Go back to Flash Reviews
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."
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
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
back to Flash Reviews