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By Patricia Boccadoro

VIENNA, AUSTRIA, 7 JULY 2011 — Exciting things are happening at the Austrian ballet company based at the Vienna Staatsoper. The stagnation of past years is being swept aside and a vital young company is emerging under the directorship of Manuel Legris, international star and étoile of the Paris Opera Ballet, whose career ended there in April two years ago. Prior to his arrival in Vienna there had been little or no artistic direction and the same traditional 19th century ballets were being staged, year after year, with small use being made of the company’s reserves of talent. Both dancers and public were suffering from acute indigestion and dance was on the downward slope.

However, things are changing rapidly, for since the French dancer took over the company there have been no less than eight premieres, an astonishing accomplishment made possible not only by Legris himself, present seven days out of seven, from dawn till dusk and often longer, but by the positive support and backing of Dominique Meyer, the new director of the Staatsoper, a man who has followed the career of Legris since he was nominated étoile by Rudolf Nureyev in 1986 at the age of 22.

"I felt confident that he would direct the company in much the same way as Nureyev did in Paris", Meyer told me in the comfort of his office. "He has danced all the versions of all the classical ballets throughout the world and can recreate them, which he has already done with Don Quixotte here which was an immense success.  He knows everyone and can easily obtain their works, whether it be from Roland Petit, the Balanchine Trust or the Robbins Trust. In fact, as soon as he arrived, he was able to programme the first ever Robbins programme seen in Austria; he obtained the rights immediately."

"Moreover", the director told me, "Manuel has created the works of all the most important choreographers in the world today, from Forsythe, Neumeier, Tharp or Kylian, to name but a few. They trust him and come happily to work alongside him. And another bonus", he added, "is that Legris no longer wants to continue dancing himself, taking the place of the dancers, but loves teaching them. Not only is he proving an excellent coach, but he is also very capable of managing the whole company. He is always ready to give opportunities to the younger dancers".

Aurélie Dupont and Manuel Legris in Sylvia (2005)
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Sebastien Mathe

Manuel Legris is no novice in managing artists, for as early as 1996 he began taking small groups from the Paris Opéra Ballet to Japan, subsequently organizing tours each year. He was used to administrative work and built up an enormous network of contacts throughout the world.

"On my arrival here" the recently appointed artistic director told me," I realized the enormous potential of the dancers and immediately planned a varied programme of ballets which were well within their reach. I didn’t take a single risk, with no creations but only well-loved works with lovely music. How could ballets like Balanchine’s Rubies, set to Stravinsky’s music or his beautiful Theme and Variations to a score by Tchaikovsky, or yet Cranko’s Onegin, again to Tchaikovsky’s music, ballets I know and love so well, not be appreciated?"

Jerome Robbins: The Concert
Wiener Staatsballett
Photo: Michael Pöhn

He told me that what had helped him most was his immediate success with both critics and public, not to mention the dancers. If at first there was a problem with filling the theatre, then the excellent reviews received had ensured that more seats were filled for the following performances, leading to certain evenings when there were no seats left at all.

"The dancers gained confidence because it worked from the beginning," he said. "And the fact that I’d worked alongside Nureyev showed me how to be close to them, and of the importance of actually demonstrating the steps.  It’s hard for me to stay in my office as my place is with them in the studio. It’s also important to see how they work."

He spoke freely about how Rudolf Nureyev with his limitless generosity had influenced him in everything he did, particularly in his way of correcting and being with the dancers in class. While he had hired twelve new members of the corps de ballet, a high number in a company of 79 which resulted in a different balance of energy, being in the studios as Nureyev always was, allowed him to see the potential of many of the dancers who were already there. He was able to ‘discover’ Natalie Kusch, a very special dancer, over-sensitive, but with very rare qualities.

He commented that she had been over-looked and traumatised but that the following season, she would be dancing Giselle.  Olga Esina, Mariinsky trained, is also one of the company’s outstanding principals, as is Maria Yakovleva, whom I did not see. Interestingly, there were some thirty Russians among the company members, none of whom were French.

