Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Houston Ballet Dance Talk - "Discover Manon"

Originally I intended to wait until after I'd actually seen Houston Ballet's Manon before I would write about the dance talk pertaining to this production, but the talk, which I attended last night, was so outstanding that it deserves mention all on its own.

By way of background, the Houston Ballet puts on several dance talks each season that are free and open to the public; these may feature the company's Artistic Director (Stanton Welch), ballet historians, dance and/or literary scholars, conductors, dance teachers, and, of course, dancers. The talks are held on weekday evenings, usually leading into a specific production, and are about an hour long. They take place at the Houston Ballet Center for Dance, which is the fairly new and quite gorgeous rehearsal space for the company, located on Preston Street in downtown Houston.

Last night's talk served as an introduction for the season's opening production of Manon, a three-act ballet created by choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan in 1974; it is set to music by Jules Massenet and based on the 1731 novel by Abbé Prévost titled L'Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut. Rather than a lecture, the talk consisted of a panel discussion led by Elizabeth Klett, a professor of Literature at UH-Clear Lake whom we saw speak last year on interpretations of Shakespeare in ballet. For this talk, she was joined by Assistant Conductor Ned Battista and répétiteur (*) Bruce Sansom -- a terrific combination, because between them they could speak authoritatively on the literature, music, and movement of Manon.

Dr. Klett began with some background on the novel, which she points out has not one but two title characters: des Grieux and Manon. The multi-part work was considered quite racy at the time due to Manon's questionable morals. Dr. Klett also referenced a June 2006 New York Times article about three different dancers' interpretations of the character, who transforms from innocent girl to celebrated courtesan to impoverished prostitute over the course of the ballet.

Dr. Klett then invited Ned Battista to speak to the music, which was particularly fascinating. Although Jules Massenet (1842-1912) had composed an entire five-act opera for Manon, which was first performed in 1884, MacMillan decided he wanted to use different music -- but by the same composer -- for the ballet. As a result, every note of the ballet's composite score was written by Massenet, but not one note of it came from Massenet's opera. Instead, MacMillan hired musicians to comb through Massenet's catalog of work to find pieces of music to fit the ballet he envisioned, a difficult task considering that the pieces needed to sound organically cohesive.

Mr. Battista also noted that the ballet makes use of what some have derisively referred to as the "calling card" technique, in which each character has a distinctive motif, a la Wagner's Ring Cycle. (I hope it doesn't horrify any ballet or opera enthusiasts for me to say that my first experience of this technique came when I saw The Empire Strikes Back at age twelve; in addition to the more heavy-handed Darth Vader theme, I can also recall the gentler motifs for Princess Leia, Han Solo, and Yoda.)

This provided a segue for Dr. Klett to ask Mr. Sansom about similar motifs in the choreography, and he explained that Manon repeats, once in each act, the same sequence of steps yet with different interpretations depending upon her circumstances at the time (innocent girl, celebrated courtesan, and somewhat enfeebled prostitute). He also spoke about his own experiences dancing in this ballet, having performed many of its roles, including that of des Grieux.

The talk ended with questions from the audience; my favorite was when a woman asked Mr. Battista about working with dancers as opposed to singers. He answered that the conductor does have to watching the dancers closely, stating (more colorfully than this) that if the dancer is a little bit behind tempo, you have to pull up and not let them (or make them) crash. I loved the answer because it showed how strongly he felt that it's a give and take process, and they're all there to work with each other. Rigid adherence to having one's own way, he said, is not the way to make art.

Houston Ballet's Manon will run from September 10-20, 2015.

[* a person who teaches the steps and coaches the interpretation]

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