11th November 2019

Following an extremely popular session two years ago, Maina Gielgud returned to talk about the many and various facets of her current career. Maina had been working with a number of prestigious ballet schools, including the Vaganova Academy, and she shared her impressions of the varying ways in which the different countries approached their student training. Maina explained in fascinating detail her approaches to coaching and to choreographing new work and referred to highly talented young dancers who, she expected, would become household names in the near future. Maina also spoke about her role with the Anton Dolin Foundation, her experiences of staging ballets all over the world, often with ‘famous names’, her new workshops focused on style, and the coaching film clip she had recently made for the Dance Europe website.

Beginning where she had left off previously, Maina explained that her involvement with the Anton Dolin Foundation had proved more complex than she had supposed, not least in terms of reviving his ballets and acquiring the rights for schools as well as companies to perform them. Nevertheless, she had staged Dolin’s Pas de Quatre for Tokyo Ballet and his Variations for 4 for both La Scala Academy in Italy and Ellison Ballet in the USA. She had also obtained permission for an in house showing of it at the Annarella Academy in Portugal last October.

Maina’s most affecting recent experience had been in St. Petersburg where she had been to stage Serge Lifar’s Suite en Blanc. The Vaganova Academy, with which she was working, had given her an apartment in the school’s own building with windows looking out onto the famous courtyard with the statue of Galina Ulanova. The students’ rooms look out onto the same courtyard and Maina was overwhelmed with thoughts of all the other dancers who had once had that same view, including her teachers, Karsavina and Egorova, then Makarova, Baryshnikov and, of course, Nijinsky. While she was there setting the soloist roles at the invitation of the Academy’s Rector, Nikolai Tsiskaridze, several of the teachers during their class had invited her to set an exercise for the students. Maina commented that, when doing so, she was very conscious of the high expectations of the teachers there, and was truly delighted  when told  ‘you have Russian style’! One remarkable pedagogue was Ludmila Kovaleva, now aged over 80, who had taught Diana Vishneva and Olga Smirnova. Her classes, and those of other teachers, were characterised at times by discussion with their students, and the most exquisite enchainements.

One of the teachers told her students that, if they executed the exercises as ‘badly’ as that, she would be sacked and, pointing at various students, would say (in Russian) “idiote!”. But all this was well meant, to achieve results, and was a typically Russian approach indicative of the real care that Russian teachers have for their charges. 

Maina had returned some months later to continue working on Suite en Blanc, this time concentrating on the corps work and, by then, it was only three weeks before the exams. The atmosphere was different but the classes remained notable for the amount of interaction between teachers and students. The Vaganova also had acting classes given by a mime artist who was focusing on scenes from ballets which were not performed any more. 

There was an unexpected hitch insofar as the Lifar Foundation suddenly told Maina that, after some 30 plus years of staging the work for six different companies, she wasn’t authorised to stage Suite en Blanc!  This was somewhat rectified and, returning to St Petersburg for the performances week with Attilio Labis, she was proud that “the Vaganova School performed the ballet so beautifully”. At this point, Maina mentioned Maria Khoreva, who had danced the Flute Solo and the Pas de Deux before graduating from the Vaganova to the Mariinsky Company in June 2018. She had been cast alongside two other students in Apollo with Xander Parish that same July, was then promoted to First Soloist three months later, and had recently taken the lead roles in La Bayadere and Raymonda. “If you haven’t yet heard of Maria, you certainly will soon”, added Maina. 

Maria had so impressed Maina that she had suggested that they might revive the Squeaky Door solo which had been made for her by Maurice Béjart. In August 2019, Maina had gone to St. Petersburg to coach Maria and Emma Kauldhar, the Editor of Dance Europe, had made a video of their sessions together:

Filling in the background to the Squeaky Door, Maina explained that, in 1974, she had been one of four dancers heading for the USA to talk about the upcoming season when Béjart had spoken of a possible surprise for her. Expecting to be working on a solo from Lady Macbeth, sung by Maria Callas, Maina arrived for a rehearsal to hear a “very odd tape which was all squeaks” and to be told that Béjart had changed his mind. Although it was originally entitled Forme et Ligne, the nickname Squeaky Door was acquired, because of the music, when the piece was performed in the UK.

