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Flash News & Interview, 9-15: Boston Taps Gielgud
"Brain Buzzing," Star International Director Hits the Tarmac Running
....And Boston Goes for the Big Time

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

BOSTON -- In a bold move signaling its intention to jete into the top ranks of international companies, Boston Ballet yesterday appointed Maina Gielgud, a strong-willed visionary known for her tough-love leadership approach, as its fifth artistic director in thirty-seven years, effective next July.

"It really sounds so exciting," Gielgud, the former director of the Australian and Royal Danish ballet companies, told The Dance Insider this morning. "It was good yesterday to be able to get into the studios, and finally see the dancers," said Gielgud, a director known to be as demanding of dancers as she is devoted to them. Before yesterday's official announcement, she had been sequestered in Boston for three days, the appointment kept secret.

Gielgud, who directed the Australian Ballet for 14 years, beat out a field that, dance insiders say, also included the English National Ballet's Derek Deane and Ballet West's Jonas Kage.

And she hit the ground running. After attending a party and performance last night, the company's annual "Across the Boards" event, she told the DI a couple of hours ago, "My brain is buzzing. I'm so dancer-driven, and dancer-inspired, that it's been strange trying to concoct repertoire in the abstract, not knowing the Boston atmosphere and not knowing the dancers, and not being able to contact choreographers anywhere until it's official."

Even though she does not officially start as director until July, Gielgud has been given the unusual opportunity of planning for next season; usually a new director would come in with the next season already cast in stone. "It's very unusual that you get a blank sheet of paper," the elated director-designate said. Other than a Christopher Wheeldon commission already in place, she said, "The rest is entirely up to me to plan - which is very short notice, but is still preferable to inheriting a season already planned."

Gielgud will spend tomorrow observing at the Boston Ballet Center for Dance Education, and Sunday "putting down my ideal plans," as well as "sending out mass calls for instant help for choreographers for next season. I'm interested in a mix of American and international choreographers, and European choreographers, because I think it's interesting for a company to have some different styles, and it's also interesting to the audience." In the longterm, she said, she would like to explore the possibility of cultivating choreographers from within the ranks of the dancers, a Gielgud trademark in Australia.

One of Gielgud's top priorities will be for Boston to "start touring again internationally and nationally." Besides giving the dancers the opportunity to perform for different audiences, and letting the hometown audience see how their company is received elsewhere, there's another critical motivation for touring that has always been close to Gielgud's heart.

"In Boston the company has five programs, with twelve performances of each program, and then they can't do it again for another four years, so there's no chance to develop in roles, which is absolutely vital." With touring, she explained, even if a given ballet is not presented in back-to-back seasons at home, it could still be presented in back-to-back years -- in the home season and then again on tour. Or even in the same year -- first at home, and later in the year on tour. This, she explained, would give individual dancers the chance to really focus on a role over a consistent period of time.

"There's such a difference when you pick up a role later in the year in the same season," she noted, explaining that this tactic had worked well for her in Australia.

But the touring, she said, will not be a one-way street. "I also hope that from time to time we might be able to bring in another company to tour in Boston, with Boston Ballet touring during that time -- a sort of exchange. I also hope we are going to be able to do exchanges of dancers, as we did in Australia and Denmark, with other companies. That is an extremely healthy thing for companies and dancers. There are always downtimes for some of the dancers, however good, in any company, and by sending them to dance with another company in exchange for one of that company's dancers coming to us, when it suits both companies and their repertoire, it's a wonderfully healthy thing. It's inspiring for a dancer who otherwise might be twiddling their thumbs and thinking they're not as good as they are." In Australia, Gielgud instituted such exchanges with Boston, Denmark, the Maryinsky/Kirov, the Royal Ballet, and other companies. "So the network is there to do that."

And there's one more critical step Gielgud would like to take to enhance the depth of the dancers' skills. As anyone who has seen more than one story ballet in recent years knows, acting nuance has become a lost art in the story ballet. In younger dancers particularly, it's often hard to tell the difference between a given dancer's Albrecht (in "Giselle"), Siegfried (in "Swan Lake") and Pirate ("Le Corsaire"). Similarly, while the steps may be different, in many young dancers' acting, it's hard to tell the difference between Giselle and Juliet.

"One thing I particularly would like to enhance -- and that would be in any company I would take on at this point, having looked around ballet -- is the theatricality, the dramatic element. Audiences everywhere are asking for evening-length story ballets, which means they need to be well-staged, produced -- and the dancers need to be good actors. And I think that that is more and more lacking everywhere. So I've got ideas in relation to that, and in relation to the school as well, because it comes from training initially." She would like to bring in training in drama that, she says, would be tailored to the needs of dancers. "Stagecraft; style -- and start them at an earlier age."

Wherever she's directed, Gielgud has always been heavily invested in the company's school, understanding the critical relationship of the training there with the ability of the dancers later to execute in a variety of styles. While current Boston director Anne-Marie Holmes has tried to institute a Russian basis at the school and company, Gielgud's approach is more internationally varied.

"There's a tendency of dancers to think there's only one right way," she explained. "While there is a basic foundation, a school needs to have the best possible neutral training to permit the students to be chameleons in a way, to adapt to different choreographic styles."

Gielgud's international pedagogic bent reflects her own teachers, who include Rosella Hightower, Lubov Egorova, Olga Preobrajenska, Tamara Karsavina, and Stanislas Idzikovski. She also counts among her close advisors that grande dame of all ballet directors, Dame Ninette de Valois, the founder of the Royal Ballet.

