Maina Gielgud on Staging "Giselle" at One of Portugal's Top Ballet Schools

October 7, 2020

Conservatório Internacional de Ballet e Dança Annarella Sanchez , located in the small city of Leiria, Portugal, has grown by leaps and bounds since its founding in 1998. Led by Cuban-born and -trained director Annarella Sanchez, the school has received international recognition for its training. Former students have gone on to join major companies, while current ones—notably 17-year-old António Casalinho and 15-year-old Margarita Fernandes—have won top awards at Youth America Grand Prix and other international competitions.

Sanchez frequently brings in guest teachers, among the most respected of whom is former Australian Ballet artistic director Maina Gielgud. This summer, as the students adjusted to COVID-19 precautions, Gielgud staged her full-length Giselle on the conservatory. (The September 20 performance, which starred Fernandes and Casalinho as Giselle and Albrecht, is now available on YouTube.)

Pointe interviewed Gielgud (who will be teaching in Leiria through December) by email to talk about what it’s like to stage a full-length Giselle at this exceptional school.

What aspect of the Conservatorio Internacional de Ballet e Dança Annarella Sanchez caught you by surprise?

I went for the first time in January 2019. I expected very talented students, having seen a few at Youth America Grand Prix and on social media. But I was not aware of the wonderful work ethic instilled in every dancer. Their stamina and determination is amazing. They never mark in rehearsal, even when performing such demanding roles as Giselle and Albrecht. During a first run-through of the principals, António Casalinho breezed through the second act, managing to convey only by his acting that he was tiring!

The Cuban school constitutes the basis of the academy’s classical technique, so the technical standard is very high. Because of this, there are no limits to suggestions, criticisms and challenges of style, musicality, polish and artistry that one can ask of the dancers, since they are without fear. The joy comes in seeing results of a correction or a suggestion—the very next day—and it is hardly ever necessary to repeat the same one.

What accounts for the outsized results that this relatively small school in a small Portuguese hamlet is getting?

One reason is that only students who really want to dance study there. The school is slightly outside Leiria—with only two supermarkets, a couple of restaurants and a pharmacy nearby—but it has seven excellent studios in an unlikely-looking building. There is a lovely feeling of camaraderie and appreciation for one another’s achievements, whether winning a competition or achieving a new technical feat, or, as with Giselle rehearsals, noticing and appreciating newly discovered acting skills in each other.

Another important factor is that Annarella tells it as she sees it, with the students and their parents. Students told me her belief is that to make a professional dancer—besides having talent, desire and the best teachers from early on—it is imperative that parents understand the demands of the profession and what they must do to support their child throughout.

How do you work with young dancers to elicit a mature and layered emotional response, while ensuring that they remain true to time-honored technique and style?

It is important that they know the history of the work and its best exponents by watching videos (the right ones). As with professional dancers, I workshop with them and change details within the framework that I feel suits them best. It is a pleasure to find with students dancing solo and principal roles that it is possible to discuss how to make the action logical and legible to an audience. This I have found only rarely with professionals, when they are not stuck in their ways. David Hallberg was a wonderful example of being totally open—asking for and suggesting ideas—when we worked on my Giselle with The Australian Ballet in 2018.

One reason why this kind of workshopping doesn’t often happen with a professional company is that there is insufficient rehearsal time. Annarella’s students learn to be really quick, because she often surprises them with a last-minute performance or competition, with little time to prepare. This equips them well for when they join a company—the experience of being “thrown in,” but also of being coached in detail by a variety of top coaches.

What was most challenging about staging this full-length classic?

The greatest challenge was for the peasant corps de ballet to know how to stand, improvise and participate actively in the right amount at any given time. Giselle has a great deal of non-choreographed segments, essential to getting the story across and creating the right atmosphere. It was a question of making the students aware of their placing onstage and of how much or little to react, so as not to upstage the principals, but rather enhance the storytelling overall. A few students cast as Wilis had only just joined the school, so they had to learn how to be an ensemble and stay in line while still dancing full-out.

In Act II, what makes for a good Myrtha?

Technically it is ideal to have a superb jump, good bourrées and strong adagio (for the arabesques penchés in the beginning). Artistically, the dancer has to hold the stage and emanate power. Some are very aloof and cold; others can be clearly out for revenge.

In July they performed only Act II, and Matilde Rodrigues danced the role. Her onstage personality and height made her a born Myrtha. She has since joined Birmingham Royal Ballet. In September, a student named Margarida Gonçalves performed the role. I felt her line, jump, bourrées and technique in general would work well. She’s not a natural Myrtha—she worked hard on her interpretation, which grew stronger at each rehearsal.

Did any aspect of the production cause you to worry?

My only worries were costuming, and props and accessories. There was no budget, so it became a matter of finding and making do. Families helped: Hilarion’s father made the cottage doors, Myrtha’s mother painted them. A bench was found last minute in a Chinese-owned shop ’round the corner, which seems to sell everything under the sun, relatively cheaply.

We needed a mock duck or pheasant for Hilarion to bring Berthe. A real one was deep-frozen and brought out the day of performance, feathers and all (but gutted). Berthe’s face, as Hilarion presented it to her at the dress rehearsal, was a picture—but she masked it well in performance.

The costumes for the Hunting Party, the Duke and Bathilde arrived thanks to the kindness of presenters of a medieval festival in Leiria. Skirts and bodices from [the school’s performances of] La Sylphide were refitted for Giselle, but some had to be remade. In an ideal world, I know Annarella would love to get sponsorship so that there could be a designer for a set and costumes.

As Antonion Casalinho, wearing a purple jacket and tights, lies crumpled on the floor, Margarita Fernandes kneels down and holds his left hand to her cheek.

Fernandes and Casalinho in one of the final scenes of Giselle

Tomé Gonçalves, Courtesy Conservatorio Internacional de Ballet e Dança Annarella Sanchez

How did you manage COVID-19 precautions and social-distancing guidelines?

Masks were worn in the studio corridors, and when not actually doing class or rehearsing. In the theater, they took everyone’s temperature on arrival at the stage door. Everyone wore masks backstage, but not onstage once rehearsing.

It was a live performance with socially distanced seating, and the audience wore masks. It was also streamed live.

What is the secret to emerging as a diamond in the rough, whether in good times or bad?

Perseverance, creativity and total belief in the art form—a perfect description of Annarella and how she has built up her academy to where it is now. I have no doubt she will continue on from where it is. A junior company is obviously the next step. As Balanchine said, “but first, a school”—soon, an affiliated company must arise.