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Dancers Greta Hodgkinson, Jillian Vanstone, and Sonia Rodriguez prepare for The National Ballet Company's production of "Manon" in Toronto, Ontario, Tuesday, November 4, 2014.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

French ballerina Sylvie Guillem – one of the most influential dancers of the past 30 years – has a page on her website where the names of her favourite ballets form a block of unbroken text. When you move your cursor over each title, the synopsis of the ballet appears in a box on the right. That is, the synopsis according to Guillem. Giselle: She dies. Carmen: She dies. Marguerite and Armand: She dies. Sissi: She dies. Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien: She dies. The Sleeping Beauty: She sleeps. Les Sylphides: She's already dead.

Fans of classical ballet must inure themselves to the fact that things don't end well for their heroines. Sometimes these young women are lucky enough to marry their handsome suitors. More frequently, they just end up dead. Despite these low expectations, I've always thought that Kenneth MacMillan's Manon was in a class of its own when it came to problematic, feminist plot. The ballet, whose 40th anniversary this year has been marked by a remount by its home company (London's Royal Ballet) and a production that opens Saturday night in Toronto by the National Ballet of Canada, is based on the short 18th-century novel Manon Lescaut, by Abbé Prévost. It's MacMillan at his best: daring, gritty, sensual, moody and completely unsentimental. It's also a work that epitomizes ballet's complicated relationship with feminism and provides an opportunity to bring the discussion about its heroines up to 21st-century standards.

If you've seen the ads around Toronto for the National Ballet's production of Manon – they depict a beautiful woman in a corset and slip lying seductively on a swath of red silk – you might be surprised to learn the brutality of the ballet's plot. An orphaned teenage girl is about to enter a convent, when her older brother decides to sell her into prostitution. Manon is bought by a wealthy old man (Monsieur G.M.) who gives her jewellery and shows her off at the local brothel. When G.M. becomes jealous of Manon's boyfriend, he has Manon arrested as a prostitute and deported to Louisiana. There, she is raped by her jailer before dying the next day of exhaustion, exposure and, possibly, rape-inflicted injury. It's a plot that's a bit hard to reconcile with the provocative image of principal dancer Xiao Nan Yu hanging from Toronto street posts. A girl dies after being trafficked and raped; we sell her story with a sexy picture.

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The production is eerily well-timed for a city talking about rape culture. If there are hints of victim-blaming in the narrative arc of Prévost's novella – with Manon getting her just deserts for greed and the enjoyment of her sexuality – what's surprising is that this interpretive framework hasn't been dismantled by contemporary critics. Reviews of the recent London production at Covent Garden still refer all too often to the lead character as an amoral gold-digger, who chooses G.M.'s depraved luxury over the virtue of her boyfriend's love. Even more surprising is some of the flippant discussion and word-choice surrounding Manon's trafficking and prostitution. Take Mark Monahan's review in The Daily Telegraph. Praising Marianela Nunez's work in the lead role, he refers to the brothel scene as "a grimly genteel gangbang," during which Nunez looked "utterly narcotized by her own lusciousness." This is a reference to group rape as though it were a bit of comedic naughtiness in a Noel Coward play. I am surprised the sentence made it to print.

There's a much more complex conversation to be had about Manon and how the ballet can or cannot inform contemporary conversations on choice, prostitution and coercion. When I spoke with the three National Ballet principal dancers who will dance the role this month – Greta Hodgkinson, Sonia Rodriguez and Jillian Vanstone – I was given an alternative to the victim-narrative. All three artists consider Manon a pragmatist. Hodgkinson points out that Manon isn't supposed to see money trade hands between her brother and G.M. and that her privileged relationship with G.M. keeps her out of the brothel and its associated dangers. "I don't think she necessarily feels as though she's prostituting herself. She has a chance to have a better way of life and she takes it."

Rodriguez suggests that, while Manon is manipulated into prostitution by the brother whom she trusts, there is an element of self-determination at play, too. "I think, in a male-dominated world, the prostitution can be empowering for her. She finds a way to control the men around her. … Once she's fully aware of her situation, I think she very consciously goes: I want to be a participant in this. I want to take charge."

Rodriguez rejects the notion that Manon is a victim, choosing, instead, to see her as a survivor. I ask how she reconciles this interpretation with the fact that Manon ends up dead in a swamp. "Well, we can't change the story," she says with a laugh. She suggests that Manon's death is not exceptional given its socio-economic context and that, from a narrative perspective, it might not be all that important. "I see Manon fighting for her life throughout the whole ballet."

Vanstone doesn't think we can generalize about inherent anti-feminism in ballet simply because of the prevalence of female death sentences. "There's room to reinterpret the older stories – the women can be played in a two-dimensional way or they can be given more life and be turned into somebody who is more relatable and real. I don't think the story of Manon glorifies her victimization in any way."

I was lucky enough to watch Vanstone in rehearsal last week, dancing the pas-de-deux from Act 2. It's a segment of choreography that shows how much ballet can adapt to its time – it's fluid, fast, unstructured and emotionally unsparing, at times shockingly beautiful yet never stilted or remote. Watching it, I agree with Vanstone: Here is a young woman trying to take control of her life. All three Manons are exquisite artists and world-class ballerinas – I have no doubt their dancing will be remarkable. Let's hope that their empowered interpretations can transcend some of the ambiguities in the ballet's plot.

The National Ballet's Manon runs at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre from Nov. 8 to 16 (ballet.ca).

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