Islander stars in Manon ballet

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A unique fundraising event for Salt Spring Hospice Society taking place at ArtSpring on Sunday, Nov. 25 will provide islanders with the opportunity to support a great cause while enjoying a sublime filmed ballet starring Salt Spring resident Jennifer Penney.

Penney leads a quiet life these days, enjoying tai chi, gardening and a small but close circle of good friends. Her retirement years have been intentionally sedate, coming after 25 years of near-constant work, travel and exposure to the public eye as a principal dancer with The Royal Ballet in England.

The fundraiser screening of The Royal Ballet’s 1982 production of Manon reveals Penney in her prime and in one of her favourite roles, choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan to music by Jules Massenet in 1974. It was screened at ArtSpring once before around five years ago and comes back by popular demand and with the good cause attached.

“I have a lot of friends who volunteer for hospice and I know they always need funding,” Penney explained.

Based on the 1731 novel Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost, L’histoire de Manon tells the tragic story of two lovers whose relationship is marred by poverty. Manon’s need to escape from it leads her to make bad choices, some of which compromise her lover Des Grieux. The action moves from Paris to a penal outpost in New Orleans, and then a tragic ending in the wilderness.

The role of Manon was originally to have been created for Antoinette Sibley, but she became very ill after just a couple of weeks and Penney, who was her understudy, stepped in. MacMillan wrote around half the ballet for Penney specifically. She developed and refined the role over many years of performance.

“The wonderful thing about creating a role is even if the choreographer has a set idea, he will work with your body and the way that it’s moving,” Penney said. “People think that it’s a very set process, but it’s not at all. It’s a very open process.”

Under MacMillan’s vision, Manon is quite different from archetypical pieces such as Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty, with their fluffy tutus and dreamy sequences. However, it’s also not something the audience needs a lot of dance knowledge to enjoy because the story is so strong.

“It’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but to me this is much more interesting,” Penney said. “It has a complex story of a love between two people. And the music’s lovely.”

The Nov. 25 show starts at 1 p.m. Entry is by donation to the Salt Spring Hospice Society.

For more on this story, see the November 14, 2018 issue of the Gulf Islands Driftwood newspaper, or subscribe online.

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