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The Buzz, 8-17: Stanton, We Have a Problem
Gielgud Resigns from Houston Ballet

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

After two years of wet-nursing rookie artistic director Stanton Welch, Maina Gielgud has resigned as artistic associate at Houston Ballet, citing fundamental differences in vision, highlighted by what she says was Welch's threat to cancel her production of "Giselle" last season.

When Houston's board of directors hired the green Welch in 2003, it was the concurrent signing of the veteran Gielgud (disclosure: a friend) that mitigated Welch's lack of experience. Where the Australian choreographer -- a Gielgud protegee -- had never directed a dance company, his mentor had steered Australian Ballet for over a dozen years, as well as the Royal Danish Ballet. (It was in Australia that she gave Welch his first major choreographing opportunity.) A former star of Maurice Bejart's Ballet of the 20th Century, intimate to Royal Ballet founder Dame Ninette de Valois, and stager of the authoritative "Giselle," Gielgud provided the directing resume Welch lacked, lending the Houston decision much-needed credibility among the Houston dancers and supporters, as well as in the international dance community. Indeed, a source close to the company said the commitment of Gielgud or someone of equal stature to assist him was a condition of Welch's hiring.

"When I accepted the position," Gielgud told the DI, "I had looked forward enormously to assisting the newly appointed artistic director... to attain a shared vision for the company. However, my role, authority and responsibilities were never clearly defined, and the situation became increasingly ambivalent and uncomfortable for me. In addition, it became apparent that our views on artistic matters had diverged rapidly in relation to the long-term goals, vision, ideals, management style and methods of directing a classically based ballet company. This culminated in a threat to cancel my production of 'Giselle,' after a number of my casting preferences for this ballet were overruled."

The Dance Insider contacted Houston Ballet Monday morning to ask Welch to comment on Gielgud's departure, her charges, and statements he'd made elsewhere. A Houston spokesman declined to forward the DI's questions to Welch, claiming that he would not be able to answer them in time to meet our Tuesday night deadline because he was in Melbourne rehearsing "Sleeping Beauty" on the Australian Ballet. Instead, the spokesman issued the following statement from Welch: "During this critical two-year period of transition from one artistic director to another, (Gielgud) played an important role. We recognize her significant contribution in (Bejart's) 'Songs of a Wayfarer,' (Serge Lifar's) 'Suite en Blanc' and 'Giselle.' We wish her all the best in her continuing career."

Welch's discussion of Gielgud's exit with the Houston Chronicle was not so circumspect, setting new lows for tactlessness. "Maina is from a different generation," he told the Chronicle's Molly Glentzer in an August 10 report. But it was precisely Gielgud's being what Glentzer aptly described as "a glamorous direct link to ballet's past" that gave the lightweight Welch's directorate some heft. "I certainly don't think it's going to damage the company," Welch told the Chronicle, and therein lies the problem: There are none so blind as those who will not see.

Welch revealed his fundamental lack of understanding of the potency of classical ballet right out of the chute when he stated, in announcing Houston's 2003-2004 season, that William Forsythe's "In the Middle, (Somewhat Elevated)" "made classical ballet relevant; it made a lot of people want to choreograph in a classical style again. It brought ballet into the 20th century."

In fact, ballet has never been out of the 20th century, let alone the 21st; what's varied at times is the agility and ability of choreographers to use it, of stagers and coaches to adhere to it and of dancers to own it. In classical story ballets, the tales themselves are eternal. All it needs is a gifted stager who understands this, and willing dancers.

"Giselle," for example, choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot with a book by Theophile Gautier and Vernoy de Saint-George inspired by a tale from Heinrich Heine, has at its heart the themes of all-consuming love; betrayal; vengeance; and forgiveness. It's the (classical ballet) choreography and dancing that reveal these.

Reviewing her production for Houston Ballet in June, Glentzer said Gielgud "makes a swell case for keeping classical ballet tradition pure and alive." And the Dallas Morning News observed that she insisted "the dancers pull the story out from their souls until they become sophisticated actors tapping deeply into the human experience."

Far from being the relics that Welch suggests, it's solidly educated teachers like Gielgud who understand all ballet has to say to us TODAY, when the intentions of the creators are properly executed and invested by the dancers. Indeed, wrote the Morning News, "Her coaching brought out a new level of artistry in the company."

Welch will attempt to replace Gielgud with a patchwork of coaches and stagers next season, some of them quite respectable, but this misses the point. Just passing through town to set a ballet, they probably won't threaten Welch's authority, so he'll feel better -- but they also won't have the same authority with the dancers as did Gielgud with her more permanent presence. As for Gielgud, she won't lack for work, with plans already in place to teach and coach style for the National Ballet School in Canada, serve on the jury for the Prix de Lausanne, and re-stage "Giselle" for the Australian Ballet. Which is not to say she's not suffering; she will miss working with the Houston dancers. "They are an exceptional group of people," Gielgud told the DI, "not only in terms of their talent as actors as well as dancers, but because of their sincere wish to progress further towards their individual potential, and because of their willingness to take risks. So I am extremely sad to feel unable to continue helping them to pursue their career journeys."

The larger tragedy here is that American ballet is facing a crisis in vision, as evidenced in lackluster programming and general direction. Fueling this crisis is that ignorant ballet boards -- from New York to Boston -- appear to be more interested in gladhanding, sweet-talking pretty boys than experienced teachers who understand the fundamentals and value the history of the art; little men with big egos have supplanted selfless servants of dance. It's truly a map to steer ballet into the dustbin of history.




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