Money or Love?

The ballet Manon is a rare guest on the Kazakhstani stages. This choreographic masterpiece was born in Royal Opera House (London) and made the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan incredibly popular. It is generally believed that Manon is one of the most mysterious and popular heroines in the history of world art. What will the title character choose – money or love, we will learn at the premiere on April 28 and 29 at the Astana Opera. 


L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by the famous writer Antoine François Prévost was first published in 1731 and for almost three centuries has inspired painters, writers, directors and composers for creating interesting works.

Kenneth MacMillan’s three-act ballet Manon was also created based on the novel. The plot unfolds as if on a movie set at a film studio, and has a great dynamism of dramatic development. Love at first sight, innocence and passion, escape, fatal choice: feelings or a prosperous way of life. Happiness, break up, reunion, revenge, arrest. Manon dies in the arms of her beloved.

A joint team of Kazakhstani and British specialists – keepers of the traditions of the Royal Ballet – is working on the production at the Astana Opera. Set and Costume Supervisors followed the original in the minutest things.

The Era of Royal Splendour

The XVIII century costume style was distinguished by its elegant decorativeness, finesse, sophistication, sensuality and a certain propensity for frippery and affectation. It did not tolerate straight lines, and the silhouettes became sinuous and fluid. This was the last period of domination of aristocratic fashion, which ended with the beginning of the French Revolution.

Before starting work on making costumes, Natalia Stewart (UK) and Costume Coordinator Assel Dosmuratova (Kazakhstan) studied the originals created by the Set and Costume Designer Nicholas Georgiadis. To this end, they visited warehouses of the Royal Opera House, where they took photos of every costume, studying the sketches and tailoring features. In the period when this ballet was created, digital storage was not available, and some sketches were simply lost.



“British pattern cutters have given us tremendous help. They demonstrated the cut of historical costumes, shared many specific details that were useful to the team of the Astana Opera Costume Shop workers. The production is full of diverse characters, so it was interesting to create costumes for them. Pleated uniforms for soldiers, 12 different dresses for girls of easy virtue, each has its own style. The heavy outfits can hardly be called ballet costumes; I think they will not be easy to dance in. The heaviness is created by the materials and internal construction. For example, there are three layers of skirts, crinoline, pillows to create volume on the hips in female costumes. All this is difficult to wear even for an average person, and it’s even more difficult to dance in them,” noted Assel Dosmuratova.



One of the special characteristics of the production is in the large amount of handmade details. For example, ruffles and bows consist of several layers of fabric, and here are the handmade guipure ribbons – all of these details show the richness of the period. Skirts are decorated with a very wide braid and embroidery created by the designer.



The seamstresses consider Madame’s dress to be the most interesting costume. It has a lot of details: skirts, a corset, a cape with a huge train. The costume shop workers note that the quality of fabrics today has become much better than it was in 1974, when this production was created, and some costumes look even better than in the original.




The soloists change their costumes several times during the performance. Each of the outfits is special; you can rarely find similar ones. For example, every dancer is supposed to have 5 shirts, but in total his costume can consist of three or four things. For the first time Kazakhstani seamstresses and patternmakers faced the necessity of making unusual leggings for dancing gentlemen. The designer created the image of men in breeches. This kind of clothing was highly fashionable in the XVIII century. Tights that simulate breeches consist of two parts: the upper part is made up of one type of Lycra, and the lower part – of another.

Looking closer, one can notice that many waistcoats are treated with black velvet braid. It was interesting to find out why the black outline was chosen. Natalia Stewart shared the details.

“It was very fashionable to paint with watercolors at that time. Today we create an image of a costume and then paint it. N. Georgiadis did the opposite. He first drew in watercolors and only then he outlined the resulting image in black ink. Because of this, some costumes in the production are processed with black thread,” says Costume Supervisor Natalia Stewart.

The hats are a separate element of the costumes that make them even more interesting. Ladies’ hats adorned with ribbons, flowers, lace and gentlemen’s tricorns with feathers cause great enthusiasm among the hat makers. They would have liked to wear such hats themselves, had it not been for the wind in the capital.




The New Look of the Stage

During the four years of the Astana Opera’s existence, the viewers became accustomed to scenic know-how, 3D projections and animations. The set design of the ballet Manon is a special world, in which there is no place for modern technologies. Nothing distracts from the XVIII century style, all contributes to being immersed in the atmosphere of that time. A large number of rich fabrics with different types of print decorating the stage, furniture treated with gold leaf… Still there are elements in the production that may surprise the audience – the wonderful transformation of a swamp into huge vines. Let us talk more about all the intricacies.

