Auguste Vestris


An interview with Maina Gielgud

Recollection on days with Olga Preabajenskaya, Tamara Karsavina, Liubov Egorova, Victor Gsovsky

Former head of the Australian Ballet, and the Royal Danish Ballet.

The interview was conducted in London, July 18th 2002, by Giulia Menicucci and Katharine Kanter.

Originally published on

Q/   You studied with the 20th Century's greatest teachers, from the age of 8 onwards. How did your parents know so much ?

A/   Well, my father, Lewis Gielgud, and my stepfather Nigel Sutton too, loved the ballet and had been tremendous fans of the Diaghilev Ballet - not to speak of my mother, who is an actress but would have liked to have become a dancer - and they made sure that I got the best teaching.

Olga Preobajenskaya

Q/   The great Maryinski ballerina Olga Preobajenskaya was one of your first teachers. She taught in Paris for almost forty years. What do you recall of her ?

A/   Preo as we called her, was very tiny and hunchbacked.

Despite that obstacle, she had worked her way through to the top at the Mariyinski Theatre. I still remember Nikolai her assistant (who took the money for classes !), at the Studio Wacker in Paris. I would go on Saturdays.

She had one open class a day for professionals. There was a hierarchy of who stood where. I was eight years old, and stood at the back ! All the greats of the time went there. She was quite fierce, as were most of the Russians. She would get hold of you from the back, and shake you. She was about 86 I believe. Nobody ever misunderstood her though, as she was only ferocious in order to get you to react !

Sadly, I don't remember her exercises. I remember her showing port de bras. She gave épaulement in the class, but not at the barre, there was none of the later épaulements from the Vaganova barre. Barre was no more than thirty minutes long. It was just a "get onto your legs" barre. It was for placement and warming up, then you were ready to dance.

Preobajenskaya had very dark and piercing eyes, and would jump up on a chair to see everyone in the class, because she was so small. She always wore a brown pinafore and some sort of blouse underneath, and soft black leather slippers, with I think ribbons tied like pointe shoe ribbons. There were possibly one or two other children there too (Russians only I think !), but it was really only meant to be a class for professional dancers.

Tamara Karsavina

Q/   You were incredibly lucky to have known Tamara Karsavina as well.

A/   I used to go to her mime class once a week in London, and to her regular class as well, at the Kathleen Crofton studio. Kathleen had been dancer in Pavlova's company. This must have been in 1955, when I was about ten years old. I still remember her teaching the Lise "when I am married" mime scene from La Fille Mal Gardée. Ashton put that in his ballet. She had a deep manly voice. She was statuesque, and very intelligent, and had beautiful hands and carriage in general. As with Preo, she always used a great deal of imagery to make the movement come to life. Many images, which I think are so vital for dance to be more than athleticism.

There was no anatomical talk, although correct placement was very important to her. I remember the actual dance classes even less than Preo's though.

She always used standard ballet pianists, and standard ballet music. Her musicality was very evident in the way she indicated enchainements. There was no use of recordings. No tapes.

Phrasing today is very different from what was then. It now seems to have got flattened out, with a different emphasis on what one now calls technique. The element of surprise, of the unexpected, has gone.

Today, we may know more about different types of jumps, but there seems to be little use of the variety. Perhaps because teachers do not use the different possibilities within their classes, they tend to use only one way as their method. The way you jump affects the phrasing. For example, a quick take-off, the way Balanchine does it, will put the accent in the air and make the jump look light and easy. The Russians will emphasise the depth of the demi plie and take much longer before pushing off - which in turn usually helps shows how difficult the jump is.

In relation to phrasing, I can always remember how, for example, Markova, Alonso and Rosella Hightower, or Nina Vyroubova in another way, would sustain "living" positions on pointe (I mean not dead balances), which made it look as though time was suspended. One had simply no idea of what was going to come next. The unexpected.

I thought of that recently looking at film footage of Markova.

