a conversation with Manuel Legris
Paris, 19 June 1999
Manuel Legris, danseur étoile of the Paris Opéra Ballet, ranks among the great classical male dancers of today. In their attempts to describe a performance of Manuel Legris, critics and observers frequently admitted to have fallen under the spell of his artistry. He is truly a dancer whose technical mastery and identification with the role are so complete and ideal that time and again he makes you believe that ballet is the easiest and the most natural thing in the world.
After studying at the Paris Opéra Ballet School, Manuel Legris joined the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1980 and was nominated étoile in 1986 following his performance of Jean de Brienne in Nureyev’s Raymonda. A versatile artist, his repertory encompasses all the great classics as well as contemporary work. Dubbed the “new Nijinsky” by the French press, Legris guested with renowned companies all around the world (Royal Ballet, New York City Ballet, Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Hamburg Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet, Tokyo Ballet etc) and created works by several of today’s most famous choreographers (Neumeier, Kylian, Forsythe, Tharp).
Last June, in the middle of the final performances of the 1998-1999 season of the Paris Opéra Ballet, Manuel Legris talked to me about his career, his favorite roles and choreographers, his approach of the great classics, and shared his thoughts about classical ballet on the eve of the 21st century.
MARC HAEGEMAN: Why and how did you start a dance career?
MANUEL LEGRIS: I started really early. When I was four I asked my parents to enroll me in a dancing class, because I wanted to move. It was in a little suburban school. At eleven I was admitted to the Paris Opéra Ballet School. I did my four years at the school and I was engaged in the company in 1980. I was hardly sixteen. Everything went really fast.
MH: It was truly a personal vocation?
LEGRIS: Yes, my dad worked as a technician, my mother in a shop.
MH: What are the most important stages in your career?
LEGRIS: There were many. I conquered the ranks of the hierarchy. Here at the Paris Opéra they work through competitions. I became sujet without problem, but once there I took part in many competitions working to attain the level of premier danseur, though never succeeded. Finally, Rudolf Nureyev promoted me directly from sujet to danseur étoile. That was an important moment, also because it happens so very rarely.
Other important moments were my encounters with choreographers. Actually, every choreographer brought me something. Once at soloist level you receive the personal attention of the choreographer, who picks you out for one of his ballets, and this makes you feel quite important.
I was really fortunate to be able to work with almost every choreographer who came to the Paris Opéra: Tharp, Robbins, Forsythe, Neumeier, MacMillan, Kylian, ... They all selected me to work with them. Of course, it was the right moment. I was part of a new, up-and-coming generation of étoiles. When I started out dancers like Cyril Atanassoff, Michaël Denard, Jean Guizerix were all in their early forties and were thinking of retiring, or dancing lighter roles. I was lucky to be there at the right time.
MH: You need talent as well, I suppose?
LEGRIS: Talent, and work. I knew what I wanted, and I wanted to work.
MH: Wasn’t there any competition amongst the young étoiles?
LEGRIS: Yes, but a really healthy one. Nureyev was, like he used to say, “feeding” everybody. If you worked and listened to him—his words were sacred, you had to work his way—you could feel at ease, he would always give you something. Of course, sometimes he gave a role that I wanted to another dancer. At first I felt disappointed, but at the same time I wasn’t worried. I kept on working and the next piece he mounted was for me.
MH: Let’s talk about Rudolf Nureyev. How do you remember him?
LEGRIS: He was very demanding, but also exerting a strong grip. You really needed to work all the time and you always had to think of what he said. He was really the “master” and you had to follow him. At some point it become too suffocating. We [the upcoming étolies] were lucky that he left the Opéra then, watching us from afar, but no longer exerting this grip. We could go out ourselves and after a while it almost became a rivalry. It’s understandable: he himself danced less, he had given us everything and so on—quite a normal reaction. But we separated at the right moment and we were happy that we could embark more freely on international careers.
MH: There were many quarrels as well?
