This week, the Australian Ballet's Kevin Jackson will make his debut with American Ballet Theatre, dancing the familiar role of Des Grieux in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Manon. Mr. Jackson's performance marks only the second time that a dancer from the Australian Ballet has guested with American Ballet Theatre. With his ABT debut around the corner (you can catch him on June 4th and June 6th), Mr. Jackson spoke to Pointe about interpreting the role of Des Grieux, partnering Xiomara Reyes, and the modern significance of the story ballet.
PT: Can you talk about your technical approach to the role?
KJ: Des Grieux requires that I be very technically secure. I must ensure that my landings and transitions are as smooth as possible. I must be centered and focused, yet not too academic—the upper body must be free from tension and held with a sense of air and grace. The solos in Manon require that I reach beyond simply dancing the role: I have to express it.
PT: Have you received any notable coaching at ABT that helped you reconsider aspects of your performance?
KJ: I feel very fortunate to have danced and rehearsed this role many times, and I have had many good coaches. At ABT I have had the opportunity to work with Kevin MacKenzie and [Ballet Master] Keith Roberts. Throughout the process, Kevin said many helpful things to me, including, "If you’re feeling the tension, you’re not expressing the intention." That correction allowed me to play with the music and helped me push my partnering skills and musicality to a new level.
PT: How do you approach the emotional portrayal of Des Grieux?
KJ: Des Grieux is a complex character with many different layers to tap. He is essentially a good guy, studying poetry and religion. When he meets Manon, he falls deeply in love with her. I imagine she is the first woman he has ever taken notice of, and it changes his life. He becomes torn between his overwhelming love for Manon and the morals he once believed in.
PT: What are some challenges presented by the role?
KJ: It can be challenging to portray Des Grieux with some emotional backbone, especially in the second act. It’s all about timing and communication with your partner. As you work on the partnering, you develop an inner dialogue that is unique to each Manon and Des Grieux.
PT: Are there any dancers who you have idolized in the role of Des Grieux?
KJ: I have seen clips of the original Des Grieux, Sir Anothony Dowell, and love the fact that we can see where it all began! Steven Heathcote [the other Australian Ballet principal to guest with ABT] was a gorgeous Des Grieux, and has given me some great advice and feedback. I'm also extremely excited to see Julie Kent and Roberto Bolle's interpretation while here in NYC.
PT: What is it like to dance with Xiomara Reyes?
KJ: Xiomara is a seasoned star and I'm so blessed to have this opportunity to dance with her. She is a caring, passionate and communicative dance partner. She has a freedom and abandonment within her movement, and I can already tell that she will be a very giving partner on stage. She has been respectful to my thoughts and is making this process, though nerve racking, an absolute joy.
PT: Do you think the story ballet tradition is still vital?
KJ: When we watch dance, like when we watch any form of entertainment, we want to be taken away from our lives and transported to another time and place. Story ballets are a great catalyst for that, as dancers create an affinity with music, body language and movement to tell a story and take audiences on an adventure. I think in the information age we live in, it's a relief to sit and listen to beautiful music and watch uninterrupted, live dancing. In my eyes, the tradition is absolutely vital.
Click here for tickets to see Kevin Jackson perform with ABT!