“We are reproducing the ballet according to the sketches of 1974. Before starting work, I had discussions with representatives of almost all the companies (of which there are not so many) where this production is performed, so that our colleagues could share the experience of recreating it. Today, those technologies for the scenery production have been practically lost, and the sketches did not reach us in full, so we had to do most of the drawings ourselves. Our team works closely with the MacMillan Foundation, and with the Set Supervisor Cinzia Lo Fazio. Despite the fact that we are separated by long distances, our colleagues regularly come in contact with us, we show them our initial drawings, try to get as close to the originals as possible,” said the Head of the Design and Production Complex Victor Carare.

In the Restoration and Scenic Workshop, the staff creates elements of picturesque murals on various objects: tables, chairs, a bed (six meters high), mirrors, screens… They treated the production of life-size carriages with special responsibility. The craftsmen admit that set pieces like these are not so common on our stage.







“The manufacture of the rear wall is the most complex and biggest work. We successfully apply the experience we gained while working with our Italian partners on previous projects. There are many intricate details, more than in the previous productions, they take more time,” said Adilbek Shaikamalov.


Indeed, the sizes of the wall frames and of the 24-meters-wide painted backdrop are impressive. In the original, the Set Designer made it 18 meters wide, but the stage of the Astana Opera is one of the largest in the world; therefore some of the set pieces have to be done proportionally to the stage of the Kazakhstani capital. The Head of the Design and Production Complex Victor Carare foresaw the possibility of the ballet company going on tour with this performance to other venues with smaller stages, so it was designed to be adaptable for any stage.

One of the most beautiful set ideas was utilized in the Port scene. Elements of the ship’s décor and harbor were created in full size. Spectacular image will not leave the audience indifferent.

Stage Life’s Little Things

The title character – Manon is constantly on the road, so the prop masters need to make a lot of valises, bags, suitcases, purses for coins. All of them are seemingly simple props, but certain skills are needed for their manufacture.




Prop Master Zhanna Musayeva says that such interesting things have not been created at the shop for a long time. The leather that the valises are fitted with will be treated with special equipment to look old. There are also familiar items that can be found in any production – glasses, vases, fans, drums, baskets, daggers, books, parasols, purses, epees and swords. The creation of a fake violin required painstaking work. Although the basic technique of prop-making is papier-mâché, many items in this production are made of wood. Here is a chandelier with elements of wood that will be hanging in Madame’s salon.








The ladies are very pleased to work on Manon’s jewellery: pendants, earrings, bracelets – everything that the title character loves so much and that will ruin her…

The Splendour and Misery

The dancers are working in the rehearsals with inspiration and full dedication. This is their first encounter with K. MacMillan’s choreography. Altynai Asylmuratova, Artistic Director of the Astana Opera Ballet Company, People’s Artist of Russia continues to expand the repertoire of the Kazakhstani opera house with the best ballets created over the centuries of the existence of this high art form.

Many times she herself has danced the title role of Manon at the legendary London’s opera house. She worked on the portrayal with Kenneth MacMillan personally.


“K. MacMillan’s most famous ballet Manon can now be considered a British classic, this complex, large-scale performance has passed the test of time. Any ballerina dreams of having a part of Manon in her repertoire. There are always positive heroes whom the viewers sympathize with as well as negative characters in any production. This ballet is an exception: all the main characters in it are not positive, except for des Grieux. However, the choreographer presents the story in such a way that we treat them with leniency and even empathize with them somewhat. Lescaut is very charming, although, of course, he is a crook. He is the one to arrange the entire gamble, into which he also draws his enterprising sister Manon. Nevertheless, given that time period, you can understand the characters: you either die of hunger, or try to somehow survive. She gets used to the dishonest method of enrichment, breaks des Grieux’s heart, who commits murder for her sake, and then she dies,” explains Altynai Asylmuratova.

In MacMillan’s ballets, the stories are dramatic. Manon is also provocative, just like Abbé Prévost’s book. Courtesans, high society, salons… the dancers read the novel to better understand the text of the ballet, but it should be noted that famous European ballet masters recreating MacMillan’s productions – Karl Burnett and Patricia Ruanne – explain in detail the subtle nuances of British acting style.


“The wonderful thing with this ballet is that there is scope for interpretation. One dancer going into the role may choose a realistic view of the world; another may take a more stand away approach to the events taking place. It is a remarkable thing that no two ballerinas do it the same way. As I have been saying to the dancers, all of MacMillan’s ballets are very unlike what they would normally be doing. Whereas in P. Tchailovsky’s Swan Lake, for example, when the artists finish the solo, they come to the front of the stage and receive the acknowledgement of the audience. In K. MacMillan’s ballets that does not exist. We do not stop; there are no bows, no dancing out to the auditorium. The atmosphere that we are trying to create is for the audience to feel like voyeurs looking in at a story that is happening onstage. I think that is going to be one of the hardest things for dancers. When it comes to the technical challenges, my bar is high. However, the ironic thing is that at the end of the day I do not want to see their technique. I want to see the interpretations. So the technique has to be going on underneath. It is like a swan on water. There you go, back to swans again! Underwater the legs are moving very rapidly, but on top it is beautiful and graceful,” metaphorically explained his requirements Karl Burnett.