LEGRIS: All the time. It was like that with Nureyev. He had bouts of hysteria when his ballets were discussed. One always had to do as he wanted it to. It was difficult. After some time we resisted him, but he liked that. He wanted strong personalities. Sylvie Guillem for instance. He liked her a lot, even if she decided to leave the Opéra. Sylvie and him, they were pretty much of the same caliber, and he respected strong characters.
MH: The Paris Opéra is often criticized for always dancing Nureyev’s versions of the great classics.
LEGRIS: It’s a choice. Nureyev left his stamp on this house. His versions are acceptable in every way. You can prefer MacMillan’s or Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet, but Nureyev’s versions are beautiful and they permit dancers to give everything they have. Moreover, they are extremely difficult. Once you have mastered them, you can do no matter what choreography.
Beginning with his versions is a great exercise. They are tough, but they give you incredible strength and stamina. Only for that it is important to keep his versions in the repertoire of the Opéra. And that’s worth it: it keeps the dancers on a high level. Besides that, sure, you can discuss about Nureyev’s works. Some of his creations are definitely better than others. That’s something different. But the first quality of his ballets is that they are so difficult that they make it possible to maintain the highest level in the company.
MH: What are your favorite roles?
LEGRIS: The one I like best of all is Des Grieux in Manon. This role arrived at a moment in my career when I needed to prove that I was more than just a good classical dancer with a nice technique. For me this role is the golden middle between a pure danseur noble and a dancer who can show something more. It’s a truly complete character, from an emotional viewpoint it is one of the most harmonious roles in the repertoire. MacMillan selected Monique Loudières and myself for the premiere here—alas, he died a short time after the premiere. I heard afterwards that he had said that I was after Anthony Dowell the Des Grieux who had impressed him most. That really moved me.
Another role I like is James in La Sylphide. I danced it many times all around the world. It represents my technique, my stage presence, my way of moving.
MH: Who are your favorite choreographers?
LEGRIS: I greatly admire Kylian, also as a human being. As an artist I especially like his musical sense. I find music extremely important in ballet, and with Kylian, music and steps are one and the same.
Neumeier I like as well. John and I always enjoyed a fruitful artistic collaboration. He gave me several opportunities and he was the first choreographer who created a work for me outside the Opéra, in his own company. This was truly a special and important moment in my career.
MH: You emphasize the link between music and choreography. I sometimes hear dancers complain that in many modern creations this link is non existant.
This is certainly true for some choreographers, and those are precisely the choreographers I dislike. I don’t like those modern works were the music is only decorative. Music needs to enhance the poetry and should correspond with the body language. As I said, that is what attracts me in Kylian’s work. On the other hand there are choreographers who invent steps for hours, and all of sudden they push the button and play some music. Where is the pleasure in that? I absolutely cannot work that way.
MH: You danced many works of Balanchine. What do you think of him?
LEGRIS: Balanchine is a genius. Take Agon. To make a work like that, on that music by Stravinsky. It’s so incredibly modern. And here again you have this firm link between choreography and music. Even in very technical pieces like Theme and Variations, or Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (which I performed for many years), or Rubies. Every time I find the same pleasure in dancing them. That’s really the joy of dancing.
MH: You danced all the great classics of the repertoire. How do you approach these roles, take Albrecht in Giselle.
LEGRIS: Albrecht is one of the most difficult parts in the repertory. The first time I danced it, I felt very bad (laughing), because I didn’t have the artistic maturity for it. Albrecht is really a role that needs time. A good Albrecht is between 30 and 40, and I rarely saw one of 20 who made a strong impact. Baryshnikov and Nureyev were great Albrechts, but they were past 35. In your twenties you don’t care enough about the dramatic side and many interesting things are overlooked. Personally, I began to feel really at ease in this role about a year or two ago. Only now I sense that a real character is taking shape. It’s one of those roles that needs to be danced over and over again. I was lucky to be nominated étoile young. Every time I danced it I discovered new aspects.
