NEW YORK — 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 company performed in this country was in 1976, when it traveled with Fonteyn in Ronald Hynd's "The Merry Widow."
As the 28-year-old troupe returns to the United States on a national tour that includes an Aug. 7-12 engagement at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, there will be no guest stars. Instead, the focus will be on the young talent that has been nurtured by Maina Gielgud, the company's artistic director since 1983--talent in which she has such confidence that she is fielding four casts of "Giselle," 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 1970s and early 1980s, directorial changes, financial instability and labor troubles that culminated in a dancers' strike created an unsettling environment in which many established company members 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 when she was 15.
She is a niece of Sir John Gielgud, the actor who early on tried to steer her away from her chosen career by telling her that ballet was "too much like hard work." She remained undaunted, studied with a variety of Russian teachers (she recalls being coached in mime by Diaghilev ballerina 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 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 July 23 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," she said, "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."
"Maina coincided with a whole new generation of dancers," notes company member Stephan 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 1980s, 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. 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.
"She 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 John 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 1940s and 1950s, became closely associated with the company, assisting van Praagh from 1965 on. Tudor choreographed "The Divine Horseman" for the company in 1969 and staged his "Pillar of Fire."