Mistress of the dance

Brisk, determined, passionate - the new director of the Royal Danish Ballet is Maina Gielgud, an English ex-ballerina with a 14-year record of success in Australia, and a notable pedigree. By John Percival
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The Independent Culture
The man who was meant to direct the Royal Danish Ballet through Copenhagen's year as European City of Culture was otherwise occupied last night, dancing with a group of former colleagues at the Harrogate Festival. Peter Schaufuss took office only last year and left abruptly a few months later, explaining that he had discovered he did not enjoy being a ballet director. That seemed a surprising decision from someone who had previously run two other large companies, English National Ballet and the Ballet of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin. Those in the know muttered about all sorts of other factors, among them that the Royal Danish Ballet has long been notoriously difficult to run, thanks to factions and union rules, and that tact was not the most obvious of Schaufuss's undoubted talents.

Wisely, the management of the Royal Theatre took its time in choosing a replacement, leaving Schaufuss's able and unflappable deputy, Johnny Eliasen, to mind the shop meanwhile. Even more wisely, they have now picked someone who does enjoy directing a ballet company, Maina Gielgud. She has, in fact, run another famously awkward squad, the Australian Ballet, with conspicuous success for the past 14 years. Her Australian contract runs out in December, and she had already been headhunted by the Berlin Staatsoper. But no agreement had yet been reached and the Danes jumped in quickly, offering her one of the most distinguished posts in European ballet. When they came to discuss details, only one point of disagreement arose. Asked to start on 1 January, Gielgud, although known as a workaholic, held out for March, saying: "This is the only time you will ever hear me speak these words, but I think I need a little break first."

So next spring the Danes will have English women directing two of their three national companies - Elaine Padmore has been opera director there since 1993. (Given the language factor, the drama company which also shares the Royal Theatre's two auditoriums and studio should be safe in Danish hands for the foreseeable future.) Padmore's job has been to build up the standards and prestige of what used to be a decent but minor opera company. Gielgud's task will be to ensure that the ballet maintains its place among the world's dozen or so top companies and to see that it continues to edge up a few places in that league.

There are at least two kinds of ballet director, each with many sub-divisions. Historically, companies used to be entrusted to a choreographer who was expected to provide the repertoire himself (they always were men until lately). He was, in effect, the boss, even if answerable to a theatre director appointed by the court. That system built the ascendancy of Paris and St Petersburg as 19th century ballet capitals. More recently, it allowed George Balanchine to create America's greatest company by his own unique genius. It still prevails in most German theatres, where Stuttgart, Hamburg, Wuppertal or Frankfurt have sprung to fame according to who was in charge. (A surprising number of them, incidentally, have been either British or American.)

But when Serge Diaghilev brought the Russian ballet to western Europe in 1909 he had to arrange the contracts and take final responsibility. Being someone of decided opinions and wide cultural background, he soon invented a new role for himself as the man who not only picked dancers, composers, choreographers and designers, but told them what to do and even how to do it. So, almost accidentally, the layman director was born.

When British ballet started in the 1930s, the two women primarily responsible had both worked for a time with Diaghilev. Ninette de Valois began the Vic-Wells (now Royal) Ballet with herself as chief choreographer and one of the leading dancers, but once she had others available to take over those functions she progessively handed them on, effectively changing herself from the old hands-on director to something nearer the Diaghilev model. Marie Rambert inclined that way from the start; although she had earlier done some dancing and some choreography, they were never what she was most famed for. Similarly, American Ballet Theatre began as a backroom boy's dream and has mostly continued on similar lines.

A present trend is to put ex-dancers in charge of ballet companies; that can cause artistic stagnation unless they have a greater knowledge of what is happening in the wide world than most leading dancers find time for during their careers. Luckily, Maina Gielgud is one of the exceptions, with broad experience and a passion for her subject. She comes from pedigree theatrical stock on both sides; her father's brothers were the actor Sir John and the director Val Gielgud; her mother was Hungary's leading actress.

She studied with the best ballet teachers and danced leading roles for Maurice Bejart and the Berlin Ballet among others before becoming a ballerina successively with London Festival Ballet and Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet. Guest appearances in many countries included both The Sleeping Beauty and Don Quixote with Nureyev. Her directing career began with a bit of private enterprise in the form of her own highly original show Steps, Note and Squeaks, giving the public an idea of ballet behind the scenes. That was enough of a hit to play the Royal Court and Old Vic during its international tours.

When Gielgud took over in Australia, the company was in a bad way following internal disputes and a dancers' strike. She made no radical changes in repertoire, where the preferred formula had always been a mixture of the standard classics, productions by international choreographers and a conscientious attempt to find local creative talent. Where her brisk, clear-sighted energy got results was in pulling up the standards of dancing right through the company.

From its earliest days, the Australian Ballet had toured abroad, but needed guest stars toattract audiences. Under Gielgud, the company itself became the attraction. With a keen eye for potential talent, Gielgud was unafraid to back her hunches. So instead of having to wait for seniority, gifted youngsters were given solo roles straight away. This made for more excitement all round. Some of the less secure principals jibbed, but the wiser ones noticed that they in turn were getting more opportunities of guest engagements elsewhere.

Nor were the dancers left to sink or swim. First-rate coaches, including some of the greatest stars of earlier generations, were brought to Australia, or young dancers were sent abroad to study with them and also to watch and take classes with the world's leading companies.

Gielgud set up an informal network of swapping dancers. She knew what was happening everywhere because she spent her holidays travelling to see for herself, and on her journeys she persuaded other directors to lend one of their dancers for a particular role, in exchange for someone comparable to dance with their company. The dancers received their normal salary plus expenses, so no inflated guest fees were involved, the companies gained from a new face suited to a particular role, while the dancers benefited from wider experience and a change of milieu.

A similar determination to make the most of local talent can be expected in Copenhagen. Gielgud studied the notorious union rulebook there before signing and commented: "It's no worse than in Australia. We can work with it, given goodwill." British directors had better look out: the competition is likely to be hotting up.