I don’t know if I’ve ever been more nervous than the first time I met Manuel Legris. I was standing directly in front of him at the barre, auditioning for the Vienna State Ballet, and I desperately wanted the job.
He was, and is, a huge name in the ballet world [he was a principal at the Paris Opéra Ballet for 23 years before joining Vienna State Ballet as director in 2010. He has since gone on to become the director of the Ballet Company of La Scala in Milan, Italy]. I was 18 years old, and a bit starstruck. Add in that I typically have had to work extra hard on picking up exercises, and I was completely stressed.
At the end of the audition process, I got to speak to Manuel directly. He was kind and let me know that he really liked me and wanted to give me a contract, but that he was still waiting to see if he had enough available. On my birthday two weeks later, I got an email telling me I got the contract.
I’ve had a lot of meaningful teachers in my life, but Manuel’s coaching over the next few years in Vienna would prove to be crucial in getting me to where I am today. His teaching style is direct, but not in a bad way. He is opinionated, so if he doesn’t like something, he will let you know. He makes you want to push yourself not because you’re afraid you’ll disappoint him, but because you want to make him proud by meeting his high standards.
He is a very passionate man who gets enthusiastic when he sees something done right. He will say “Yes! Exactly that!” He expected a lot from us, as a director should. If he put you onstage, you could trust that you were ready.
He himself is an incredibly intuitive dancer, which makes me trust him completely. He cares deeply about the impact of musicality. It doesn’t matter to him if you can do five pirouettes, he wants to see two clean ones on the music.
Manuel helped me tell a complete story while portraying a role. He would tell me what the role was, and have me read the entire story written out. Then he would tell me to take the story and decide who I thought the person was, and how I wanted to portray them. Then, he would ask me to use my épaulement to tell the story. In the beginning of Sylvia, my part was strong, so he told me to hold my shoulders back and my chin up to show that. He taught me that the way you hold yourself in between the steps makes all the difference onstage.
He would have me run a variation a few times, telling me what wasn’t right. He would say, “If you try it like this, it will have a different impact.” Then, he would dance it himself, and show me what his take on the choreography was. He is such a talented dancer that in his 50s, he would demonstrate and then say, “I don’t understand why it’s not working for you, it’s so easy!” I thought, “Yeah, why isn’t it working for me when he can do it so well!”
I constantly think of Manuel and all the things I have learned from him. During the pandemic it’s been frustrating to not have my teacher here with me, to look at me closely. As I’ve taken classes on my own, I’ve tried to have his words in the back of my head always. I consider what he would correct me on in any given combination. He would be shouting “Épaulement!” at me. He would tell me to match my steps to the music. He would tell me to pay attention to my phrasing and not make the combinations linear. He would tell me to hold my balance a beat longer before speeding up. He would tell me to think about rolling through my feet rather than popping straight down from relevé.
I’m so grateful for Manuel that “thank you” doesn’t feel like enough. I’m so happy he believed in me, and that he gave me the opportunities he did. Working with him has made me the dancer I am today.
Nikisha Fogo made her official San Francisco Ballet debut in January 2021.