Farewell of a giant - Manuel Legris, never less than a hundred percent.
Paris Opera Ballet,
15 May 2009
by Marc Haegeman
copyright 2009 by Marc Haegeman
On May 15 Manuel Legris danced his official farewell with the Paris Opera Ballet. For more than twenty years Legris has been one of the company’s most brilliant and acclaimed étoiles. An artist of incomparable commitment, energy, generosity, and versatility, he was the last étoile of the Nureyev-era remaining at the Opera. Nominated by Rudolf Nureyev while still only a 22-year young sujet following a performance of "Raymonda" on tour at the Met in 1986, Legris has as most Parisian dancers of his generation been strongly marked by his towering personality and credos. A performance by Legris was always an exchange, with his partners, and with the audience. He was never on stage for anything less than a hundred percent. He danced all the great classics in the repertory and a lot more, virtually every major contemporary choreographer created works on him, and since 1996 he has his own touring group “Manuel Legris et ses étoiles”, allowing younger dancers to try out new roles or work with choreographers. His retirement closes a chapter in the history of the Paris Opera.
As becomes an artist of his stature Legris gave us a final performance to cherish. For his adieux he selected the title role in John Cranko’s "Onegin" which just recently entered the company’s repertory. An unusual choice perhaps, if it wasn’t for Legris’ well known penchant for strongly dramatic roles, these “genuine heroes of the theatre” as he calls them, like Romeo or Des Grieux in "Manon," and particularly for the duets which form the beating heart of these ballets.
Of course the evening was extra special. I have never seen the Palais Garnier as packed as it was now. The loges were crammed and it seemed as if people were hanging over the balconies and upper galleries to catch a final glimpse of their beloved étoile. The performance of "Onegin" was appropriately preceded by the Grand Défilé, this unique Parisian spectacle gathering school and company, on this occasion more than ever the symbol of the closeness and companionship of Legris with everybody in this “house”. It progressed for fifteen minutes under repeated applause, yet when Legris finally appeared, walking down the stage from the Foyer de la danse towards the audience as the last male étoile, after what must have been one of the most interminable moments of his life, he was greeted with a thundering ovation. And the evening was only beginning - the French know how to take leave of their stars.
Cranko’s balletic transcription of "Eugene Onegin" never had much to do with either Pushkin or Russia, nor is the choreography hardly ever anything more than efficient, yet an inspired cast can unlock the curbs of this diminutive approach, adding psychological depth to the characters and turn it into a compelling dram-ballet. Undoubtedly the special occasion had something to do with it, but this evening the whole performance crackled with the company’s fresh enthusiasm. Legris, who already danced "Onegin" with the Stuttgart Ballet in 2005/6, portrayed the title character with subtlety, hiding from the start a hint of vulnerability underneath his Gallic coldness, which made his return at the end easier to accept. He transcended Cranko’s often senseless gesturing with much more telling glances, a raised eyebrow, or a forced polite smile. Legris appeared moreover in outstanding form, dancing with his characteristically elegant but unobtrusive authority and boasting an enviable youthful vigour and ease, completely belying his 44 years. The elaborate pas de deux with Clairemarie Osta as Tatiana were remarkable for their fluency and effortlessness, easily becoming the emotional outpourings devised by Cranko, the first one full of controlled abandon, the second irresistible by its intensity and heartrending candour – I suspect no real Tatiana would ever show such a genuinely remorseful Onegin the door, but that’s how the story goes. Legris recently stated he never spared himself in the adagio sections in order to be still in good shape for the variations. Even if this didn’t really apply within the context of Onegin because of the absence of variations, the duets remained no less prime examples of Legris’ art. His complete command of technique, his total dedication and unerring skill to bring out the best of his ballerina, represent lessons for any male dancer.
Legris was surrounded by an excellent and well-balanced cast. Clairemarie Osta is a fine actress, her Tatiana was restrained and mature, beautiful in appearance as in manner, surpassing her girlish looks and readily connecting with Legris in the duets, or with Christophe Duquenne’s Prince Gremin in Act 3. Matthias Heymann, full of romantic yearning and dancing with immense promise, in the role of Lensky that ensured him the title of étoile at the beginning of this run. Myriam Ould-Braham was a convincingly ebullient and far from innocent Olga.
The coaching (by Reid Anderson and Jane Bourne) was impeccable and the corps de ballet in the few challenging moments that Cranko gives them performed admirably throughout. James Tuggle effectively conducted the Orchestra of the Paris Opera in Kurt-Heinz Stolze’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky pieces. The familiar Jürgen Rose sets were borrowed from the production of the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich.
The performance was received with a standing ovation lasting for almost half an hour. Bouquets, tons of confetti rained down, while most of the company finally appeared on stage to applaud Legris. His fellow étoiles came to embrace him, as did the ballerinas he danced most with throughout the years - Aurélie Dupont, and retired étoiles Monique Loudières, Françoise Legrée, Elisabeth Maurin, Elisabeth Platel -, several ballet masters, Pierre Lacotte, and Claude Bessy as former director of the Ecole de la Danse.
A small ceremony with selected guests followed in the plush Versailles-like Grand Foyer of the Opera. The Minister of Culture and director Brigitte Lefèvre retraced and lauded Legris’ rich career, while the étoile himself after having been awarded the insignia of “Commandeur dans l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres” had ample time to thank everybody who made it all possible – his teachers, his partners, fellow-dancers and friends, and last but not least the choreographers the Paris Opera allowed him to work with. John Neumeier who first created on him, Rudolf Nureyev of course, Claude Bessy, and also étoile and former director Patrick Dupond were especially mentioned. Needless to say, it isn’t all over. Legris will continue to dance occasionally with the Opera and elsewhere for some time and in 2010 will take over the directorship of the Vienna Opera Ballet. And if Manuel Legris the director will be in any way comparable to Manuel Legris the dancer, then a bright future awaits the Viennese. But the Paris Opera Ballet won’t be the same without him.
Photo: Sébastien Mathé