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Maina Gielgud in 'The Exquisite Hour' at 63

by Jennifer Leake

September, 2008 -- Sydney

“The Exquisite Hour,” created by Maurice Bejart for two mature dancers, ran in Sydney, Australia for a brief season during August. Originally performed in French, in 1996, by Carla Fracci and Mischa van Hoeke, the version shown Down Under was  reworked by Bejart for Maina Gielgud and performed in English by her and partner, Paul de Masson, for the first time.

Gielgud, born 1945, showed that age knows no boundaries. For 60 minutes her expressive face, voice and still beautifully toned body mesmerized the audience. The equally mature de Masson framed the graceful Gielgud perfectly with his strong characterisation of a supportive partner.

Bejart drew his inspiration from Samuel Beckett’s play “Happy Days,” in which the two characters, Winnie and Willie, relay a dialogue full of clichés, and repetitive, nonsensical actions. Bejart’s Winnie (played by Gielgud), however, is an aging ballerina entrapped in her past. Willie (de Masson) is her devoted, idiosyncratic partner.

“The Exquisite Hour” begins with Gielgud buried up to her chest in a mountain of pointe shoes reminiscing about the ballets she has danced, while her solitary, self-absorbed partner, De Masson, is intent on hammering – like a shoemaker – and mumbling to himself.

When the sculpture engulfing Gielgud eventually splits in the middle to release her, she is seen standing on a pedestal clothed in an elegant, soft pink dress and long pink furry boots. This ridiculous image epitomises her character’s predicament: caught between the memories of her former life as a devoted ballerina and the ugliness of her life now, after dance.

Gielgud, who dons pointe shoes as if she has never discarded them, plucks items from her handbag – a mirror, perfume, a gun – and we are reminded of her despair, once preoccupied with the vanity and drama of performing and now, as an aging dancer bound by the limitations of her physical body. De Masson partners Gielgud through short variations, some hinting at the beautiful lines of the young ballerina, others angular, even awkward. The two dancers’ bodies meld perfectly together, their brief dialogues bouncing off each other are like a partnership that has endured decades. Their characters, Winnie and Willie, are both pathetic and beautiful.

To give such a poignant performance, Gielgud who started en pointe when she was just 6, is obviously still the perfectionist she was renowned in Australia during her 14 year reign at the Australian Ballet (beg.1983). Along with de Masson, who also boasts an accomplished resume as principle dancer/ ballet master/ actor, the two are hot on the tails of Tina Turner and Cher, proving that entering the ripe age of 60-something does not mean the end for quality performers.

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