Houston Ballet opens its fall season this Thursday with Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Manon, one of the most celebrated story ballets to come out of the latter half of the 20th century. The ballet’s eponymous role is a coveted one and requires a dancer to not only meet the demands of the late MacMillan's intricate choreography, but inhabit the persona of a 16-year-old coquette who is anything but an ingénue. Houston Ballet Principal Yuriko Kajiya, previously a soloist with American Ballet Theatre, dances the role of Manon for the first time during the company’s six-performance run.
The ballet is based on the 1731 French novel by Abbé Prévost, Manon Lescaut, and tells the story a beautiful young woman who abandons her true love, a pious divinity student named Des Grieux, for the wealth and riches of the lascivious Monsieur G.M. Kajiya has an interesting take on the seeming duplicitousness of the young anti-heroine. "Manon only had her brother Lescaut and it was not an option to fall down in the society," she explains. "She had to do what she did to survive. The ballet is very challenging for the leading couple as dancers and as actors. I discover different layer of the role every time I rehearse and I'm sure I'll find something new in the show as well."
The story spans oceans and traverses continents, opening in Paris and ending in Louisiana. Des Grieux's undying affection for Manon is what drives the narrative forward, but it's the young woman's vivacious spirit and determination to be in control of her own destiny that raises it about an archetypal romance. For Kajiya, though, the ballet is all about love. "I believe Manon was truly in love with Des Grieux even though she betrayed him for money and fame," she explains. "My favorite parts are the different pas de deux. Sir Kenneth MacMillan has created such expressive passionate pas de deux that match the music perfectly."
Love may be Des Grieux’s primary motivation, but there's no arguing that by the end of the ballet he's a man far removed from the innocent divinity student the audience meets at the story's onset. As Kajiya puts it, Manon isn't your typical fairy tale ballet. "The story and characters are very real," she says. Manon takes the men she holds captive, and the audience she enchants, on a journey that sees love, lust, betrayal, and, ultimately, death. And no one gets to experience the catharsis more strongly that Kajiya herself. "I am very excited because in a short two-and-a-half hours, I get to take Manon's journey."
Manon. Sep. 10, 12, 18 & 19 at 7:30; Sep. 13 & 20 at 2. $20-197. Wortham Center, 501 Texas Ave. 713-227-2787. houstonballet.org