In terms of her relation to the school, Gielgud says, she is still in discussions with the company over exactly what her role will be. "Quite clearly, you can't direct both a company and a school," she acknowledged. "However, both Boston Ballet and myself have the same feelings about it. I feel very strongly that I should have a major input, particularly into the professional, internship stream.

"Certainly, the school is an incredible institution. It is quite extraordinary what Bruce Marks has done for Boston and Boston Ballet with this school. It's extremely valuable in that way," both as an institution for training dancers, "making dancers realize that a career in dance is a possibility," and "educating all kinds of future audiences in ballet, and making them realize that Boston Ballet exists and presumably bringing them to performances. Few places in Europe that have anything like this."

The charismatic Marks was succeeded as Boston's director, after a long tenure, by Holmes, a dedicated Marks deputy who never quite emerged from her mentor's shadow when she was handed the reigns in 1997. Holmes will remain on as director until July, with Gielgud spending about 12 weeks in Boston this year before taking over full-time as director in July. She has a three-year contract.

While dance insiders say Holmes is beloved by many dancers and credit her with bringing a strong Russian base to Boston, her leadership skills have left much to be desired. After Boston dancer Heidi Gunther died in 1997 of problems suspected (but never proven) to be related to eating disorders, Holmes told one reporter that in telling Gunther to lose some weight, she had thought at the time, "Well, she was kind of chunky." Marks had to be brought in for spin control on the controversy.

Following Marks's departure, much of the authority in Boston shifted to general director and CEO Jeffrey Babcock, who is said to be interested in pushing the company away from the Russian base instituted by Holmes. Both Gielgud and Babcock, the new artistic director said, will report directly to the board, with Babcock responsible for the fiscal management and she for the artistic direction. Gielgud's unanimous selection, by a ten-member search committee that included Babcock and dancers Paul Thrussel and Jennifer Glaze, indicated the company is looking for a strong artistic director.

In Gielgud, Boston has found one of the strongest and most visionary ballet leaders around. The former London Festival Ballet, Bejart Ballet, Royal Ballet, and Roland Petit dancer is known as a fierce director with a "tough love" approach who is as loyal to her dancers as she is demanding of them, and who is not averse to casting younger dancers in leading roles ahead of veterans. She butted heads with the Australian media because of this, and eventually left that company after two stormy final years that galvanized much of Australia into pro- and anti- Gielgud camps. Today, Gielgud is fondly recalled and fiercely loved by many Australian Ballet dancers, her legacy appreciated by dancers and board alike.

At the Royal Danish Ballet, Gielgud's tenure was doomed by a theater bureaucracy unrivalled for its labyrinthine politics even in Europe, a powerful Union that flinched at her demands for a more rigorous rehearsal schedule, and a Danish media set against her because she wasn't Danish.

While Gielgud emphasizes that she had a great relationship with her executive directors in Australia, she acknowledged that because of some of her other past experience she was sure to ask the Boston search committee about the bureaucracy there.

"I was anxious to know the exact lines of authority, and it's quite clear that both the general manager and myself report directly to the board, which is at it should be. Jeffrey is fiscally responsible, and I don't have a problem with that -- that relationship is one that is vital to the health of an organization, and has a lot to do with an undefinable element of whether people get on and think along the same lines and understand each other's problems and challenges. Certainly what I'm feeling with Jeffrey is that we are very much on the same wavelength, and that he is most anxious to facilitate financially my artistic vision. And, obviously, as artistic director, one can't just have a glorious artistic vision and have no idea of what the costs are and the implications for the company."

Gielgud is also ready for the fundraising responsibilities that are more and more part of the responsibilities of the artistic director of any American company, and says she has been assured these will not interfere with her studio time.

She is eager to explore the differences between American and European companies. Talking to a protege, Australian Ballet dancer and current hot international choreographer Stanton Welch, she says, "Stanton is bowled over by the tremendous uninhibited enthusiasm and ambition of American dancers. In England and Australia, ambition as such is still such a dirty word."

As to what intrigued her about the Boston position particularly, Gielgud said it had to do "the general feeling and the wish for the company to really get to the highest standard on an international level, and the resources that appear to be available for that. Also, the fact that I could plan my own repertory from my first season, the fact that I could bring in a lot of my own team, and so many things that don't exist in other companies when one is taking on the directorship. And as the days go by, I'm discovering more positives, which seems unbelievable: Just in general the feeling around the place, and the enthusiasm of the board and management. There's been quite a large amount of new management over the last couple of years, from Jeffrey himself through to other key positions as well as a few who've been here a very long time. All these people strike me as being extremely professional in their field as well as enthusiastic."

As for what made the fiery Gielgud the obvious choice for Boston, it isn't hard to figure out. The company's ambitions are huge. Board chair Susan Friedman, who headed the search committee, called Gielgud's appointment "a significant opportunity for Boston Ballet. Her superb international reputation and impressive career as a performer and artistic leader make her the right choice for an organization whose sights are set on becoming one of the world's top ten ballet companies by 2010."

Added Babcock: "I am personally excited about the opportunity to partner with her in this transitional year, helping her learn more about the company and our acclaimed Center for Dance Education, and to support her vision for taking Boston Ballet to a new level of international excellence and recognition over the next several years."

By some observers' estimates, Boston is already considered one of the top five ballet companies in the U.S., trailing only New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, and Houston Ballet, and perhaps tied with Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, and Pacific Northwest Ballet. If it's going to vie for top ten in the world, it will face additional stiff competition from the Bolshoi Ballet, the Maryinsky/Kirov Ballet, Frankfurt Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theatre, Stuttgart Ballet, Royal Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, Australian Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, Stuttgart Ballet, Hamburg Ballet, Royal Birmingham Ballet, and, perhaps, Royal Danish Ballet.

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