Trained by the great Russians including Tamara Karsavina and Lubov Egorova, and later Rosella Hightower, Maina Gielgud has had a highly diverse career creating works with Maurice Bejart’s XXth Century Ballet, and as a principal with London Festival Ballet and Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, an international guest artist and partnering Rudolf Nureyev. She then directed Australian Ballet (1983-1997) and the Royal Danish Ballet. Freelancing as a coach and stager since 1999, she stages both classical works such as The Sleeping Beauty and Giselle (staged also for Boston Ballet, Ballet du Rhin and Houston Ballet), and various other works. She staged Suite en blanc for its San Francisco Ballet premiere on January 29, 2013, at the War Memorial Opera House.
Please tell our readers what prompted your decision to become a stager and coach?
Staging evolved from coaching. Coaching was something I had to do from early on and was one of the reasons, as I was directing, that I was watching every performance I wasn’t dancing in. Wherever I was, I wanted to see what the audience was seeing, be as a member of the audience, so that when I would be dancing, I would know what was important for the audience.
A thing that can take on a huge impact is in fact something as tiny as a little needle, and it’s something that you don’t realize would have a big impact. So often it’s the tiny little in-between steps, how you walk, that makes the audience go “Ah!” That side of things has always fascinated me. I saw it would take just so little and that’s what made me want to approach this.
When I stopped dancing, I didn’t decide to retire, I took six months off, freelancing at the time and had the opportunity during that time to choreograph and be ballet mistress for London City Ballet. I was watching myself for telltale signs that I might not be done with dancing, thinking “Only if I were up there,’’ and then I’d know that however hard it is I have to get back onto the stage. None of that happened, and I was fascinated by being on the other side, so I continued stopping dancing and getting into that other side and while I was directing, I made it a rule that during the rehearsal time, I was always in the studio watching or coaching.
Certain ballets came my way to stage almost by coincidence. I suppose the first was Giselle for Australian Ballet, always dear to me, and coaching and then staging them, and I continued in Boston, Houston, Ballet du Rhin and Suite en blanc was also one of the first having a long history that I staged. It was in the repertoire at Australian, staged by [Serge] Lifar, but as I knew it well and he was no more, I restaged it several time. I knew Mario Bois, who was a music editor and has the rights to several of Nureyev’s works, and Suite, because his wife was Claire Motte. She died and rights and music rights went to him and the choreography. Since the late 1980s and 1990s, I’m one of those who has the right to stage Suite and others with Maurice Béjart in his lifetime, as well as Song of the Wayfarer, and Webern Opus 5 Pas de Deux, Serait-ce La Mort, [Four Last Songs] by Richard Strauss, and Nureyev’s Don Quixote, to which Mario Bois has rights and I’m one of the stagers and did my own The Sleeping Beauty in 1985 for the opening of the [Melbourne] Victorian Arts Center.
How do you in a step one, step two, step three sequence, familiarize yourself with the culture of a ballet company when your stays are short ones?
One of the things about freelance is familiarizing yourself. Often, I’ve worked with the dancers before. With San Francisco Ballet, I only knew about three dancers, Yuan Yuan Tan, Ruben Martín Cintas, and Sofiane Sylve, and I knew [Artistic Director] Helgi [Tomasson] from seeing him dance in Harkness Ballet. [Ballet Master] Ricardo Bustamante guested with Australian. It’s really about getting to know the work and practices. I knew this company had special work processes, learning and rehearsing all the ballets coming in and then performing them after Nutcracker season. Once they start performing, there’s no time and I was brought out in August, and only had two and a half weeks.
In talking with Helgi, who shares my passion for discovering young talent, it was tempting to put on many casts: four casts and six for the mazurka. I knew it would take six weeks, and I had two and a half to teach, coach and rehearse. Scheduler Villarreal maneuvers, asking for all sorts of difficult things, and caters to everyone, keeping everyone satisfied, if not happy. And I was getting to know the dancers for casting. You go out a few months earlier usually, and this was all last minute. “Don’t worry. After class we’ll just call everyone.” I said, “Is that really alright, won’t they take offense at auditioning?” But I got a chance: I posed questions by phone. I felt I could both pick, and also get advice. It’s so hard in a studio situation. Sometimes there are those who only come to life onstage. Casting is such a vital part of the staging affair, and often its not given the priority importance that it has in theater or film. So, as the first few days went on into the second week, I’d think so and so would be, could be, in this and Helgi was very accommodating.