Jerome Robbins: In the Night
Wiener Staatsballett
Photo: Michael Pöhn

"There’s an exchange between us", Legris concluded. "They see the change. Before, the critics were bad and the audience indifferent. Now the company is sharing its joy of dancing with the public, who are only too happy to follow.  Of course, I don’t programme anything remotely provocative; I’m not a revolutionary; I love contemporary work, but for the moment I’m going slowly to build a repertoire. I want a base first. I wouldn’t, for example, programme a new work by Mats Ek at Christmas!"

"We’re in the process of establishing a real relationship with the public’, Dominique Meyer told me. "When I took up my post here, I made it clear that I wanted the ballet company to be involved much more. I wanted to know what one hundred dancers were doing when you didn’t see them anywhere. There wasn’t a single tour, for example. So I made sure that the Minister of Culture, Ms. Claudia Schmied increased their budget. We’ve changed the posters, developed our web-site, and next year we’re having a new rehearsal stage constructed, but the biggest change has been in the dance company. Dance will become the new "event to attend" in Vienna.

"Homage to Jerome Robbins"

Judging by the enthusiastic reception of the audience and the positive reviews by critics, Meyer’s prophesy is already being fulfilled. While the ballets of Jerome Robbins, now considered as classics in Paris, have been danced there for over thirty years, they are a total novelty in Vienna.

Glass Pieces, created in 1983, is a dramatic yet abstract work for forty dancers set to a minimalist, ‘repetitive’ score by Philip Glass.  While the corps de ballet were silhouetted, backs to the light along the back of the stage, six dancers detached themselves from the rest. Soft, light, lyrical, it was hard to drag one’s eyes away from the young Natalie Kusch, and the work stunned by the ease with which it was danced.

Jerome Robbins: Glass Pieces
Wiener Staatsballett
Photo: Michael Pöhn

In the Night, a one act ballet which relies heavily on the expressive qualities of its six interpreters is one of Robbins’ most romantic and beautiful works. Set to a poetic Chopin score and with costumes by Anthony Dowell, it portrays three couples at differing stages of their relationships. Guided by the music, the first pas de deux was exquisitely danced by the lyrical Natalie Kusch partnered by Andrey Teterin. It evoked a mood of youthful, romantic love and Kusch’s face was ablaze with happiness as, featherlike, she floated through the air, carried aloft with tenderness by Teterin. The second pas de deux, with two more mature interpreters whose complicity was evident, was danced by the elegant, refined Olga Esina, a graceful, musical ballerina partnered by Roman Lazik, both principals of the company. The last couple, Irina Tsymbal and Vladimir Shishov, more aggressive and agitated, represented the more passionate side of love, before the three couples were united on stage for a final ensemble.

Jerome Robbins: The Concert
Wiener Staatsballett
Photo: Michael Pöhn

The Concert is an irresistible comic ballet set to Chopin’s music which was created by New York City ballet in 1956. A gentle satire on classical ballet, it can hardly be described as contemporary, but even as the company threw itself into the comedy aspect, enjoying every moment of what they were doing and taking their audience along with them, the subtle, dreamy qualities in the ballet, particularly in the role of the ballerina, Irina Tsymbal, were lost along with a certain poesy. Pianist Henri Barda seemed most ill-at-ease. However, soloist Eno Peci proved outstanding in the role of the not-so-hen-pecked husband for he was excellent in the comedy as well as superb in the classical section of his role. Putting a highly competent classical dancer into what is all too often considered a demi-character role was extremely intelligent casting. This was only the second time the work had been danced; the exploit was remarkable. As is the whole adventure of Manuel Legris at the Vienna State Opera.

Headline image:  Manuel Legris

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Based in Paris,  Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque. She last wrote on the Portuguese choreographer Paulo Ribeiro.

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