Ludwig (or Léon) Minkus does not rank very high on anyone’s list of distinguished composers, but his music nonetheless survives thanks to the tuneful scores he turned out for the ballet, particularly for the choreographer Marius Petipa. And it is probably Don Quichotte that is the best-known today, closely followed by La Bayadère . Until the Russian ballet companies began touring the West in the 1950s and 60s, audiences knew only the pas de deux, which was a staple of many a touring company. But once the Kirov and Bolshoi showed us that there was considerably more to the work, productions began to proliferate. Rudolf Nureyev even made a full-length film of the ballet almost 50 years ago with the Australian Ballet Company, which allows us to see the captivating Lucette Aldous. He then went on to stage the piece for many other companies, including the Paris Opera. Aside from the fact that today we don’t know how much of Don Quichotte is actually the work of Petipa, as it was revived and revised by Alexander Gorsky, among a great many others, rendering meaningless the credit “based upon Marius Petipa,” what Nureyev gives us is his version of the ballet as danced by the Kirov during his time with that company.
In 1974, British choreographer Kenneth MacMillan in turn decided to focus on the two protagonists for an ambitious ballet that could translate the feelings and emotions of two souls abused by the accidents of life and their own personal weaknesses. In short, how a young girl on her way to a convent manages to elope with the young student with whom she has just fallen in love, only to leave him to escape destitution and finally allow herself to be persuaded by her brother Lescaut to yield to the advances of wealthy “protectors”. Accused of prostitution and deported to Louisiana, Manon is rescued by Des Grieux. Driven to murder by Manon’s jailer, he escapes with her into the marshes where the young girl ultimately succumbs. Although sincere, the love that Manon and Des Grieux share for each other cannot stand up to the vagaries of existence. As a result, neither is able to escape moral or social decline. Rather than reuse the score of Massenet’s opera, MacMillan entrusted Leighton Lucas with the task of arranging a series of extracts taken from a selection of the French composer’s operatic, symphonic and vocal scores… The end result was a huge success from its debut performance in London in 1974 onwards.