Anyway, I worked with Karsavina in London for nine or ten months. She then became ill, and my stepfather died. Karsavina said I should go to study with the Russians in Paris.

I actually first worked for about a year with Julie Sedova in Cannes, but she was too old to continue. Upon which, I returned to Paris and worked with Liubov Egorova for four years. I was about twelve and a half.

Liubov Egorova

The professional class would begin, I think, at around 10.30 or 11 o'clock in the morning, in the rue de la Rochefoucauld, in the house of Prince Trubetskoi, her husband. Unusually for that time in Paris (or indeed London or New York), there were no pillars in the ballet room, although it was quite small. Madame Marie was Egorova's Russian pianist, and she was always there. We were about fifteen students, mostly regulars, but there were also POB people, notably Claude Bessy, Ethery Pagava, or Wilfried Piollet. And there were some wonderful dancers who never seemed to get into a company, one girl I remember called Jacqueline, who had red curly hair, and a Mother !

Egorova used to make us do grande pirouette every day, always after the adage - hops in second, and from there, turns in second, attitude and pulling in. Many of the girls did these on pointe, and no-one there had any difficulty with any type of pirouette ! But the beautiful redhead could do FIVE in all positions. Egorova's barre was simple, well built up rhythmically, and it was very similar from one class to another. It was very much pre-Vaganova, no shifting around. Now one might as well be a centipede !

With Egorova, we just stood on one leg, then turned around and did the exercise on the other. She also did not spend time teaching enchaînements at the barre. We kept the arm à la seconde at all times, there were few if any ports de bras at the barre.

Egorova never got up from her chair, save for to show the adagio. It was always long and very beautiful. She would let Madame Marie play, and then she would choreograph to that. It always finished in a pose, very stylised. No straight lines, one used all the available space, with temps lié, and of course, there was épaulement in every step.

Egorova was very gentle. She never shouted or screamed, and never touched people. She wore a blue serge suit, with thick brown stockings, she had a bunion, and wore black character shoes. She always had on immaculate white gloves, as she had a skin problem. Her silver hair, that still had some brown in it, was parted and done up into a bun. Fine, very beautiful papery skin, and she wore some foundation.

It was after the adage that she would give grande pirouette. Then we would make a little circle round her, and she would show the enchaînements. But she proceeded differently for the allegro work in the centre than she had done with the adage. She would first show the steps with her hands, and then tell Madame Marie to play. There were only one or two exercises after the grand pirouette before we jumped. There was a definite build-up before getting to the batterie.

She'd choreograph simple jump enchaînements first, different ones every day. I don't remember her giving separate exercises for the men. And she would give a manège in most classes, a great help, as otherwise it can so often become a hurdle when you've got to do it on stage. And fouettés. And always grand battement at the very end. I'd bring my poodle to class, and he'd recognise the tune, and get up when grand battement started, because he knew it was nearly time to go.

Once or twice a week, in the afternoon, I'd take private classes to learn repertoire with Egorova. From The Sleeping Beauty, she taught me both Aurora solos, 1st and 3rd act, as well as the Fairy solos from the Prologue, also the White Swan solo and Les Sylphides. I shared some of those private classes with Wilfried Piollet. From what I remember, the versions of The Sleeping Beauty variations I learnt with Egorova, were very similar to the Sergeev version which he had notated, and then brought out of Russia with him, and later taught in England.

In terms of musicality and emphasis, one major difference between teaching in my childhood and adolescence, and the present, is that there is far more emphasis on making the preparatory steps beautiful in themselves, so glissade and pas de bourrée often take on equal value to the step they are preparing for, both visually and rythmically. I remember the sense of the enchainement being much more clearly presented - what you wanted the public to see, and the dynamic of the movement. A kind of stagecraft, and I think that this permitted dancers to draw away attention from their weaker points quite often too, while bringing out their strengths.

Then there was the way you presented the choreography, the character. How you walked onto the stage. How to marry that entrance with the dance, and not have it look separate.

