’m saying to him, “This? Oh don’t worry about it! It’s nothing, it shouldn’t bother you!” and when he persists, trying to tear it off my wrist, I’m saying, “Don’t, leave it, we need this! We have to eat!” When I’m dancing a role like this, I have a continual dialogue in my head, informing how the character behaves. In the studio, I’m often murmuring the words to my partner, so they know what I’m feeling, and they can react to that when we’re onstage.

BB: You’re famously a perfectionist – have their been times in your life when you’ve come off stage thinking, “Yes, that was just right, I’m really proud of that”?

Lucinda: I am a perfectionist – at this level, near enough isn’t good enough! But there have been a handful of those moments. I actually really loved the opening of Manon in Melbourne. I felt like I was in the moment, that Adam and I had a wonderful connection – and the audience response was amazing. I felt I couldn’t have done that any better. There have been some performances of The Sleeping Beauty in 2009 … and I really enjoyed dancing Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker – The Story of Clara. It has a great storyline, and my partnership with Robert Curran was really special for the decade we danced together, so there were some lovely moments in those pas de deux.

BB: Of all your onstage partnerships, the one with Robert Curran seems to have been your “golden” one. What made it so special?

Lucinda: I think we first were partnered together in 2001, for my first Giselle, so that was really special anyway. We got on really well with each other in the studio. We respected each other a lot, we both had a very strong work ethic. There were fun and jokes and games, but we both wanted to get the work to be the best it could be. Also, we were promoted to principal artist on the same day, at a media launch, a sit-down lunch. David had been in his job about six weeks. He got all the principal artists to stand up and introduced them. And then he said, “and I’d like to announce two new principals …” It was a shock, we didn’t know! A huge surprise.
On stage, it was like he knew when I was about to move. If I stepped somewhere slightly different, he would just catch me and make it all perfect. Such a special man.

BB: You’re next role will be as Artistic Director of the Tanya Pearson Classical Coaching Academy. What are you eager to impart to young dancers?

Lucinda: I hope to inspire them to be the best they can be, as early as they can be. I’m not talking about doing ten pirouettes at the age of 15, but about anatomy, nutrition, how to take care of yourself when you achieve a full-time career. How to be professional in your approach, how to use time in the studio well, how to build up strength. And how to find your own unique abilities, early in your career.

All of us at The Australian Ballet would like to thank Lucinda for her generosity as a mentor, her shining example to younger dancers, and of course, for all of those unforgettable performances. We wish her all the very best in this new and exciting phase of her life.

As a farewell present for Lucinda, we’re collecting her many fans’ favourite memories of her. What’s your most cherished moment? Tell us in the comments.