Manuel Legris at curtain of “Sylvia.” Photograph by Brescia e Amisano Teatro alla Scala

Manuel Legris leads La Scala Ballet

Officially appointed director of La Scala Ballet on December 1st, Manuel Legris has been working with the company since last autumn. Thanks to him, the dancers, after many months in lockdown away from the theatre, could resume their daily training. Their discipline has been such that the troupe remains Covid-free, in spite of more than 50 cases being recorded among the chorus and the orchestra.

Although no performance has been staged with an audience since last September, the company was able to perform two shows broadcast on Italian TV Rai: the opening of the opera season last December and the Ballet Gala “Dance Highlights,” scheduled for February. Just announced is the streaming of “Giselle” on Rai and La Scala’s websites on January 30—an exceptional performance, with a different cast in every act: Martina Arduino with Claudio Coviello in the first, Nicoletta Manni with Timofej Andrijashenko in the second. Even more exceptional is the appearance of Carla Fracci, one of the most iconic Giselles ever, raised at La Scala. Legris invited her to participate in the streaming talking about the ballet, and he asked the 84-year-old ballerina to give masterclasses to the principal dancers. It is an eagerly awaited event, as reported by La Scala’s social networks. 

Apart from recorded events, the new director couldn’t announce any live performances when we met him live at La Scala for an interview. Talking with him, we can nonetheless have an idea of the work continuing in the theatre, with many difficulties under the circumstances but also with the enthusiasm that a director like him can bring. He is thrilled as well, about the theatre, the dancers and the city, Milan—so much that he is already beginning to speak Italian. In his office a big poster portraying Enrico Cecchetti and a little photograph of Rudolf Nureyev look on, like guiding lights.

Maestro Legris, why did you choose to leave Vienna for La Scala?

Ten years in Vienna, it’s quite a life! It has been an important part of my career, and although I was asked to stay by the new general director, I was feeling that I already gave the ballet company all I could. So, when Dominique Meyer, the general director leaving the Staatsoper to be appointed at La Scala, proposed to me to follow him, I thought it would be an opportunity for change. La Scala reminded me of beautiful memories as a dancer, it is a very prestigious theatre and, most of all, I already knew the dancers, as two years ago I staged for them my ballet “Sylvia.” At that time, I was impressed by their qualities: this was the turning point that made me decide.

How did you begin working at La Scala, between closing and reopening?

I arrived in Milan last autumn, but every plan that I and the leaving ballet director Frédéric Olivieri tried to schedule was cancelled by the pandemic restrictions. Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” planned for a live opening was discarded for a TV broadcast because of rights problems. Then, I was already rehearsing Nureyev’s “Nutcracker” with the dancers when La Scala was closed due to the national lockdown. When, last December, we finally could organize the TV show for the opening of the opera season with the ballet also involved, I chose pieces possible to stage. We couldn’t invite choreographers, so I thought it was a good opportunity for me to work with a few principals and soloists to create a short piece on Verdi’s music: in this way the quintet “Verdi Suite” was born.

Nicola Del Freo, Virna Toppi, Claudio Coviello, Martina Arduino and Marco Agostino in “Verdi Suite.” Photo credit: Brescia e Amisano ∏ Teatro alla Scala

Does the Ballet Gala “Dance Highlights” represent your artistic preferences?

Only in part, as it shows what is possible to stage in these particular circumstances. It was a matter of doing the best with what we could. It’s true that all these pieces deserve to be shown: first of all, “pièces majeures” from the classic repertory that I love, to dance properly and in the style, but I’m also very fond of new creations, that unfortunately we couldn’t have. To give a new, contemporary touch, I called a rising choreographer I met in Vienna, Philippe Kratz, a dancer with Aterballetto, who staged a trio.

At La Scala are you going to work also as a choreographer?

To be honest I never wanted to be a choreographer, but it happened. After five years in Vienna, I was asked to stage a new “Corsaire.” I accepted because I knew very well the dancers and, as I never danced that ballet, I felt myself free to create my own version. I tried and my ballet was successful. Then came “Sylvia.” But I have to say that choreographing is not necessary for me: I do it if it is good for the repertory, the company, the audience, the more here, at La Scala. 

Are you going to stage the classic repertory in Nureyev’s productions?

