The indefatigable Maina Gielgud is a freelance stager, guest teacher and coach. In 1983, two years after leaving her successful and varied career as a dancer, she became Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet, where she stayed for a remarkable fourteen years. It was the beginning of a long second career in company administration and teaching. She later became Artistic Director of the Royal Danish Ballet and is currently the Artistic Advisor to the Hungarian National Ballet.
Her incredible workload has taken from the National Ballet of Canada to the English National Ballet, from the La Scala company in Milan to the Ballet du Rhin; she has collaborated with the ballet companies of Hong Kong, San Francisco, Boston, Houston, Rome and Paris, with regular return visits to her Australian Ballet.
When she is restaging a ballet, it might be one of her own productions (her Giselle has been seen all over the world) or Nureyev’s Don Quixote or Béjart’s Songs of a Wayfarer, but what does her ‘job’ entail? We’ve all seen ‘revived by’ or ‘staged by’ on the posters, so I asked Gielgud to reveal a little of what goes on in her rehearsal room.
How much is teaching steps and how much is about interpretation and style?
It depends! Most often, the corps de ballet choreography is taught by a choreologist or ballet mistress before I arrive or even in tandem with my teaching the principals, and sometimes the soloists.
Other times the entire choreography will have been taught before I come, or the company will have danced the role only a season or so before, so then it is a matter of coaching as many of the details of style and interpretation of the individual ballet as time and space will permit… and union rules will allow sometimes!
If a company has never performed the ballet or before, or so long before that most of the dancers are not familiar with it and its style, then it is preferable to be part of the teaching, so that from the beginning one can get across, to the best of one’s ability, the intentions of the choreographer stylistically. Doing the steps is only the very beginning of the process, and ideally, the style and interpretation should be integrated from the start.
What preparation do you need beforehand?
Again, it depends on how recently or not one has staged a particular work. When I restaged Erik Bruhn’s production of La Sylphide for the Rome Opera, I needed to prepare by going into a studio for several hours a day for about a week, to remind myself of the choreography with the assistance of video. I have a good memory, so if I have staged the work a year or so before, I would only need a few hours revision.
I like to remind myself of what I consider to be the essence of the work, and the overall effect wanted – how it will effect the audience. So as not to lose the wood in trying to get the detail of the trees. This includes, very importantly, having the right feeling and tempi in the music.
There is also the question of how much adapting of choreography can, and should be, done to suit the individual dancers, but this comes later in the actual process of coaching and staging.
How important is it to have worked with the choreographer and to have been involved with the creation of a piece?
It is essential really, and ideal if one has actually performed one or more roles in the ballet. Inevitably, anyone who is staging another person’s work will have a subjective view regarding what the intention and stylistic nuances the choreographer wanted. The more in tune the stager is, or has been, with the choreographer, the more likely the finished product will be true to that intention. Sometimes it is not a question of how much they have worked with them, but of the affinity with them.
In every case however, and especially with the many top choreographers not alive any more, who have changed their work during their lifetime to – in their opinion, not the dancers’ opinion! – suit the dancers’ individual talents, it is impossible to completely guess what that creator would have done for this or that particular artist. So it is important to have the confidence to refuse, agree to, or make changes, as long as the big lines stay consistent and they do not alter the overall look and feel.
How difficult is it to maintain and impart a style?
It is more and more difficult, because dancers nowadays seem so taken with the technical side of things (particularly high extensions and multiple turns, not petite batterie) and the perfection of footwork, that the individual style and musicality, and even interpretation of a piece is left, if at all, to be thought about and worked on almost as an afterthought.
Generally speaking, the lack of epaulements, use of head and arms and EYES in the training (there are some few exceptions of course, and some individuals who use their intelligence and imagination), means that often one starts from scratch even in the classical repertoire.
If the dancers who lack the above, are intelligent and talented, and are prepared to approach whichever classical ballet as though it was a contemporary work (that is work out ALL the smallest details, not just think it is the same as they do in class), then one can achieve it.
