It’s a homecoming for Manuel Legris. The charismatic Paris Opera Ballet étoile left a sizeable gap on his retirement four years ago, at the mandatory age of 42. He hasn’t rested on his laurels: he was appointed artistic director of the Vienna Ballet in 2010 and has worked tirelessly since to put the venerable institution, long a dormant force in ballet, back on the map. A three-week Paris tour should help: Vienna is the guest company for this year’s Les Etés de la danse festival, and the first of three programmes showed the current troupe as a diamond in the rough.
The 20th anniversary of Rudolf Nureyev’s death provided the opportunity for a tribute programme, and the result was engagingly generous if occasionally disorderly, the evening literally overflowing with dance. It smartly connects the dots between Vienna’s history with the Russian legend and Legris’s own experience as a Nureyev-era star in Paris. Excerpts from Nureyev’s early classical stagings for Vienna, an important step in his career, show him experimenting with his St Petersburg heritage; works by Nils Christe, William Forsythe and John Neumeier, meanwhile, look back to Nureyev’s programming as director in Paris.
And as Nureyev was wont to do, Legris went for broke with some bold choices. The evening opened with Laurencia pas de six, a bravura Soviet miniature rarely seen outside Russia, here performed with great snap but peppered with synchronisation issues. Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude requires a different kind of fearlessness from its five performers, not to mention blind trust in their technique, and on opening night nerves seemed to affect the cast.
But the programme also revealed a depth of talent both at the principal level and in the junior ranks. Some Austrian dancers are clearly on the verge of a breakthrough under Legris, and the Vienna Ballet maintains important ties to the Russian school, in evidence among the company’s stars. Ukraine’s Denis Cherevychko drew gasps with an exciting, polished Corsaire, his high-flying tricks complemented by impeccable musicality. The evening’s Russian star, meanwhile, was Olga Esina. The former Mariinsky dancer has blossomed into a significant ballerina in Vienna: blessed with a body both strong and lyrical and a seemingly natural technique, she was radiant in Neumeier’s Bach Suite III.
The latter work, a rarely seen, beautifully constructed 25-minute piece, made a substantial conclusion to the evening, thankfully light on run-of-the-mill pas de deux. Every work was introduced by a short rehearsal clip, a fine choice to introduce a company more or less new to Paris. By three weeks from now, it should be an old friend.