In between the periods of time Maina spent in St. Petersburg, she was invited by the Director of the Goh Ballet Academy, Chan Hon Goh, to choreograph a full-length Cinderella in Vancouver. Talking about the process of choreographing such a work, Maina said that she had “locked herself up” with the music so that she knew “what it was telling her” and had wanted, above all, to portray the story through the movement she was creating. Planning and preparation were also very important  to Maina but the “actual steps and patterning developed in collaboration with the dancers”. Although the roles of Cinderella and The Prince were taken by guest principals from Washington Ballet (Venus Villa, whom she had worked with before during the time they were both at ENB, and Rolando Sarabia), Maina had seen a young male student “who looked like a perfect Prince’s younger Brother”, and could have a significant part to play. She had therefore not only given The Prince more character but had also introduced this character who persuades him to go to the ball. Using the smaller children from the school represented a  particular challenge but, generally speaking, Maina was helped in this respect by the generous amount of rehearsal time she had been able to have with the students.

In fact, since going freelance, Maina had staged a full-length ballet almost every other year: Coppelia, Cinderella and, of course, restaging her own production of Giselle in Australia.  Recently, she had re-worked The Sleeping Beauty  for Joburg Ballet and, in 2020, there would be Swan Lake for Cape Town City Ballet. For that, Maina would have the “rare luxury” of a total of 11 weeks of preparation: firstly, in February/March then, again, in July.

Almost immediately prior to talking to the LBC, Maina had mounted a workshop on the Romantic Style at the Royal Opera House which was designed for professional dancers, advanced students and teachers/coaches. Maina and a former Vaganova-trained teacher, Olga Lakovlevskaya, had led sessions focused on excerpts from Giselle in order to concentrate on the distinctive style and fine detail  in a way which was rarely possible within a company. Maina emphasised that each ballet needed to be approached differently and she was considering producing a handbook/video guide outlining the essence of such ‘rules’. The dancers and observers attending the recent workshop were “clamouring” for more, so Maina was thinking about possible future sessions, comparing different classically based styles, but also comparing choreographic texts of ballets.

Pausing to take questions, Maina first confirmed that photos of Natalia Makarova and Rudolf Nureyev were, indeed, now hanging alongside those of other alumni at the Vaganova Academy.

Another member of the audience wondered how, when a company was composed of dancers with different training, it was possible to develop a company style. Maina replied that, when she directed The Australian Ballet, she was not so much intent on achieving a uniform “Australian way of doing things” as trying to ensure that the dancers assimilated the different styles of the works they were performing and “really adapted to the work”. She also felt that ballet schools worldwide were now more open to their students learning works by different choreographers, and therefore different ways of performing the steps, than had been the case in the past. This meant, in turn, that dancers were more adaptable when they joined the profession, although much teaching (not in Russia) appeared more clinical and less visual than used to be the case.

In response to a question about boys taking up dance, Maina said that she had encountered some “wonderful boys coming through” to the extent that she had been able to mount Anton Dolin’s Variations for Four on students in both Toronto’s National Ballet School and Annarella Academy in Leiria, Portugal . Commenting that competitions were “not really the thing” in England, Maina said that large-scale ones, such as the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) had significant merits, not least in awarding many scholarships for Summer Schools or advanced training to talented students from small schools in far away countries, and facilitating their being seen, and in some cases guided in terms of best further training, from an early age by top Artistic Directors, as well as in drawing people’s online attention to the young dancers and the schools producing them. She had, for example, encountered some years ago a video on Facebook of a young man from Portugal, António Casalinho, who had won many YAGP prizes in his age divisions. By coincidence, while on the competition jury in Paris, Maina had met his teacher who had insisted that she visit the school (Conservatório Internacional de Ballet e Dança Annarella Sanchez) which, despite being in a small village, had seven studios. The school’s Principal is a former Cuban ballerina who married a man from Portugal and moved there 20 years ago.  She continues to bring in three teachers each year from Cuba. It seemed, because of the Cuban training which produces very strong dancers technically, typically as in Cuba itself, with the boys being of top world standard, the girls less immaculate in terms of academic quality but able to toss off triple fouettées and such, in their early teens, that there was an atmosphere of fearlessness. In Maina’s words, “They are all excited to try new ideas of style and polishing and keen to master them.  They are not fearful that, because of changing the way they use their upper body, head, eyes for a different style, they will ‘miss’ a pirouette or not be on their leg: they are totally free to experiment.”

While in Portugal, Maina had been able to teach António varied rep. which was new to him and he had learned everything unusually quickly and had risen to every challenge. “He is one of the most extraordinary talents I have ever seen in my life”, added Maina. She expressed the view that exceptionally talented young dancers should not be delayed in schools longer than was necessary and thought that the growth in Junior Companies was providing the right kind of opportunity - “After all, time is short. Why hang around? Go for it !”  She also commented on the 14 year old Margarita Fernandes, who performed, together with Antonio, the title role in La Sylphide Act 2 which she had staged a few weeks before. Maina added, “If we were in the. 1930s Ballets Russes days, she would be a Baby Ballerina à la Toumanova, Baronova etc..!”