The production is complex in many aspects. MacMillan created novels in dance. Nuances of the characters’ personalities and their motivations are not easy to convey. The acing is almost in the foreground. Complex duets, on which the performance is built upon, and very unusual coordination of movements confused the artists at the beginning of the rehearsals. It is not possible to give an example of what this choreography looks like; everything is a novelty for the soloists. Male parts also have difficult supports; the level of the dancer’s mastery is the keystone of the duet’s success, as the ballerina is in his hands throughout the performance.

To date, two completely different casts are getting ready to perform. Aigerim Beketayeva and Madina Basbayeva are preparing the title role, and each must find her own Manon.

Madina Basbayeva, Honoured Worker of Kazakhstan


“Manon is a ‘pretty trinket’ for GM and for des Grieux she is the meaning of his life. She has a difficult fate, and she continuously has to make a choice between love and wealth. My heroine was ashamed of poverty and sought a luxurious life. I have to show two different images of one heroine: a spoiled, mistrustful girl and a self-interested woman who still feels remorse before her death. I think that a professional dancer must be able to portray any heroine. I have long dreamed of performing this part. It is believed that for a soloist to be dancing the role of Manon is the highest level of skill.”

Aigerim Beketayeva, Honoured Worker of Kazakhstan


“I carefully prepared for the performance: I read the book, saw the film. Manon’s life circumstances are such that she had no choice but to follow the dishonest path, she is very pragmatic. Performing the part, we live the life of our characters, we search for something inside ourselves, so talking about acting is not enough; the entire story goes through our soul. My partner Olzhas Tarlanov and I try to accentuate the emotional side. When K. MacMillan staged this ballet, he went to the Winter Olympics. Figure skating made a very strong impression on him, which is probably why there are such complex elements in the choreography, uncomfortable for us, artists, yet incredibly beautiful. I always feared high supports, but thanks to this ballet I discovered myself, and I succeed. I knew this ballet from earlier and could not even imagine that it would be running at our opera house.”

Rustem Seitbekov and Olzhas Tarlanov are preparing the role of Manon’s beloved – the very same Chevalier des Grieux, who goes a long way from passionate love to penal labour and the death of his beloved.

Rustem Seitbekov, Honoured Worker of Kazakhstan


“The part of des Grieux is as complicated as those of all the soloists for whom this production was made. Initially, my hero is timid, shy, love-blinded, no one and nothing interests him, except for Manon. There is a turning point in his fate – a meeting with his beloved a year later, after she spent it with Monsieur GM. He still forgives her, having overcome the inner pain. I treat my hero with great understanding. We are continuously onstage for three acts – this is a huge work. Faced with this choreography, we had to get used to the new British school.”

Music is Our Everything

There was no specifically written music for this ballet. The score is made up of various works by Jules Massenet. They were selected and orchestrated by the renowned conductor and composer Leighton Lucas and his assistant, concertmaster of the ballet company Hilda Gaunt. Massenet’s famous Élégie as the main theme of lovers was also included in the musical arrangement of the ballet.

Arman Urazgaliev, music director and conductor of the production


“At its heart it is vocal-instrumental music, which is probably why one is so eager to sing it, not only dance to it. There are no ‘seams’ in it that would make it clear that this is not a complete work. The ballet masters urge the artists first of all to listen to the music, as it reflects all the passions, collisions, emotions… We are working today with the Martin Yates’ musical edition, which was made in 2011 and is considered the best version at the Royal Opera House. After the orchestration, classical XIX century music sounds more modern, as the arranger was a man of the XX century, so you can feel a contemporary take at the musical material. Performed by people of the XXI century, time has connected artists of different eras in such an interesting way here.”

Arman Urazgaliev attends every ballet rehearsal. The specificity of his profession obliges to know not only the musical score, but also the choreographic text of the score. He must take into account the individual capabilities of all the soloists. It is interesting that XX century conductors were able to show the movements themselves, it was difficult to call their performance a standard, but this was considered the highest level of skill in the profession.

“I am grateful to the opera house for the opportunity to come into contact with MacMillan’s great work. This is a big growth for the entire company, a great joy, a victory, the next leap,” concluded the maestro.

The ballet Manon is a hallmark of the Royal Opera House. Very soon all of us will learn how Kazakhstani dancers will tell the French story in British interpretation. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that that this drama will definitely be conveyed through the perception of the great Kazakh soul: working on this production, every artist gives of himself or herself completely.

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