Manuel Legris’ direction of La Scala Ballet did not start under a lucky star. His tenure began in December 2020, during the second wave of the pandemic with all the lockdown rules that compelled artists to work in empty theatres, at best in front of a video camera. But Legris is used to facing tricks of fate since when, as a very young talent at the Paris Opéra Ballet, he was involuntary casus belli between the director Rudolf Nureyev and the choreographer Maurice Béjart, who had assumed the right to nominate him étoile without any agreement with the POB management. Nureyev disavowed in public the choreographer’s gesture and the young artist was compelled to embrace the devil of the annulled nomination. Luckily it was only for a while; some months later, Nureyev officially nominated Legris as an étoile, launching a wonderful career. This episode, indeed, tells us a lot about Legris’ capacity of resilience that, united with his tangible passion and an overwhelming motivational energy, proved to be very useful in his first year at La Scala.

Maria Celeste Losa in George Balanchine's Rubies
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

In fact, despite all the restrictions the company performed 15 choreographies totally new to them, chosen form a large balletic range from Bournonville to new creations, and for the scheduled Giselle had the chance of receiving the last precious artistic advice from Carla Fracci who, after many years of coolness toward her from La Scala, came back to her artistic home thanks to Legris’ invitation. Against all the difficulties the tight schedule of productions, rehearsals, masterclass (also with Alessandra Ferri and Massimo Murru for Manon) and performances have improved the company’s standard, enriched by promotions and interesting new arrivals in their ranks.

George Balanchine's Diamonds
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

In Legris’ vision, the 2021-22 season (the first with the 100% audience capacity) had to celebrate the quality and personality of La Scala's dancers, considered as a whole. Unfortunately, the opening of the season – the new production of the colossal version of Rudolf Nureyev’s La Bayadére – was tormented by a recrudescence of Covid and only after several cancellations and continuous changes of cast was it presented bravely, but with inevitable cuts and adjustments that gave only a pale idea of what it would have been with the full corps de ballet.

Therefore, in some ways George Balanchine’s Jewels, back at La Scala after eight years, has become the true opening of the ballet season with the company at full strength – and with plenty of debuts in the principal roles. A glorious link that summarises the codes of ballet tradition and showing the potential evolution of what the ballet could be in the future (as William Forsythe has has proven), Jewels is a perfect test of a company’s technical and artistic standards. The three parts – the ethereal, lyric Emeralds, the jazzy and (apparently) easy-going Rubies and the imperial and nostalgic Diamonds – require grandeur, versatility, technique and style from all the dancers and bring out the harmony of the entire hierarchy of the corps de ballet, from the latest newcomers to the principals.

Virna Toppi and Claudio Coviello in George Balanchine's Rubies
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

The opening night of Jewels, in a sold-out Scala, satisfied almost all expectations – a tangible joy of dancing and a lively, exhilarating energy spread from the stage all around. Of course, it was evident in Rubies, the central dance set on Stravinsky’s Capriccio, played with witty attack by pianist Roberto Cominati and the Scala orchestra conducted by Paul Connelly. Here the direct physical approach of movement – often playful but also, above all in the duet, full of temperament and continuous challenges between the dancers – must above all give us the sensation of a mind-driven physicality. Indeed, the long-limbed Maria Celeste Losa and the leading couple formed by Virna Toppi and Claudio Coviello showed this perfectly, giving us the sensation of freedom and total mastery of their movements and a youthful friskiness perfectly attuned to Balanchine’s original intentions. 

Timofej Andrijashenko and Nicoletta Manni in George Balanchine's Diamonds
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

In Diamonds too, the beautiful principals Nicoletta Manni and Timofej Andrijashenko seemed to catch perfectly Balanchine’s poetic vision: their duet does not indulge a too elegiac reminiscence of ancient ballets (although the choreography is full of echoes of Petipa and Ivanov’s masterpieces), but mostly exalts the adamantine purity of the lines and the sparkling dynamics of the enchainments. 

George Balanchine's Emeralds
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

The opening Emeralds, on Fauré’s impressionistic music, remains perhaps the most difficult to catch and perform: the mysterious and elusive fluidity of whirling arms and steps, the continuous flow of movement that recalls the ethereal quality of romantic style must be light and polished. Martina Arduino in the bracelet solo and Alice Mariani in the long Sicilienne caught the liquid quality of the choreography, but the smiling eyes contact they searched for with their partners Nicola del Freo and Marco Agostino in the duets risked to transform the delicate reverie evoked by Balanchine into a simple spring flirt.