In the world of ballet, as in other fields, famous names can sometimes prove a double-edged sword. For Maina Gielgud -- niece of the distinguished actor Sir John Gielgud -- having a famous name has been both an advantage and, to an extent, a stumbling block. Having chosen a career in dance, she had to establish her artistic credentials, so to speak, in spite of her name, on her own talent and other powers.
Gielgud has been eminently successful in meeting the challenge. After a thriving, varied international career as a ballet dancer, she assumed the artistic directorship of the Australian Ballet in 1983, and has been leading the company to worldwide laurels ever since. This week the troupe returns to the Kennedy Center Opera House -- where it begins a week-long engagement Tuesday evening -- for the first time in 14 years, and for the first time ever under Gielgud's aegis.
In one of those curious twists of history, she now finds herself facing a similar challenge in the case of the company she directs. When the Australian Ballet last appeared in this country in 1976, it was largely as glorified window dressing for the star appearance of guest artist Margot Fonteyn, in Ronald Hynd's ballet version of "The Merry Widow." And on its previous U.S. tour in 1970-71, the main attraction had been guest artist Rudolf Nureyev, appearing in his own production of "Don Quixote."
Gielgud, however, has been determined to achieve for the Australian Ballet what she had so ably done for herself -- to let the company shine on its own merits and those of its mostly young, mostly Australian dancers.
Hence, on the current tour -- which began last week in New York and will continue after Washington in Costa Mesa, Calif. -- there are no guest stars, and indeed, no dancers with names familiar to American audiences. Yet such is the strength of the troupe's present complement of 65 that Gielgud feels confident in presenting a different cadre of principal artists for each of the seven Opera House performances: three different Giselles and three Albrechts in the first part of the week, which couples Gielgud's production of "Giselle" with Serge Lifar's "Suite en Blanc"; and four lead casts in Laszlo Seregi's full-length "Spartacus," no two of them identical.
Speaking about her career on a visit to Washington last January, Gielgud referred to her illustrious uncle.
"He didn't really have any direct role in my career," she noted, "but I'm not sure there isn't something in the blood. He is very much a lover of ballet, and in the years I was performing with various companies in England, he often came to see me dance."
Sir John wasn't the only familial link with stage arts. Maina's great-great aunt was Ellen Terry, and her mother is the Hungarian actress Zita Gordon. Perhaps this helps to explain her lifelong penchant for dramatic roles in ballet. "I always especially enjoyed roles that had a lot of acting in them," she said. "I loved dancing 'Swan Lake' and the other classics, but I think my favorite part was Juliet in John Cranko's 'Romeo and Juliet,' even though I only danced the ballet five times."
Theatrical genes may also account for Gielgud's strong interest in the cultivation of refined gestural mime in such classics as "Giselle." "I think mime is very beautiful in itself, apart from dancing," she said, "and I think it's sad more attention isn't paid to it in our ballet schools. It's hard for today's dancers to have any real understanding of or sympathy for mime unless it's taught to them when they're young, as a fundamental part of their technique, and not something added on to dancing, like a frill. I was very fortunate as a youngster to have been able to take mime classes, when I was 9, with Tamara Karsavina."
Karsavina was by no means the only ballet legend to impinge beneficially upon Gielgud's dance upbringing. Born in England in the mid-'40s, Gielgud was raised largely in France, where she encountered some of the most renowned ballet pedagogues of the era.
"I was very lucky in the first teachers I had. I studied with Olga Preobrajenska in Paris, who was in her nineties at the time. In Cannes and Nice, I had classes with Julie Sedova, who had danced at St. Petersburg's great Maryinsky Theater. Later, in Paris again, I had four years with Lubov Egorova." Gielgud also knew Anton Dolin from her childhood days, and in the course of her later development studied as well with Stanislas Idzikowsky, Victor Gsovsky and Rosella Hightower.
Her first professional dancing was with Roland Petit's company when she was 16, "a valuable lesson in showmanship," she says. Afterward she danced with the Marquis de Cuevas troupe in Monte Carlo, then the Ballet Classique de France, and next Maurice Bejart's Ballet of the 20th Century.
It was while she was with Bejart that she received a call from Nureyev. "Nureyev was doing his production of 'Sleeping Beauty' in Barcelona, but his lead ballerina, Noella Pontois, became ill. He knew my dancing, and said he needed me desperately. Though I had learned the role's solos with Egorova, I had never thus far danced Aurora, but I went ahead and did it with just two rehearsals, and it turned out a big success. So it was really Nureyev who brought me back to the classics."
She joined the London Festival Ballet as a principal artist in 1972, dancing most of the standard classical and modern roles in her three years with that company. In 1977, she became a member of the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet and subsequently, as a freelancer, performed with companies in Hungary, France, Germany, the United States and Australia. A year after her retirement from dancing in 1982, she was invited to take over the reins of directorship at the Australian Ballet, which she has since led on tours to Japan, China, the Soviet Union, Greece, Thailand, Taiwan and Singapore.
The version of "Giselle" the company will present at the Kennedy Center is a production Gielgud mounted for her company originally in 1986. "I thought it was important for the Australian Ballet to have a very traditional version of 'Giselle.' I had seen a number of the century's great interpreters of Giselle, and I felt I had an instinct for the romantic style. I've tried to keep the production as stylistically traditional as possible. While I do encourage individual dancers to bring their own personality into play, I have emphasized most strongly the importance of conveying the story clearly."
Gielgud is particularly proud of the fact that two of her principals -- Lisa Pavane and Greg Horsman, who are husband and wife -- were coached for three weeks in their roles as Giselle and Albrecht by the great Galina Ulanova when the Russian ballerina came to Australia several years ago. Pavane and Horsman thereafter danced "Giselle" as guest artists with the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad last year.
When, some years ago, Gielgud was dancing in Budapest, she saw a production of "Spartacus" that had been staged by Seregi, the chief choreographer for the Hungarian State Ballet, and was deeply impressed. Seregi later mounted it for the Australian Ballet in 1978. Though Seregi's version uses the same Aram Khachaturian score employed by Yuri Grigorovich for his better-known Soviet production (for the Bolshoi Ballet in 1968), it is, says Gielgud, "both shorter and more concise than the Russian version, and it is a particularly strong showcase for our male dancers."
"Suite en Blanc," which serves as a curtain-raiser for "Giselle" during the Australian troupe's run, is a neoclassic abstraction that Gielgud says "makes a wonderful display piece for our whole company." It was choreographed originally for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1943, to music from Edouard Lalo's "Namouna," and was subsequently produced by a number of other troupes. Lifar himself staged it for the Australian company in 1981 (he died in 1986).
It's a work Gielgud knows intimately. "I had worked with Lifar in Paris, and 'Suite en Blanc' was one of the first ballets I danced. As it turned out, I ended up doing virtually every principal female role in it."
Though unfamiliar in this country, the work has long enjoyed a high reputation abroad. A British survey of ballet published two years after the premiere of "Suite en Blanc" characterized it this way:
"Lifar's most exciting quality as a choreographer has always been an heroic boldness... . 'Suite en Blanc' preserves some of the finest of his inventions; it bears all the hallmarks of the Lifarian style: dancers working in parallel formation; feet placed in Lifar's own invented sixth and seventh positions; sharply held bodies; brilliant use of beaten steps. All this gives a very fair view of a notable and influential figure in the ballet of our time."