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The Up-and-Coming Ballet Down Under : Maina Gielgud, artistic director of the Australian Ballet, has nurtured her brood of dancers with pride and a strong hand

During the 1970s, the Australian Ballet was known to Americans as a mostly anonymous ensemble dancing behind such big-name stars as Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. In fact, the last time the 28-year-old company performed in this country was in 1976, when it traveled with Fonteyn in Ronald Hynd’s “The Merry Widow.”

When it returns this week to the Orange County Performing Arts Center, there will be no guest stars. Instead, the focus will be on the young talent nurtured by Maina Gielgud, the company’s artistic director since 1983--talent in which she has such confidence that four different casts of “Giselle” will be fielded; talent that has scored successes during recent tours to such discriminating ballet capitals as Moscow and London.

Gielgud inherited an established venture, but events leading up to her arrival created a situation in which she was rebuilding almost from scratch. During the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, directorial changes, financial instability and labor troubles that culminated in a dancers’ strike created an unsettling environment in which many of the more established company members either retired or departed.

The Australian Ballet found the strong directorial hand it needed in Gielgud, a British-born ballerina who had recently stopped performing after an extensive and varied career that began at age 15. She is the niece of actor Sir John Gielgud, who early on tried to steer her away from ballet by telling her that it was “too much like hard work.”

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She remained undaunted, studied with a variety of Russian teachers (she recalls being coached in mime by Tamara Karsavina), and began an international career that included stints with the companies of Roland Petit, the Marquis de Cuevas and Rosela Hightower. After four years with Maurice Bejart, she returned to a more classical repertory with London Festival Ballet (now the English National Ballet), where she was a principal dancer from 1972 to 1975.

The predilection for hard work that Gielgud demonstrated by ignoring her uncle’s warning has remained with her, and she has earned a reputation as an extremely dedicated, energetic and demanding artistic director who is deeply involved in all aspects of her company.

During an interview in her New York hotel room (the current tour began with a week at the Metropolitan Opera House and continued with a week at the Kennedy Center), Gielgud described the situation she inherited in 1983. “There had been a succession of artistic directors, and there had been problems between the administration and the artistic direction--they weren’t working as a team. Six months after I arrived, the then-deputy administrator, Noel Pelly, was named administrator, and we’ve had a really excellent relationship. It’s important to have the two areas working towards the same aims, understanding each other’s problems.

“A lot of dancers had left the year before I came, and I inherited a company of, for the most part, very young dancers. So it’s really been a developmental process for these dancers, and over four or five years, they rushed through the ranks.”

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“Maina coincided with a whole new generation of dancers,” notes company member Stephen Baynes, whose ballet “Catalyst” will be on the opening-night program, preceding “Giselle.” He joined the Australian Ballet in 1976, went to the Stuttgart Ballet during the early ‘80s, and returned in 1985 when good reports of Gielgud’s invigorating influence on the troupe reached him.

“She really had the job of building it up from scratch, but there were good foundations there,” Baynes said. “The school was very well established by then, so she could draw on it for new dancers.”

The school, founded in 1964, two years after Peggy van Praagh founded the Australian Ballet, holds auditions throughout the country and provides up to 85% of the company’s dancers, Gielgud estimates. The company and school share a new facility in Melbourne.

Van Praagh, a British dancer who originated roles in several Antony Tudor masterworks during the 1930s and later danced with the Sadlers Wells Ballet, came to Australia at the recommendation of Sadlers Wells founder Ninette de Valois.

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"(Van Praagh) gave the company a very solid foundation as far as repertoire is concerned, and she was also an excellent teacher,” Gielgud says. “She brought the big classical productions (Nureyev’s “Don Quixote,” her own “Giselle” and “Coppelia”), several full-length Cranko ballets and one-act works by Ashton, Balanchine, Robbins and others.”

