The Master's Touch

Classic Arts Features   The Master's Touch
Ballet great Maina Gielgud's production of Giselle will premiere in Houston in June. John Percival puts the Houston Ballet artistic associate into perspective.

Maina Gielgud was born with theater in her blood. Her Hungarian mother had been a leading actress in Budapest (and continued to make occasional appearances in western Europe until recently), while on her father's side she descended from two of England's greatest families of actors and directors, Terry as well as Gielgud. Maina turned to dancing as a child, and went on to study with many of the finest European teachers. Among the choreographers she worked with, Maurice Béjart was the most influential, creating more than half a dozen roles specially for her. She danced the classics, ancient and modern, as a principal with many companies, including London Festival Ballet and The Royal Ballet, and when she performed with Rudolf Nureyev in his Don Quixote for the Ballet de Marseille, he worked out with her the new dances he wanted to incorporate. One of her most widely seen roles, however, was the lead in her own production Steps, Notes and Squeaks. This was a spectacle using both speech and dance to give audiences an illustration of life backstage in ballet, from class through rehearsal to performance; and during widespread tours different choreographers, teachers and dancers starred in it with her, passing on their varied knowledge.

When she turned to directing The Australian Ballet for thirteen years, she restored the company to its highest standards thanks to an outstanding choice of repertoire, and challenging the dancers to excel through international touring and unusually close cooperation with other troupes worldwide. Despite the demands of management, planning future activities and keeping abreast of ballet events elsewhere, she made time to give company class, supervise productions and coach individual dancers, besides watching every performance and giving corrections whenever necessary.

It was for The Australian Ballet that she first staged Giselle, subsequently mounting it for Boston Ballet and in France for Ballet du Rhin, so she brings a wealth of experience as producer to this season's revival for Houston Ballet besides having danced the title role herself and watching any number of different versions. Her approach was not to find a new treatment but to bring the traditional choreography to life for both dancers and audiences. Some adaptation might be needed at times, as for instance with Ballet du Rhin where the company was small in any case, and the stages it used sometimes enforced further reductions in numbers. Always, however, she aimed to ensure that the settings were seen to full advantage, and to supervise the lighting in order to show off the characters properly while maintaining where appropriate a romantic gloom (which she insisted on differentiating from the related but not identical style of Les Sylphides).

Above all, whether working with dancers already familiar with Giselle or others new to it, her purpose in production rehearsals was to get not only the steps right but the style too. But having achieved this with her varying casts, she allowed each principal dancer, or each couple when working together, to find their own reading of the ballet and interpret it in their own way.

That might not seem to apply so much when mounting a plotless modern ballet, but Houston audiences will be able to see for themselves how true it is of her staging of Suite en Blanc. Serge Lifar, its choreographer, was born in Kiev and began dancing there under Bronislava Nijinska before becoming a star of the Diaghilev Ballet. Thereafter he was for almost thirty years leader of the Paris Opera Ballet. The many ballets he created for that company and others were mostly narrative, but Suite en Blanc was an exception, and became his most popular work, receiving some 400 performances from that company, far more than any other post-nineteenth century ballet. It is still in repertoire there besides having been given often by other troupes.

The music came from a two-act ballet, Namouna, first given in Paris in 1882: not a success it had a very silly story but the score by Édouard Lalo was much admired by Debussy and others. Lifar's selections from it, including his own arrangement for the pas de deux, made a fine inspiration for what he described as a parade of stars. The ten numbers of the ballet provide, besides the big duet, solos, trios and larger groupings to stretch the talents of several ballerinas and leading men. Lifar's virtuoso classical style (with some influence from Nijinska) is apparent throughout, but each dance has its own pace and manner, though you can ignore the titles of the solos, since these relate to the long-abandoned original plot. Altogether it makes a grand show-piece for a strong company; something rare and always to anticipate with pleasure.

John Percival, an international freelance critic, has been watching dance for more than 60 years and writing about it almost as long.

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