Egorova was very positive, very constructive, and encouraging. She always called us "ma petite". She had no chip on her shoulder !

Q/   Did you ever get bored ?

A/   NEVER ! Those classes, and studying those roles could not be boring. Egorova had known Petipa ! She had such respect and love for dance, and for the roles. It never seemed to me that the purpose was to execute the steps perfectly. I can't remember any of those Russian people saying that you use steps with which to create characters, tell a story - it was obvious.

There was not the same pernickety thing as today, when one can almost see the dancers on stage thinking: "I'm going to get into such trouble if I'm not in perfect fifth". I suppose one got less feedback after performances, but when one got it, it related more to the performing aspect - in the next rehearsal one could talk about sorting out the technical glitches.

Victor Gsovsky

I also began to study with Victor Gsovsky, who had been married to Madame Rausanne, when I was about fifteen. He had one blind eye. He wore big floppy trousers and sandals, even in winter. His teaching had a huge dynamic, he screamed and shouted - that showed he cared - thought you were good - and could be loads better. It really helped, and was so exciting ! Put you up on your mettle ! It's what you need, as long as there's knowledge and good will behind it !

Gsovsky gave great importance to the arms, the head, épaulement, and of course, images (some outrageous ones too !).

One of his specialties was the small jump enchainement - he'd have us repeat the same exercise three times. The first time very slow, rolling carefully down through the foot and barely off the floor, the second faster with a true jump, and the third time, fast and beaten .

I also studied with Paul Goubé, a fine teacher who had been a pupil of Gustave Ricaux. Epaulement was little ultilised in his classes though.

Preobrajenskaya, Karsavina and Egorova all used the head expressively. It was a very individual use of the neck too, and beautiful, and one tried to emulate their dancing of the upper body. I should stress that the use of the arms and hands was without any chichi - very pure. Karsavina was very aware of placement. Squareness in terms of hips and shoulders was a requisite.

We did not use excerpts from ballets in class, nor do I in fact recall a great deal of playing about with rhythm. There was a build-up to speed. All the Russians - although I don't remember with Egorova so much - wanted a really tight fifth position. It was my struggle because I wasn't especially turned out. Preo did insist on that, and later so did Anton Dolin, who came from the same stable, but of Astafieva and Cecchetti mainly.

All insisted on the heels going down, and the use of maximum demi plié. And there was much use of ecarté and effacé, and a lot of steps, like gargouillade and révoltade, that one very rarely sees now. Nor were they so finicky about all the little preparatory steps, which today, take up so much effort and energy.

Q/   Was it drudgery ?

A/   I could not wait to get into class. It was so much fun ! But the classes were hard. At the barre, you did not stop in-between at all, you simply breathed and turned around. By the time you got into the centre, you were pulled up without thinking too much about it. In the centre, the enchaînements were hard, and would flummox many a professional nowadays.

For example, we would have virtually entire enchainements on demi-pointe. Let me stress that difficult is not the same thing as complicated. The enchaînements they would give seemed very physically logical, it was the way the body felt like going.

Q/   The POB is renowned for technique, but one cannot fail to notice that by the age of 35 or so, there is a feeling of exhaustion, and even a breakdown in technique.

A/   Perhaps one of the reasons dancers today are so worn out, so exhausted early on, is the fact that the same physical energy and physical "perfectionism" is going into everything, everything has to be so tight, so perfect, every tendu with as much thought and energy as though it were the first day of your dancing life, instead of knowing when one can relax and breathe - and be.

If while on stage, one never thinks one is good enough, that in itself leads to tension. Instead of having confidence in the enormous amount of preparatory work one has done, in the way that has been mapped out by countless generations of teachers and dancers, and just use it and focus on interpretation.

There is a huge other side of the profession to work on besides the technique - and if you wait to be "perfect" you never get there in a lifetime, let alone a dancer's lifetime ! It is to find ways to communicate with the audience, and ways to find inspiration night after night, to keep performances alive and meaningful.

Then tiredness is besides the point....