Of all the tragic onstage deaths in ballet, Manon's in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's eponymous ballet may the most physically wrenching. The final pas de deux between Manon and Des Grieux is intricate and extreme, both technically and emotionally. Jonathan Cope and Sylvie Guillem, a former principal of The Royal Ballet and étoile of the Paris Opéra Ballet, respectively, rise to meet MacMillan's challenge in this 2005 clip. They embody their characters' frantic desperation so fully, belying the precision required for such choreographic feats.
Here, Guillem's beautiful flexibility conveys Manon's fragility—a body and spirit pushed to the brink. Cope partners her in precarious promenades and lifts, and even throws her in the air, without sacrificing any of his own character's psychology; Des Grieux is hopeful until the end that he and Manon may make it. Some of the most breathtaking moments are at 3:23 and 3:40, as Guillem nearly collapses, ready to surrender, but Cope catches her at what seems like the last possible moment. The effect is achingly beautiful. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!