To what extent depends on the time available, the willingness, but also how ‘quick’ the individual dancers are to adapt. Inevitably, some dancers are slower than others, and it is not necessarily the less talented who are slower.
So I would say lack of time (not stage time, studio time usually) is the biggest handicap in many companies. This applies as much to the corps de ballet as to the soloists and principals, and to the time needed for full calls, so that the ballet works as a complete unit.
Are there ever battles between you and the ‘star’ dancer who wants to do it his or her way?
Oh yes… and indeed sometimes it is very difficult to decide what to do, particularly if a dancer has made a huge impact in their career with a role. Maybe there are certain highlights choreographically that they are accustomed to and which give them confidence for the entire role because they know they do them well – and indeed occasionally, if very well known, the public expects these… though sometimes the dancers thinks the public expects these!!!
I think it is important to use one’s discretion with a truly first rate dancer/artist, and maybe give in to one or two things they are used to if it does not spoil the whole.
One needs to find a way to make the dancer think of most of the differences from what they have been used to doing in other versions, as a healthy challenge which will enhance their performance and their ongoing development.
What is easier and more difficult about remounting some else’s ballet in comparison to mounting your own work?
With one’s own work, one is completely free to diverge from one’s own ‘original’ version according to the different vision one acquires of dance as the years pass.
Also there is no need to have headaches worrying about being true to the choreographer’s wishes, if seeing that an individual dancer, or indeed a particular company would look better by doing this or that differently. This applies as much to choreography as to musicality, interpretation, sets and costumes, hairstyles etc….
Recently restaging my own production of Giselle for the company I originally did it for, The Australian Ballet, I made several changes to the musicality of the corps de ballet dances, subtle ones, but changes nevertheless.
One can rethink certain aspects, and realise that they have never been satisfactory in one’s opinion. One can wonder why one left certain things untouched through habit, perhaps of seeing other productions throughout one’s life and not questioning them until now.
What is the relationship with the Trust, Foundation or Estate of the choreographer?
Each Trust or Foundation has a different relationship with the people it entrusts to stage works. I think the one that keeps the closest with the stagers is the Balanchine Foundation. And probably Kylian’s.
Most, if not all, have a list of stagers whom they entrust with putting on the works and agreeing or refusing certain companies the right to perform works, or choosing which ones they can put on. Some deal with all the contractual matters between company management, the stager, the designer and lighting designer. Some only come to see first nights. Some don’t come to see the final product at all…
You work all over the world; what are some of the differences that you see between approaches to putting on a work and the approaches to you and your work?
I personally think it is very important to work with all the casts performing a role in a ballet one is staging. This is yet again a question of time available. Often only the first cast gets attention, and the others just get what they can behind, which is unfortunate, as being other then a first cast does not necessarily mean the dancers are of less quality or less suited, especially in a company that has depth of talent.
Sometimes being absolutely resolute to stick to the fine detail of choreography is counterproductive to the final product. This is where discretion comes into the picture, and opinions will differ on whether it is ‘correct’ to do so or not. But if a dancer is going to obviously fall over in a particular step despite being otherwise well cast, it would be a pity to serve this up to an audience for the sake of the ‘challenge’ to the dancer. By all means challenge the dancer with the step in the rehearsal room, but then give some leeway for the audience will not be put off by a foreseeable problem.
The hardest thing is prioritising with the time available. Extras can get little or no attention. The corps de ballet when they are watching the action can be left to appear like décor and not be encouraged to behave like real people and react to the dramatic content as it evolves.
But then again sometimes, if you have absolutely extraordinary principals, the audience will still go home elated.
Continually one is choosing what to prioritise, although sometimes I think this is not acknowledged by those staging, and knowing one is doing this is important and helpful.
You obviously love your work and love dance and dancers; are you still going to be there at 100 helping young performers to find their way?
I really do hope so.
One continues learning all the time and, like parents with children, one always hopes that the things one has learned will enable the next generation to use those and consequently start further along, enabling them to explore and find still better ways, in the case of dancers, of taking the audience with them.