Monday, June 06, 2005

Gielgud on Giselle: A Conversation with Houston Ballet's Maina Gielgud

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It’s long-white tutu time at the Houston Ballet as Artistic Associate Maina Gielgud, A. O., prepares for her biggest project yet for the ballet, a new production of Giselle. No ballet company is complete without a fresh version of this romantic classic that contains all the essentials: an innocent village girl (Giselle) that falls for a nobleman in commoner disguise (Albrecht), a mad scene when she discovers his true identity, and a tribe of dangerous betrayed brides known as “Wilis” that prey on lost men in a ghostly forest. In the end, love wins out, as Giselle manages to keep poor Albrecht alive and the Wilis evaporate in the light of day. It’s not only a love story, but a ghost story, filled with otherworldly images created by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli’s choreography, Adolphe Adam’s lyrical music, and Peter Farmer’s famous scenic designs.

Giselle played a pivotal role in the formation of the Houston Ballet back in 1967. Superstars Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn danced in that first production of Giselle that literally launched the Houston Ballet. Gielgud knows Giselle inside and out. She’s danced several roles, set the ballet on slew of major companies, and brought legendary expertise in romantic style.

DH: Giselle is 159 years old. I imagine we will still be watching Giselle 159 years from now. There is something timeless about romantic ballet, although clearly it comes from a certain sensibility. Why do we still long for romantic ballet?

MG: We are all romantic at heart, have been in love, and have been betrayed in some way. We want to believe there is still innocence in human beings and a capacity for forgiveness. It’s beautiful to watch great dance actors who have the capacity to involve us in their emotions as much as great film actors.

DH: At the age of 17 you danced the great “evil babe” of ballet, Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. Myrtha has this nasty habit of dancing men to death. How important is it for a ballerina to have one of these consummate “bad girl” roles under their tutu?

MG: It’s good to dance all types of roles, although almost inevitably some will come a particular dancer’s way more than others that is those she is most obviously suited to. But to have the “bitchy” roles as well as the romantic ones makes one a better artist and dance I believe. It is great fun to dance both Giselle and Myrtha just as it is wonderful for an actor to perform both Romeo and Mercutio. Had I been a male dancer-the dream role would have been Albrecht.

DH: At age 25, you finally landed the role of Giselle. What did you find challenging in the role?

MG: The first act was more difficult then the second for me, as I have always had an affinity for the romantic style of the latter. The innocent frail girl was more of a challenge-although I think I found my own way with it, by accentuating her love of dance and love for Albrecht rather than her fragility.

DH: Can we talk about the famous mad scene? Giselle is betrayed by Albrecht when she finds out his true noble identity. How did you approach this scene?

MG: The mad scene was fascinating to work on with help from different coaches at different stages, and finding out what worked best for my portrayal-which of course changes at different stages of one’s career. The music is a big key-and discovering what it suggests as in the relationship with the Albrecht partner of the moment and the mother. It took lots of experimenting alone in a studio and listening to the music.

DH: In Heinrich Heine’s poem he speaks of elves in white dresses with “little satin feet.” The ghostly presence of the Wilis is key in pulling off the second act. How exactly do you get the dancers to master that eerie “Wilis” walk where they dance as if their feet are not touching the ground?

MG: The greatest challenge is present until the dancers see that by moving differently, having a different posture, using the weight of the body off balance to propel on in a direction using weight to appear weightless- actually achieve the desired result. Until then it can appear to them to be simply copying poses from lithographs to create “pretty old fashioned pictures.” Once they see how magical the effect can be, they strive to achieve it. The musical phrasing also helps achieve this.

DH: In your coaching of the three Giselles how do you give them space to approach the role with their own unique set of talents?

MG: By working with them separately, especially for the first act where the individual interpretation is so essential. By suggesting the different ideas, different possibilities in certain places either those I have seen or used before, or by knowing their dancing and watching them, having ideas generated from their personalities or way of moving, which I think would fit with the style of the ballet as well as their particular style. I encourage them to think about different aspects of the role and to come up with suggestions and ideas themselves.

DH: You have set your production of Giselle on the Boston Ballet, Balled du Rhin, The Australian Ballet, and now, the Houston Ballet. What particular flair does the Houston Ballet give to this work?

MG: Houston Ballet has a tradition of having great actor dancers-a wonderful legacy of Ben Stevenson. Their rendition of the romantic style of the second act promised to be outstanding, judging but the work done so far.

It’s a question of time with these ballets as regular coaching is necessary so that a different style becomes second nature (exactly as when working with a contemporary choreographer) and then is secondary to the portrayal. Their romantic style is very different from the academic/classical style of The Sleeping Beauty and La Bayadere for instance, which is nearer to the style of the daily class.

DH: You took a detour from the classics and danced with the great ballet renegade, Maurice Bejart. I read that you credit the famous Rudolf Nureyev for luring you back to the classics. Can you speak about that transition in your life?

MG: I had danced a great deal of soloist and principal work but never a full-length ballet before I joined Maurice Bejart’s ballet of the Twentieth century. I was invited to dance the full length The Sleeping Beauty with Rudolf Nureyev for five performances in Barcelona as a guest and it fascinated me so much that it made me want to perform the classical roles again as well as the contemporary, because of the challenge, but also because of the dramatic possibilities in full-length ballets.

DH: You come from a highly theatrical family. How did that upbringing influence your choices? Did your famous uncle, Sir John Gielgud, ever get to see one of your productions of Giselle?

MG: His favorite ballet was Giselle and he saw me dance it in London and also came to see my production when The Australian Ballet toured it in London in 1991. He adored ballet and was very enthusiastic about my dancing as well as later, about my production.

DH: I understand you have a flexible approach to the ending.

MG: I sometimes leave Albrecht on stage with Giselle in his arms when the curtain comes down, as apposed to his leaving the village dragged away by his servant Wilfred. In the latter case, it is Berthe, Giselle’s mother that is left with her lifeless daughter. Audiences will have to come to all the casts for themselves to see whether there are different endings in the Houston Ballet version.

The Houston Ballet presents Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle along with Stanton Welch’s Maninyas on June 9, 11, 17, 18 at 7:30 pm and June 12, 18, 19, at 2pm, at Wortham Center. Call 713-227-2787 or visit

This inteview appeared in the June issue of Artshouston.