MH: Do you find it difficult to make roles like this convincing for a public of today?
LEGRIS: These roles are really wonderful, so full of poetry. One doesn’t need to perform special tricks or exaggerated pantomime. On the contrary, these roles need a simple approach. In a way you can approach the prince as a modern person, yet always within the limits of the classical structure and with respect for certain codes. A certain classicism needs to be respected, otherwise it’s no use to dance Giselle. Trying to be too modern in Giselle is dangerous, because it becomes ridiculous. Or otherwise you choose for a completely modern revision, like Mats Ek did.
MH: You emphasize the necessity of maturity to bring out the best in a dancer. In some companies of today they think otherwise.
LEGRIS: That’s what bothers me in those companies where they look for the young dancer who was able to perform twenty-five pirouettes somewhere in a gala performance. That’s not what will be remembered from a dancer. Of course, it’s nice to see those technical feats. But then you watch somebody like Carla Fracci and the simple emotion she is still able to convey, after forty years on the stage. That is what you will remember: the soul in her dancing, not the technical tricks.
At the Opéra we have our repertory. At the same time we do new creations. I realize that in certain companies at my age, they would thank me for my services. But here, on the contrary, at my age you are considered an example. Being young is great, and I was happy I could dance Swan Lake and all those other ballets at twenty. Yet, it is a fact that I dance them much better at thirty than at twenty.
MH: What are the qualities of a danseur noble?
LEGRIS: Simplicity. Being a danseur noble, means for me to remain simple, to be honest with yourself. To avoid cheap effects with the purpose of conquering the audience. Dancing Giselle as you dance Don Quixote, that’s the end. The audience needs to be touched by simplicity and beauty.
MH: Being a good partner, is that also a quality of a danseur noble?
LEGRIS: Yes that’s also part of it, and especially the ability to respond to your partner. Yet being a good partner, that is a quality you have or not. Some dancers work all their lives to become one — without success.
MH: Who is your favorite partner?
LEGRIS: At the Opéra I had many wonderful ballerinas as a partner, like Elisabeth Platel, Isabelle Guérin, Elisabeth Maurin, but if I had to choose it would be Monique Loudières. With her I really danced on the same wavelength. It wasn’t even necessary to talk, we shared the same sense of music. My shortcomings emphasized her qualities and her shortcomings emphasized my qualities. You can see this with other couples like Marcia Haydée and Richard Cragun, not necessary good when dancing with somebody else, but once together you feel there is something extra.
Outside the Opéra I loved dancing with Alessandra Ferri, with whom I did Romeo and Juliet, Manon and Giselle. And also Evelyn Hart from Canada.
MH: Coaching is often regarded is one of the essential problems of ballet nowadays. Do you see it as a problem in Paris too?
LEGRIS: Yes, for all that it is a problem. How shall I put it? Perhaps the teachers are less demanding nowadays. They are almost too gentle with the young artists, who are left too much on their own. We, on the other hand, we have acquired a degree of self-discipline, because we knew a different approach. With Nureyev we were forced to dance the way he wanted it. We couldn’t do otherwise, or we were thrown out of the company.
I am not saying the teachers are no longer good, but I am convinced that there should be more discipline. The young dancers should be forced to do things. We were there because we had this incredible example: Nureyev, at fifty, with bandages, but still on the stage. He wasn’t always nice to see, there were times when he was fighting against himself, but one could always see great moments. And that is exactly what is disappearing now. The slightest pain, the simplest drawback, and they give up. It’s of course the new general mentality, maybe we are even talking about the dancer of the year 2000, but it worries me. Even now, we are still fighting: our ultimate goal is to be on stage. Youngsters nowadays are often too relaxed, and too easily satisfied. The willpower to give everything they can once the curtain rises, is no longer there. They don’t give the maximum they can.
MH: Does ballet have a future?
