French ‘etoile’ Legris brings new shine to Vienna ballet

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A welcome revival is taking place at the Vienna Ballet under its new director Manuel Legris, who already plans to rival Paris or Moscow with an array of premieres and a new category of principal dancers.

Long neglected in a city of opera and music, the newly-renamed Vienna State Ballet recycled old favorites like "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker" for years, without seeking to renew its repertoire.

This is all changing under Legris, a former etoile with the Paris Opera Ballet, who took over in September.

In his first season, the Frenchman has planned no less than eight premieres, both at the State Opera and the Volksoper (Popular Opera), including a world premiere, "Marie Antoinette" by German-born choreographer Patrick de Bana on November 20.

"I hope people will realize they have a very beautiful ballet company," Legris told AFP in a recent interview.

"That’s really my wish and my duty: to make the Viennese people and the world realize that there are very good dancers here and a beautiful ballet company, and that dance deserves a more important place."

A protege of the late Rudolf Nureyev — who as director of Paris Opera Ballet named the Frenchman an "etoile" in 1986, Legris told AFP he was moved to follow in the footsteps of his mentor, who long had a special relationship to the Vienna ballet.

Not only did Nureyev create some of his greatest ballets in Vienna, it was here he was granted Austrian nationality in 1982, ending long statelessness following his defection to the West.

As director, Legris’ first move was to name a new category of first solo dancers, equivalent to the French "etoile" or the American "principal."

"I think it’s important to have dancers here in Vienna who can represent the company.

"And abroad too: image is important. If you say ‘soloist’, or if you say ‘etoile’ or ‘principal’, there’s a big difference in the dance world and Vienna really needs to have stars that shine," he said.

In the past, the Vienna Ballet mostly relied on guest dancers to provide star power, but soon, talent might be moving the other way. And this is something young dancers can aspire too.

"I would really like to see my dancers invited to, say, the Paris Opera or the Mariinsky (in Moscow)… that’s something I’m going to try and develop."

After wowing audiences for over 20 years as one of the stars of the Paris Opera Ballet, the 46-year-old Legris says he is now happy to pass on his knowledge to younger dancers and wants to nurture Austrian talents.

But while he insists he does not plan to revolutionize the Vienna ensemble, a youthful breeze nevertheless seems to be blowing through the hallways of the old State Opera.

An evening presenting young talents is planned for early next year, and if the first premiere under Legris’s leadership is anything to go by, Vienna will be treated to a more vibrant and colorful ballet from now on.

"Jewels of the New World," with choreographies by Twyla Tharp, George Balanchine and William Forsythe, never before performed by the Vienna Ballet, drew wide applause and cheers at its premiere on October 24.

"I want to develop the creative side and present great living choreographers because I think this — human contact and direct interaction — is one of the most wonderful, most positive things," Legris said, even if he wants to keep producing the great classics.

For now, he is still testing the waters.

"I need to see if the ensemble can handle this, if the dancers are ready, if they’re strong enough," he said, as the company confronts a demanding rehearsal schedule with eight new ballets to prepare.

Legris is also planning a special gala for Nureyev in June.

"I’m very proud to be here… I know Vienna was a very important city for him and you can still feel his presence between these walls," he said. "I think he would be proud to know I’m here."

As for his own plans to grace the stage again, Legris was non-committal.

"I don’t necessarily miss being on stage, because now I have other joys: to watch the dancers perform on stage and see them respond to what I teach them or pass on to them gives me great joy."

"(But) who knows if in 10 years’ time, I won’t have a project," he added with a mischievous grin.

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