Diana Vishneva's one of the rare ballerinas who can make Manon seem more substantial than it is. Kenneth MacMillan's three-act "classic" is an overlong, bloated, and vulgar piece of junk. It pales in comparison to Massenet's opera, or Puccini's opera for that matter. Instead of using a single source for music he takes bits and pieces from various Massenet works to create a piecemeal score. The second act has perhaps 40 minutes of prostitutes milling about the stage and then a badly choreographed fight scene. It has a reputation as a "sexy" ballet but it's more narcissistic than anything else. A lot of the choreography involves Manon being swung in various positions so she can show off her legs, or men touching her feet/legs, or her walking around the stage reveling in her own sexiness. The only actual simulated sex occurs late in the ballet, when a broken and sick Manon is forced to give her jailer a blowjob.
To make this sort of thing work you need a ballerina who doesn't have to try to act sexy -- she has to be sexy. Vishneva, with her cherry lips and big bedroom eyes, has always been sexy in a kittenish way. She brings a level of sophistication and calculation to the role that works well -- even as she steps off the coach in Act One, you can tell this Manon is a little player. The ballet also needs an excellent partner -- all those lifts, and not only that, all those lifts where you have to hold the ballerina just so for the purposes of showing off her legs and feet to the audience. Marcelo Gomes is that partner. Big, tall, dark, and handsome, he kind of defies belief as the callow and immature Des Grieux, but wow he does know how to make a ballerina look beautiful! Even in the Swamp pas de deux (where the male really has to haul the ballerina around like a sack of potatoes as she swings around in the air "dying") he knew exactly how to swing Diana in the air so her toned thighs were exposed.
This is one of those ballets that the ABT can do really well. The corps work is filler, and doesn't make as many demands on them as La Bayadere or Swan Lake. Lescaut was played by the always-wonderful Herman Cornejo, who made the most of his painfully unfunny "drunken" variation. As his mistress Misty Copeland was okay, but not really enough of a scenery chewer. I don't know, I always kind of nod off during their act two tavern scene. There were a depressing amount of empty seats in every level of the house, certainly not something you'd expect in a Big Deal Gala.
I found this video of Ferri/Bolle in the Swamp pas de deux. Notice how even as she's dying, she's supposed to open her legs in a perfect 180 degree split and then immediately drop down to a perfect fish dive after rotating in the air a few times:
It was overall a wonderful performance. Teresa Reichlen has been having a standout season -- I saw her Titania a few years ago and it was pretty but a bit cool and nondescript. Today she was funny and alluring, and some of the comic bits with Bottom (Craig Hall) seemed to be ad-libbed. For instance, when Bottom gives his, well, bottom a hearty slap, Titania kneeled down and lovingly caressed it. There was an element of narcissism to Reichlen's Titania that was most welcome -- from the way she slowly lifted her legs to the spoiled way she lounged in her chaise. Reichlen was always a beautiful dancer, now she's become a wonderful interpreter as well. Her Cavalier (Russell Janzen) was also a very fine partner.
The men were just as strong. Antonio Carmena (Oberon) handled the difficult beats and jumps of the Scherzo with soft landings and ease, and Troy Schumacher was absolutely outstanding as Puck. The four Athenian lovers were all fine -- I've seen other dancers do more with Lysander (Jared Angle) and Demetrius (Ask La Cour) but Helena (Faye Arthurs) and Hermia (Ashley Laracey) were wonderful in their remarkably similar angsty solos. Ashly Isaacs made a very strong impression as Hippolyta -- almost too strong. I've seen her in three leading roles this year, and each time she seems so balls-to-the-walls, so eager to impress us with her gyroscopic abilities, that you sort of want to tell her to chill out. Erica Pereira gave maybe the finest performance I've ever seen her give as Butterfly.
The greatest choreography of MSND occurs in the second act divertissement. It's been surprisingly hard to cast dancers in the divertissement -- the pas de deux requires so much tricky partnering along but dancers have to radiate absolute serenity. Chase Finlay is very very cute, but his partnering is still a work in progress. Ashley Bouder can't quite pull off the lyricism required for the role. She still has that habit of turning to the audience too much instead of seeming lost in her own reverie. She did execute the steps with her usual mastery, especially that series of promenades in which her arms and shoulders have to switch a million positions with her partner. I'm sure she'll grow in the role.
The overall impression from watching both companies, back to back, is that the NYCB is a strong, healthy company. There are the usual amount of injuries (Ana Sophia Scheller), the aging dancers who aren't 100% anymore (Wendy Whelan), and some soloists and principals who aren't progressing and developing well, but night after night, casting is strong and there's depth in every level. You can even see the discipline with which the SAB students make their formations onstage. The ABT, on the other hand, has a thinning, aging roster, and can't seem to generate excitement for anything anymore. Night after night, there are rows and rows of empty seats.