Queen of the Wilis: A Conversation with Ai-Gul Gaisina

Guest Writer: Nao Kusuzaki, Soloist

White romantic tutus fill the studios at Houston Ballet Center for Dance, where the company and Houston Ballet II intensely prepare for Ai-Gul Gaisina’s staging of Giselle.

“more body forward.  The style is very, very important”, “Focus outward and downward”, Ai-Gul and Louise Lester instruct during one of the latest Wili rehearsals. Demanding yet warm, they are like our real life Queens of Wilis: checking each dancer’s slightest angling of the head, where the finger falls, the placement of the feet, how high the arabesque…  At this point, it’s all about details and about creating the atmosphere in Act II.

It’s been seven weeks since Ai-Gul’s arrival, and after a long day of coaching and rehearsals, I catch her for a conversation on Giselle, and to get to know just a bit more about her.

Artists of Houston Ballet Photo: Amitava Sarkar
Artists of Houston Ballet Photo: Amitava Sarkar


Do you have a special memory of Giselle?

When I was a student of Kirov ballet school, we were allowed to go see the performances without tickets, and we would sit with the gods, on the steps in balcony section. We never had seats.

I was 10 years old when I saw Giselle for the first time from there. Irina Kolpakova was Giselle.  For me, it was profoundly, deeply impressive.

My pink world of ballet–pink ballet shoes, pink tutus– started to disappear. I realized that ballet is a drama and a story as well.

It’s a complicated story to understand at that age, but because it was told and danced so beautifully, I could comprehend, and shed tears at the end.

And I remember, the second act was impressive, especially the work of the corps de ballet. Back in the 50’s, corps work of Kirov ballet was an absolute gem.

Giselle was first performed in 1841, and is one of the oldest ballet in the romantic style. Why do you think Giselle has survived for so long and it’s a favorite for so many? 

La Sylphide was the first romantic ballet and featured the famous ballerina, Marie Taglioni. Giselle has survived to this day because Giselle’s got everything required in a ballet. It gives dancers, not just Giselle and Albrecht, opportunities to express artistic qualities with technique. It also has human drama we can all relate to: emotions of love, betrayal, relationship with the mother, disappointments, joy…

In contrast, choreography in the second act is impossible to forget because of the spiritual and supernatural atmosphere it creates. In my research, I found that back in the day in Paris, this ballet was called Giselle: Les Wilis. The Wilis scene in the second act was a significant part of the ballet, and it still is.

In your staging, what did you pay particular attention to?  Did you intend to keep the tradition, or make updates?

The style and tradition-how it’s been done-are very important. it’s simple and beautiful, with no complications. Steps, by themselves, are like your class work. To it, I bring the Russian style, emphasizing the beauty of port de bras. Also, I want to allow each dancer to bring and create a particular character suited for them; I’m talking not just about Giselle and Albrecht, but also bringing Giselle’s mother more into focus.  I want my Bathilde to be young and beautiful. It creates even more tragedy that Albrecht betrays not only Giselle but also Bathilde.

In Act II, I paid particular attention to bringing lightness and beauty, not coldness. If you listen to the music, it’s very gentle.  I want all my Wilis to be beautiful and reflect that lightness in music. I want to preserve the image of dancing and beauty, the supernatural.   For example, when we have memories, even in the sad ones of someone passing away, you can still remember the beauty, and grieve with the spiritual lightness.

This is not your first time working with Houston Ballet dancers.  What is your impression of the company, and how was the process of working with them on the new staging?

I’m always very impressed with the company. Their work ethic is just amazing, as well as their attitude toward coaches, guest teachers, and generally through class and rehearsals. This company stands as an example.

This time, it’s a different experience, because I’m here working on a big production.  It has been a satisfying and a challenging process.   I suppose that challenge comes with the process of creating.  The company has been amazing, however.

You have been here in Houston for 7 weeks. Do you miss home?

I miss Melbourne. It’s spring now, and a beautiful time of the year. I miss friends and getting together for coffee or catching a movie.  Artistically, Melbourne is so rich. There is one festival after another, which is great for me. I love opera and musicals. I also like my own space and miss going to my library and reading for hours.

What do you like to do on your off time?

Abstract painting. I wasn’t always good with my hands, like sewing or crocheting. So when I retired, I challenged myself. It started out with finger painting, and now I have a tiny space in my flat in Melbourne. I use acrylic, and occasionally, lipstick and a bowl of pasta with tomato sauce and let the emotions take over.

You’ll be surprised that I’ve even sold a few!

For me, when I look at abstract painting, it’s the color, the expression, the first impression of it that I take in. Some people will either like it or hate it.  But that’s okay. There are moments when you are ready for certain experiences, and that can happen later on in life.

Nao Kusuzaki & Artists of Houston Ballet Photo: Amitava Sarkar
Nao Kusuzaki & Artists of Houston Ballet Photo: Amitava Sarkar

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