My first Des Grieux

My first Des Grieux

The Director of the La Scala Compay remembers his first time meeting Kenneth MacMillan, when the great coreographer chose him for the debut of the legendary Manon at the Paris Opéra

Manuel Legris ph Brescia e Amisano ©Teatro alla Scala (34)

From July 8 to 18, the Corps de Ballet will greet La Scala audiences before the summer break with a major revival, Kenneth MacMillan's L'histoire de Manon. Six years after previous performances, a ballet that has been part of our theatre’s history since 1994, when it first entered the repertory, returns to the stage. MacMillan had recently passed away, and the revival was entrusted to Monica Parker; among the stars of that first season, invited by the Paris Opéra, was étoile Manuel Legris, in the role of Des Grieux, which was entrusted to him in 1990 by MacMillan himself at the ballet's French debut. It was a special encounter, which Legris remembers as one of the turning points of his career.


CV Maestro Legris, when did you first encounter this ballet?

ML Rudolf Nureyev was directing the Company. Although I did not know if I would be cast, when he announced that this ballet was in the works, that was already special and exciting to me. I was familiar with the production. I had seen it with the debut cast, and Anthony Dowell in the role of Des Grieux was etched in my memory. It was clear how much this great artist had inspired MacMillan to create the role. There were already other MacMillan titles in the repertoire, even a creation, but for me that would be the first direct encounter with his style, and in one of his masterpieces. Des Grieux is truly a dream role, all generations of dancers — still today — have wanted to dance it.


CV What was your meeting with MacMillan at the Opéra like?

ML I'll never forget when he came for the cast selection. We were rehearsing Forsythe's In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, and I can see him now as if it were yesterday, in the ballroom, politely on the sidelines, very quiet, calm, saying nothing. The next day, the management called me and told me their decision: I was going to be Des Grieux in the premiere, with Monique Loudières. It was unbelievable. He had made the casting choice and picked me as the first Des Grieux based on a rehearsal of Forsythe!


CV How did MacMillan work with the Company and on the main roles?

ML We mounted the whole ballet with the maîtres. When he arrived, he focused on specific directions and the characters, the musicality, the image, without talking too much, kind of like Nureyev, two or three important directions and that’s it. But useful direction to think about. He arrived two weeks before the debut and followed all the stage rehearsals. I remember the first rehearsal with the corps de ballet: the run-through starts and that was my first meeting with Manon, just a walk. He stopped the rehearsal and came to talk to me; he had sensed my nervousness and said, "Go easy for this rehearsal, it's okay, you'll be great," and went back to his seat. The rehearsal went well, but without those words it surely would have been a disaster because of the stress and emotions that overwhelm you in this story, in front of the whole Company....


CV It is a precious gift to connect with the choreographer.

ML Yes, it was extraordinarily lucky to be able to work directly with MacMillan and to feel an affinity. I don't know how to explain it, almost like a lightning strike, a care and bond that I felt throughout rehearsals and on stage, and that I feel strongly even now, in remembering when at the end of the play he came on stage, directly to me, took my hand and led me in front of the audience to the curtain — an emotional moment. I then learned that in London he had had words of great esteem for me, after seeing such an ideal interpretation of the role for the first time since Dowell. An incredible compliment. Just as incredible was his personality in my opinion: impassive, but with great character under a quiet appearance. After all he could not have created strong and powerful ballets like Manon or Mayerling or A Month in the Country... these are difficult works with complex roles, female characters that are not taken for granted or "comfortable," with an interpretive depth that leads one to delve into the ugliness, reaching deep down to the point of pain. After dancing this piece, everything changes, nothing can be the same and you cannot be the same.


CV The premiere took place in 1974. Exactly 50 years have passed, and this ballet continues to be performed and attended with great enthusiasm. What in your opinion is its strength? 

ML The story is beautiful, unique, even in artistic depth. It is not just dance, you must be an actor, open yourself to all levels of emotion, love, death, illness, betrayal. The choice of music is very apt and engaging; the characters are dominant; the tightness of the ballet is made through the roles; and the development of the dramaturgy is entrusted to the pas de deux. From the very beginning, the first line is drawn between Manon and Des Grieux, and there is an evolution, even a technical one. Des Grieux enters with a variation on control, a variation on seduction, to be communicated without overt steps, delicately, to begin to lay the foundation for a love story that blossoms soon after with the very difficult pas de deux. In the second scene, the chamber pas de deux demands the utmost, as does the drama that takes place in the second act and the finale, brilliant, with the music, the runs, a death depicted in such a unique way... I loved Romeo but Des Grieux is the most beautiful role of my career, the most special. I danced it so much and with so many partners, and I am happy to follow it now, with the current generation of dancers at La Scala.


CV From choreographer to choreographer, what struck you about his language?

ML I always found it very challenging. I remember when I saw The Four Seasons as a student at the school (for dance history classes we attended the performances). I was struck by the variations, incredible. And when I choreographed Verdi Suite, its combinations inspired me. In addition to being able to tell a story, he also had a very rich and varied vocabulary, a connection to the classical that was not rigidly academic. He was classical without being classical. A choreographer, in short. Who among other things also took risks, because for example Métaboles, created for the Paris Opera, had no luck. Manon was the ballet of peace between MacMillan, the public and the critics in Paris. Nureyev had insisted on this title and so it opened the door for MacMillan to make a dazzling comeback, and it was a huge success.


CV Only two years after the French premiere, on October 29, 1992, MacMillan died backstage at the Royal Opera House, during a revival of his Mayerling, while his Romeo and Juliet was being staged at the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

ML I think about it with deep sadness. I did not have so many opportunities to work with him but encounters like these are special and you know they will last forever; it was a unique opportunity in my life, almost magical, but if he was still alive there would surely have been a sequel. It gave me something inexplicable, it arrived in my career at a perfect moment and gave me a "pass" to dance it in the world. Invited by Elisabetta Terabust in 1994 and in 1998 with great honour and happiness, I danced it at La Scala, with Alessandra Ferri for the first time together in this title. Then in Vienna, and by Makhar Vaziev at the Mariinsky with Diana Vishneva, who then came to dance it in Paris as well. At the Opéra, after Monique Loudières, I danced it with Isabelle Guérin, and since that premiere I have danced many other titles with her, because Manon creates dynamics, sharing, artistic closeness, lays the foundation for new collaborations, great mutual respect and gratitude. Lady MacMillan herself has always been considerate like this with me. Even as a director, when we talk, she is always available and willing to find solutions to any problems because she remembers this magical time in Paris, and my respect for a great choreographer.  This is the gift MacMillan has given me, and it is for life.

Carla Vigevani
Translation by Alexa Ahern