Why do some stories continue to capture the public’s imagination for years, decades or even centuries?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently. It started with Outlander. We’ve been talking about the book and the Starz TV series in Kat’s posts here, on our private blog, and in a polite but robust email discussion this week about whether the plot is palatable to a modern audience. Somewhere in the mix, somebody (pretty sure it was Kay) said something like: I always wonder, why this book?
Then last Thursday I went to an event at my home-from-home, the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, to learn more about the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan’s most successful ballet, Manon, which was 40 earlier this year. At the time of its first performance in March, 1974, MacMillan’s contract as Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet was up for renewal and if he was to keep his job, he needed a winner. Manon was his first attempt at a traditional three-act structure, with a big, operatic storyline, juicy roles for the leading dancers, and a wow factor to capture the public’s imagination.
Here’s what the critics said about it after its first performance:
“Basically, Manon is a slut and Des Grieux is a fool …” Mary Clarke, Guardian
“It is an appalling waste of Antoinette Sibley who, as Manon, is reduced to a nasty little diamond digger.” Jane King, Morning Star.
The public did not agree, and word of mouth did its job. During Manon’s first year, attendances at Covent Garden averaged 92 per cent, and when the Royal Ballet took it to New York, the piece was a raging success. Forty years later the work is a global winner and still reaching new markets. The heroine, Manon, is a complex, sexy dream of a role, and some of the greatest ballerinas in the world have taken on the challenge of defining her.
What’s the key to the story’s longevity?
Here’s MacMillan’s elevator pitch from 1974: “You have a sixteen year-old heroine who is beautiful and absolutely amoral, and a hero who is corrupted by her and becomes a cheat, a liar, and a murderer.”
- The world-building is amazing. It’s set in eighteenth-century Paris and Louisiana, in a time of decadence and corruption, extreme wealth, terrible poverty, and no middle ground.
- The characters are fascinating, especially the heroine. Manon is not a good girl. She’s sex personified, and when she has to decide between her gorgeous but broke lover and her seedy, perverted but wealthy admirer, she tries to have her cake and eat it too, which does not turn out well. There’s a lot of flexibility in the way different ballerinas play her – a thrill-seeker, a schemer, a pragmatist, or a victim of her times.
- The story structure is super-clear: three acts, built around a series of pas de deux – intense, passionate dances for the hero and heroine that showcase their character arc, from growing desire, sexual fulfilment, betrayal, to the final, tragic ending.
- The themes are universal – the corrupting effects of power, wealth and sex (and maybe the redemptive power of true love).
If you’d like a taster, here’s a fabulous four-minute excerpt courtesy of Youtube, of legendary French ballerina Sylvie Guillem coming to a sticky end in the arms of wonderful British dancer Jonathan Cope.
If you’d like to see the whole ballet, chances are you’re in luck. The Royal Ballet is live streaming a performance from Covent Garden on 16 October to cinemas worldwide, with a fantastic cast including Argentinian ballerina Marianela Nunez as Manon and lovely Italian Federico Bonelli as Des Grieux. They’re both great actors as well as brilliant dancers, and it should be well worth watching. Check out this link to find a cinema near you.
What’s your recommendation for a book or movie that has stood the test of time? What do you think is the key? Fascinating, flawed characters? Impossible choices? Universal themes? I’d love to know.