Robert Helpmann, the Australian-born dancer who achieved great fame with the Royal Ballet in the ‘40s and ‘50s, became closely associated with the company, assisting Van Praagh from 1965 on. Tudor choreographed “The Divine Horseman” and staged his “Pillar of Fire” for the company in 1969.

Gielgud has added her own productions of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Giselle” to the repertoire, as well as Cranko’s “Taming of the Shrew,” Tetley’s “Voluntaries” and some Kylian works. New productions scheduled for the coming year include Balanchine’s “Apollo,” Nijinska’s “Les Biches” and Tudor’s “The Leaves Are Fading” and “Gala Performance.”

“I’ve tried to bring the ballets that I thought would suit the dancers--develop them and show them off,” Gielgud explains. “I’ve kept the balance between contemporary and classical, continued bringing in the best works being done for other companies while also having works created on the company. That side of things is growing now, because I think the dancers have a solid enough foundation.”

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She reintroduced a choreographic workshop project that had fallen by the wayside, and it is through these workshops that Baynes’ abilities became evident. After several works choreographed under workshop auspices, “Catalyst,” which is set to Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos, is his first commissioned work. It premiered last May and is receiving its American premiere in Costa Mesa.

“Poulenc’s music is very colorful and vibrant. I’ve known the Concerto for a long time and always wanted to choreograph it,” the lanky, thoughtful Baynes remarked backstage at the Met between rehearsals. As a coryphee with the company (the 60 dancers are divided into a hierarchy of six ranks), he is performing in most of the tour repertory while also preparing his own ballet.

On the podium conducting both “Catalyst” and “Giselle” will be someone whom longtime balletgoers will find familiar: John Lanchbery, who was ABT’s music director in the late 1970s and is now the Australian Ballet’s principal guest conductor.

“Catalyst” joins Gielgud’s “Giselle” on the first program; the second program is a triple bill made up of Serge Lifar’s “Suite en blanc”, a rarely seen 1943 work created for the Paris Opera Ballet; Kylian’s “Return to the Strange Land,” an elegiac series of pas de trois and pas de deux set to Janacek piano pieces (the Joffrey performed it starting in the early ‘80s); and David Lichine’s “Graduation Ball,” a frothy 1940s bonbon in which cadets and young girls (some naughty, some nice) join forces under the watchful eye of a comic headmistress.

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The “Giselle” production, first staged in 1986, aims to be a traditional one, emphasizing the Romantic style. Subtle but significant dramatic details are included in the first act, which, in Peter Farmer’s design, features a palette of autumnal browns, yellows, oranges and golds. The second act’s wilis are an especially haunting, fierce band of betrayed maidens, entering eerily from the furthest upstage reaches.

Gielgud was eager to revive “Suite en blanc,” which Lifar first set on the Australian Ballet before Gielgud arrived. “It’s a very good display piece for the company, she says.”

The series of solos, pas de trois and pas de deux are framed by an ensemble architecturally arranged on two staircases and a raised platform and are set to music by Edouard Lalo.

“It’s a ballet that I know extremely well because I danced it from my teens on,” Gielgud notes. “I’ve done almost every soloist and principal role in it and worked with Lifar on it. I found that it suits the company extremely well. It displays their virtuosity and their understanding of neoclassical style.”

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Despite the gentle, somewhat reserved tones in which she speaks, Gielgud’s pride and confidence in her dancers are evident. So is her determination to make Australian dancers, who have tended to retire by 30, pursue longer careers.

“Dancing is regarded in Australia as something you do in your 20s,” she says regretfully. “Then you go on to a ‘proper career.’ I think they miss out on their years of maturity; they’re not fulfilling their potential. Also, the younger dancers don’t have role models.”

She hopes she can create a working environment where this trend will change, and dancers will perform for longer stretches. The youthful Australian Ballet has principal dancers nearly all of whom are between 25 and 28 years old.

“So I won’t know for five or 10 years if I’ve been successful,” Gielgud says with a slight laugh. “We’ll see what happens.”

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