Questioned about mime, especially, in the context of, say, Mary Skeaping’s Giselle, Maina agreed that there was a risk of its being lost in certain contexts. Working each July at the American Ballet Theatre Summer School had been an eye-opener for Maina as the majority of students attending had never had any tuition on mime and, initially, had not known what she was talking about. However, fortunately, it still featured at The Royal Ballet School. Talking about mime led Maina to refer to the way in which Alexei Ratmansky, who was currently working on a re-staging of Giselle for the Bolshoi, had painstakingly researched old photographs and notations while reconstructing his Sleeping Beauty. Maina also thought it important to ask former dancers what they remembered – for example, Antoinette Sibley, who had worked with Kasarvina, recalled alternative gestures and, in a video, Monica Mason’s mime for Carabosse was also instructive. Maina then demonstrated the varying approaches to using the hand around the face to indicate beauty.

This brought the conversation back to Maina’s staging of Sleeping Beauty in South Africa. It was the first time that Joburg Ballet (a mixed race company) had tackled the work and the first thing Maina needed to do was to assure them that, as it was a classical ballet, “there were no steps in there which they had not done countless times in class”. When it came to coaching the Auroras, Maina’s approach was to say, “You, as Aurora, are coming to your birthday party, you are only 16, are meeting four possible future husbands for the first time -  of course you’re nervous; no need to act; you, as a dancer, are feeing just like Aurora should! It’s all there on a plate for you.” 

A questioner wondered whether being able to see the audience made any difference. Maina wanted her Sleeping Beauty dancers to regard the audience as part of the scene in Act 3. She noted that, in MacMillan ballets, the story which unfolded was confined to the stage and eye contact with the audience was not appropriate. But there were instances where including the audience was essential – Coppelia was an obvious example. When she was dancing, Maina  had preferred being able to see the audience a bit and, before a performance, would go on stage and practise how she would relate to different areas of the auditorium: it was so important for dancers to remember that they were “there for everyone” and to “aim for the Gallery and the 2nd Balcony”.

Of equal importance, in Maina’s view, was the way that dancers used their heads. Both expressive and technical issues often resulted from heads staying at the same level when varying the tilt and the use of the space above and below the centre eyeline could make a big difference. A couple of days previously, Maina had again worked with Dance Europe, this time on a video in which she was coaching Ksenia Ovsyanick in the Black Swan sequences from  Swan Lake and, during this session had emphasised the way that Odile’s head could be used to add to the characterisation. 

Questioned further about her coaching methods, in particular the challenge for a dancer of making sure that what he/she was expressing was being accurately received by the audience, Maina admitted giving feedback to dancers in quite strong terms – for example, “I don’t yet believe you”; “It’s all very well that you are crying but you have to make the audience cry”. Maina revealed that a common problem was a dancer’s tendency to look down to express sadness when the audience needed to see his/her eyes in order to experience the emotion. Moreover, the fear of “looking fake” often seemed to hold dancers back from expressing themselves, at least in the early stages of their careers before they had developed their stagecraft and confidence.

Prompted by Gerald to return to Béjart, Maina mentioned that, in the context of Kevin O’Hare (Director of The Royal Ballet) curating a programme at The Joyce Ballet Festival in New York the previous August, she had mounted Song of a Wayfarer with David Hallberg (ABT, Bolshoi and international guest artist) and Joseph Gordon  (New York City Ballet). Many in the LBC audience remembered the performance by English National Ballet which had memorably featured Vadim Muntagirov (in blue) and Esteban Berlanga (in red). As was the case with them some years previously, the American dancers were not familiar with the work and Maina had initially taught them separately, bringing them together only four days prior to the performance. The Joyce Theatre was not known for ovations but Song had been received in rapt silence which burst into enthusiastic clapping the moment the curtain fell and led in turn to curtain call after curtain call.

Gerald commented that that kind of reception was an appropriate high note on which to end the evening which had, as always in Maina’s company, been both highly enjoyable and very informative. The enthusiastic applause from the audience echoed those sentiments and Gerald’s added good wishes to Maina in her many forthcoming projects.

Written by Linda Gainsbury and edited/approved by Maina Gielgud

© LBC 2019

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