LEGRIS: Yes, I think so, but at the same time it is rather precarious. It is absolutely necessary that classical dancers keep up certain standards. For instance, Nureyev’s ballets—it’s essential that they are preserved, and without losing the characteristics which make them the way they are. Once they start to mix everything, that is really worrying. Classical ballet is for me the most difficult thing there is. No wonder there are so many dancers for contemporary repertoire. They won’t survive two steps in a classical ballet; it’s too difficult, it takes too much discipline. Being a classical dancer is the hardest of all. And that’s precisely what frightens me, when I see that new generations are taking it easy.
But on the other hand there will always be a public. Many people are tired of seeing dancers rolling over the floor, in all those ugly and aggressive things where the main purpose is to provoke. But Giselle, Swan Lake, ballets like that will always be there and they will continue to make people dream. I think we should do our utmost to keep them, in the most actual manner possible. I mean, with the intelligence of someone who lives today. Preserve the classics, but do so with taste.
It’s so important. People are still fascinated by the classics. Take La Sylphide, with those flying sylphs, the audience spontaneously starts to clap—it’s magic. They like that. Yet, dancing the classics doesn’t imply sticking to old traditions at all costs.
MH: The recent reconstruction of the original 1890 Sleeping Beauty at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, with the sets and costumes of the time, comes to mind.
LEGRIS: Don’t go back in time. If you watch those films of the dancers here, from thirty or forty years ago, even our own teachers: they were completely different. Physical appearance, style, the aesthetics, nobody dances like that anymore... it’s all so different and it needs to be updated. When I danced Le Spectre de la Rose, some people thought I was too slim, too light for this ballet. I saw the photos of Nijinsky: of course I cannot dance like Nijinsky. First of all we never saw him dance and he had those huge thighs and calfs—a completely different body. Photos suffice to see that you cannot even think of resembling him.
One shouldn’t go too far. Fine, if they dig up old variations that are interesting for the classical vocabulary. Fine, but don’t put the girls of today in tutus of a hundred years ago, or attire the boys with those hideous blonde wigs. That’s no longer possible. That’s really the end of classical ballet. Doing that is killing the classics.
MH: It is true that the reconstructed Beauty is turned down by the dancers, yet many critics and audiences were enthousiastic.
LEGRIS: That’s what’s really bizarre. When we do here one of Nureyev’s productions, they criticize us. OK, you can criticize Nureyev, but you cannot fault the quality of dance and what you see. His productions are beautiful, the costumes are elegant, the dancers are well presented. These classics are pleasant to watch. You can argue that his Swan Lake is too cold—fine, but the overall presentation is beautiful. And there are many other examples: Romeo and Juliet by Cranko, Onegin, Kameliendame..., there is nothing old-fashioned about these ballets. Costumes are stylish, charming, tasteful. Ballets presented like this can last for ever. Quite unlike many contemporary creations which are forgotten almost at once.
It’s really strange, but when you see the piece you are impressed, yet one week later everything is forgotten. Even somebody like Forsythe, to take an example, is not immune to that. His works are modern and exciting to perform, though you can ask yourself what audiences will eventually remember about them in due time? But then you have a Giselle or a Swan Lake with a good cast, and ten years later the public will still talk about them. I sometimes meet people who compare my performance with one they saw many years ago. They remember it all their lives.
It’s another reason why the classics should be preserved. In divertissement programs, no great name will emerge. Yet, if a dancer appears in a ballet like Manon, people start saying he is a great artist, because he did this or that role in such a way. I had the same experience when watching artists of the New York City Ballet. Seeing Suzanne Farrell, or Stephanie Saland was a real shock for me: that were real ballerinas and I will never forget what I saw. Classical ballet truly reveals personalities.
That’s why I always found it so puzzling that in the case of contemporary ballet it is the choreographer who is known best, not the dancer who performs his work. Contemporary choreographers seem to have become today’s stars, at the expense of their dancers. And that’s an odd situation.
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