And you have to acclimatize to the hours of work because there’s always a five-minute break every hour. In Europe and Australia, after two hours they get 15 minutes. You have to remember when the five minutes occurs in the hour. There are unspoken rules: Whether or to whom you can give a correction to in the hallway. In Denmark, when they are in the hallway, they are off the clock. In a stage rehearsal, the break is when you can help the scheduler. I discovered there that it is not allowable to put in a 15-minute [rehearsal] call. And then there is getting acquainted with the individual dancers, getting a flavor in the rehearsal and the psychology involved, through experience and instinct, when it’s right to say how much time until performance. There are corrections that according to the dancer would take three weeks to put into practice. Others can be instant.
One of the most interesting things is trying to highlight what is different than other ballets they’ve done, Lifar v. Balanchine, MacMillan, or Ashton. When dancers work with choreographers, they’re working together, so the style enters into the piece through the process, but when doing a classical or neoclassical work, they think of only one way to do an arabesque, or how high the arms are. There those who are visual, so if you do this, and you have to learn off the others, what is going to be on their wave length? You give images. It becomes so intellectual when they use anatomical terms, and I’m trying to get them to move organically, and with Lifar, it’s very plastique, and images and shapes have to be clear. He has his sixth and seventh positions, with hips off balance back. There’s a lot of counterbalance with one’s partner. As time has gone on, I’ve realized that you can trace all these choreographers back to the Nijinksa aesthetic. I want to be meticulous about the port de bras because they are very designed. Balanchine is airy, where this is much more academic and deliberate. Balanchine is counter academic. With Suite, it’s taken seriously, it’s hard technically, requires virtuoso dancing, flirtation with music, and is different musicality from Balanchine, and very witty and one must point it out. It is a ballet that is unashamedly “sold.”
What do the dancers seem to like about dancing Suite en blanc? What are the challenges for them?
They are enjoying it because it’s different in some ways. It’s not necessary, as in Balanchine, to be finicky about arms, head, and eye line, because it’s another style, and maybe they haven’t met as much detail or feeling the difference between an attitude in another ballet. The challenge is the odd bit, but they all have technique to find the flavor of each number and sell it. All the different numbers, they’re all fun to do. Some would prefer to be cast in cigarette, but they’re now appreciating the something special in each number.
We learn that Gaul was divided into three parts, but New York Times dance critic Alistair Macaulay reduces the geography of dance to two parts, so far as Parisian Ballet is concerned. He says that there is Right Bank orthodoxy versus Left Bank experimentation, and occasionally some cross pollination, where you get radical traditionalists and experimental conservatives. He says of Serge Lifar’s 1943 piece, Suite en Blanc, that the choreographer “sees classicism as formalism and formalism as a mere façade: stylish and empty. The dancers are elegant, wearing their entrechats and cabrioles the way that models wear haute couture, where the dancers seem to continually say ‘C’est moi!’” He compares it to Balanchine’s Symphony in C and “Shades” in La Bayadère and says that the stylishness is misplaced, makes the dancers look bad (dancing that is texturally light that you see but don’t feel). What is it like to have Macaulay’s words hanging over you as you work with the dancers?
It’s not trying to be something it’s not. It’s a divertissement. It’s a fabulous opportunity to display technique, a sense of style, in the way Sarah Van Patten takes up with it. For coaches it is a headache, as there was more individuality in the old style. The art as a coach is to get the intent of the choreographer and style across to the dancer and still have leeway to be free. In a disciplined environment you have a greater sense of freedom. Coaching should be inherent in how you execute it, so that when you’re onstage, you can let it go if it’s in place. The dancer tends to be too obedient or disobedient. I compare it to how I felt about conductors: the ones who felt what the audience needed as well as what I felt, tuned in. Coach them, but take off when they step on the stage, because it’s not a matter of pleasing the coach or director. This is the moment everything has been building up to. It’s a hard ask because it can feel like such a contradiction. They are at the service of what it’s about. You are continually prioritizing as a coach, doing the triage: Where is the dancer’s mind? Point out something they know about, find something to encourage, to lift. Affinities change over time. Find someone you weren’t getting, or someone who wasn’t getting you. There are others with whom it always clicks.
You have famously staged Giselle many times and on several different companies. Will you speak about your favorite interpretations, both by dancers who have made the role their warhorse, but also by dancers who are lesser known?
Natalia Osipova’s first Giselles in London are for me unforgettable. I knew her Kitri [female lead in Don Quixote], but had no idea what to expect, and she went much further than I had imagined—she was not just a soubrette. The second act blew me away, as she did it entirely in her own way. All the steps are there, and I could agree if it were someone who was less of a genius, that they were not in the Romantic style, but I have my own ideas. She just gave you Giselle’s soul on a platter; I can’t think of it without being in tears. You believe in what she does. She takes the majority of the audience with her. It was the specialists who were revolted.
You come from a theatrical family. If you could play comedic or dramatic roles of your own choosing, what would they be?
Anything very dramatic, not too classical, any role that would make them cry. I love to cry at the theater, or when I read.