Yes, but not necessarily, not only in Nureyev’s productions, not anymore. At the Paris Opéra, at Vienna Staatsoper and also at La Scala Nureyev was very present, so that the repertory has preserved his stagings and I think it we have to continue to perform them, still very beautiful. As I’m a specialist of Nureyev’s ballets having danced all of them, I frequently stage his productions. But I believe that it’s right to stage also other versions of the classics. For sure La Scala Ballet has to remain mainly classical, like every company with a school.

What is your vision of contemporary dance in a classic company?

Obviously in this situation we can only stage ballets of repertory, but later we will need creators, called among the masters and the rising choreographers. It’s easy to set up an evening mixed bill: there are so many choreographers and pieces! But a great ballet like La Scala should have its own creations, especially composed, not the same pieces danced by all the companies.

Maria Celeste Losa and Gabriele Corrado in “Händel Project” by Mauro Bigonzetti. Photograph by Brescia e Amisano ∏ Teatro alla Scala

When do you imagine to be able to present your own ballet season?

To be creative now is quite impossible. At the moment we can only plan a performance every month to show by television or by streaming. I foresee that my first ballet season will be scheduled not before two seasons. Obviously at the moment I don’t have the creative freedom of a ballet director. Once the theatre reopens, first of all we will have to recover the canceled productions, also considering that in this economic crisis we can’t waste money for new productions. I will have to choose programs interesting for the company and the audience but not too expensive. We have to be patient and try to find solutions. But I’m not complaining: I’m in a magnificent theatre, with great dancers.

How have you found the dancers after many months in lay-off?

When I arrived, I totally admired how the dancers were in shape! Not less than two years ago, when I met them for staging “Sylvia.” Not only the physical form and the technical level were great, but also their mental strength. You know, they were able to continue the daily training also in lockdown, for instance doing class at home. Of course, when we started again our training in studio, we took it easy, without forcing to avoid injuries. You can imagine how difficult and frustrating is to work in this difficult condition: always wearing masks during classes and rehearsals and being regularly tested for Covid . . . and waiting for the results. Thanks to the dancers’ resilience we could stage our programs and their determination is encouraging for the next months, the most difficult not having any plan live, and who knows until when.  

Meeting La Scala dancers, could you find a kind of “Italian style”?

Oh yes! You can easily recognize the Italian style! Luckily at La Scala the style is not too mixed, like it was for example in Vienna. Here the dancers have a clear unity and the same dynamic, very fast and lively, the petites batteries are brilliant, especially women have great footwork. Their temperament as well is very animated, “Latin” so to speak: a way that I feel so closed and . . . I like a lot! The Italian school is magnificent and recognisable. When I was director in Vienna, I auditioned a lot of Italians coming from La Scala Ballet School: I could immediately recognize them and they were always the best.

Virna Toppi and Marco Agostino in “Le Corsaire.” Photo credit: Brescia e Amisano ∏ Teatro alla Scala

So, do you intend to keep the link between the company and the school?

For sure! This is essential for a ballet company like La Scala. For this reason, we have to avoid having our best graduates migrate abroad. More: I hope to able to call an audition as soon as possible as, due to the pandemic, the new graduates are still waiting.

Are you going to invite new maîtres de ballet?

It will depend on the dancers’ needs or failures. Every maître de ballet brings his own personality and, in my opinion, should especially stimulate the dancers’ imagination.

What about La Scala’s talents?

La Scala’s talents are already evident, but we need to always introduce new blood that keeps the company motivated.

Guests are very beloved by the La Scala audience. What are your intentions about guest dancers?

I believe that is important to raise our dancers, giving them possibilities to grow. Guests can appear, yes, and as stars they have to inspire our dancers, but not in the majority of the performances! I had the same problem once arrived in Vienna: I was criticized at first, then everybody preferred their own dancers!

How do you intend to deal with the well-known chronic problems of La Scala Ballet?

My aim is to increase the number of performances, finding another venue besides La Scala Theatre. I also would like to legalize the added dancers without stable contracts and call auditions for La Scala Ballet School’s new graduates, in order to reach a corps de ballet with 80 members.

What kind of director do you want to be? Nureyev is still inspiring you?

I’m that kind of director who like to stay close to my dancers, always, beginning from the daily work, doing the class with them or giving them the class. I’m not sure this is the right way, but this is how I am! Regarding Nureyev: yes, I was raised with him and I’m very grateful for his teaching. For sure he influenced me, also as a director, but we are very different and I have my own personality.

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