WHEN MAINA Gielgud took on the directorship of the Australian Ballet back in 1983, the company prognosis was not good. The troupe had been without an artistic leader for a year, gone on strike and sunk into a financial abyss.

Despite Gielgud's impressive theatrical lineage -- her great-great-aunt was the celebrated actress Ellen Terry, her mother the Hungarian actress Zita Gordon and her uncle Sir John Gielgud -- and a career spent dancing with the companies of Roland Petit, Maurice Bejart and the London Festival Ballet, she had virtually no administrative experience to speak of. And the fact that she is English and a workaholic did not initially endear Gielgud to a group of laid-back Aussie dancers.

Yet today, the 65-member troupe is thriving. Whereas once they provided backup for guest stars like Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, they've now got their own young leading lights. They've benefited immensely from the coaching of luminaries such as the great Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova, and their repertoire includes widely praised stagings of the classics, plus more contemporary offerings by both homegrown and foreign artists.

Having spent the earlier part of this week performing "Giselle" and Serge Lifar's "Suite en Blanc," Gielgud's company switches gears Friday, launching into the first of four performances of the full-length story ballet "Spartacus." Set to Aram Khatchaturian's meaty score, Hungarian choreographer Laszlo Seregi's version of the well-known tale of the heroic slave who leads a revolt against oppressors in ancient Rome promises to be a fine showcase for both ultra-dramatic dancing and male musculature.