When Nigel Gaynor picks up the baton to conduct Swan Lake for Queensland Ballet – as he will do until next Saturday – it will be the completion of a circle that began 35 years ago in Sydney. For it was being taken to see an Australian Ballet production of Swan Lake, while studying at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, that set him on the path to an international career as a specialist ballet conductor and a highly regarded ballet accompanist.

Nigel Gaynor. Photograph © Queensland Ballet

Gaynor joined Queensland Ballet last year as Music Director and Principal Conductor after holding positions with the Australian Ballet, Northern Ballet in the UK and the Royal New Zealand Ballet. He has also worked with English National Ballet and the Royal Ballet.

Gaynor first worked with QB in 2015 as guest conductor of The Sleeping Beauty and was subsequently invited by Artistic Director Li Cunxin to become part of the artistic team – an offer he accepted with alacrity.

“It happened at the right time for me and my wife. We’re both Australian, and my wife’s from Brisbane. In recent years, I’ve been directing in New Zealand. We were looking to spend more time back in our home country, particularly because our parents are getting old and all those sorts of reasons, but also because we love living in Australia,” says Gaynor.

“Li’s doing amazing things with the Company. He’s really changed its fortunes since he’s been there. I’ve been working in ballet for over 35 years now, and I can honestly tell you, he’s the most impressive artistic director I’ve ever worked with, anywhere. To be part of that is a great privilege. So, there are lots of good reasons to come back.”

Chatting to Limelight over the phone, Gaynor happens to be sitting near a piano, so as the interview unfolds, he starts playing little phrases to illustrate points that he is making – bring the conversation to musical life in a rather lovely way.

Swan Lake. Photograph © Queensland Ballet

As a young man, Gaynor went to the Sydney Conservatorium to study piano with Gerard Willems. “I was doing a lot of accompanying. I just thoroughly enjoyed performing and working in all sorts of situations, and Gerard noticed this, and he said to me ‘have you ever thought of working with the ballet?’” recalls Gaynor.

“The thought had never entered my head, quite frankly. He arranged for me to go and see a performance [of Swan Lake] with him of the Australian Ballet, and I met the Music Director. The whole thing had been organised because they’d been looking for someone like me to be groomed into being a soloist, and to be doing what they needed. Playing for ballet is a very specific field, because you need someone who can improvise well and who can play solo repertoire, as well as learn all the main repertoire, and they felt I was a good person to come into it.”

Gaynor admits that he hadn’t been at all prepared for the impact that performance of Swan Lake would have on him. “I was quite enchanted [by the way] human beings seemed to transform into swans. It was very moving and an absolute eye-opener for me,” he says.

Blown away by the whole experience, he deferred his course and in 1982 joined the music staff of the AB. In 1985, he became Principal Pianist and in 1987, having studied with John Lanchbery and Dobbs Franks, he began conducting.

He stayed at the AB as Resident Conductor until 1997. In 1998, he moved to the UK and was appointed Resident Conductor with Northern Ballet in Leeds, a position he held until 2011 when he joined the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Gaynor loves the fact that as a ballet conductor you are working with a “vary variety of musical genres and styles” – though there are specific requirements for a good dance score.

“Dance needs changes of mood and rhythm every few minutes, and that doesn’t usually happen with symphonic repertoire. There are ballets that involve symphonic repertoire but to just grab a symphony and try to put a story to it, it doesn’t happen very much. Having said that, I can think of [ballets that use whole movements],” he says.

“I did A Midsummer Night’s Dream in England at one point, and we integrated two Brahms’ movements very effectively. That was a production by David Nixon, Artistic Director of Northern Ballet. But that wasn’t a traditional A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He made it about a ballet company rehearsing rather than a theatrical company as in Shakespeare. They’re travelling on a train from London up to Edinburgh (they had a great big train carriage on stage) and they all go to sleep, and the dream unfolds so it was a very different treatment of the story.”

Queensland Ballet’s 2016 production of Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photograph © David Kelly

Gaynor also worked closely on Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a co-production between TNZB and QB, which he conducted in Brisbane in 2016. (Scarlett, a UK choreographer, is now Artistic Associate at QB as well as Artist in Residence at the Royal Ballet).

“That was more traditional,” says Gaynor who arranged the music and wrote some short linking passages. On the QB’s website, he explains further: “I selected [Mendelssohn’s] Hebrides Overture to represent Oberon. The Hebrides is a very atmospheric piece and one senses the undercurrent of power and inherent dancer of the sea in this music, which is ideal for the portrayal of Shakespeare’s powerful and mysterious king of the fairies.”

“When Liam and I first discussed his concept and vision in London in 2014, we recognised that additional music for some romantic pas de deux was required, as well as more comic material for the rustics. I researched all of Mendelssohn’s orchestral music and found the right additional material in his piano music,” says Gaynor.

In the most successful narrative ballet scores, musical motifs are often used to portray the identities and intentions of the main characters.

“It reminds me of the fact that Tchaikovsky, when he wrote Swan Lake, didn’t like a lot of the so-called specialist [ballet composers]. He described their music as musical wallpaper ­– though he did have a lot of respect for Adolphe Adam, who wrote Giselle. He studied that and picked up on the idea of motif writing in ballet,” says Gaynor.

Queensland Ballet’s 2017 production of Swan Lake. Photograph © Queensland Ballet

Asked about his own preferences, Gaynor says: “I don’t mind saying that of the Tchaikovsky ballets, Swan Lake is my favourite. Swan Lake is perhaps the most important full-length ballet ever written because it’s the very first full-length ballet written by one of the great composers. When Swan Lake premiered in 1877, it paved the way for great composers to see the potential of ballet. Where would we be if that hadn’t happened? We may not have had Stravinsky doing The Rite of Spring. Some of the most important music ever written was because Tchaikovsky made everyone realise how valuable it was to write for ballet.”

Returning to Swan Lake is always a fresh experience because every production is different to some degree.

“For one thing, the musical selections are always slightly different from one company to another. Tchaikovsky wrote more music than is actually used in any one production. So, the choreographer decides what to music from the score he’s going to use. He might also decide to use music not from the Swan Lake score, but other music of Tchaikovsky’s. That happens occasionally. The very first Swan Lake I was involved in with the Australian Ballet used absolutely beautiful music from Tchaikovsky’s incidental music from Hamlet for a pas de deux in the last act. And that was a lovely musical choice. And there’s also many more fabulous violin solos Tchaikovsky wrote that can actually fit,” says Gaynor.

Taking to the piano, he illustrates various changes that have been made to the score over the years, including the way the music for the Prince’s Act III variations has slowed down, as the technique of male dancers has developed.

“The music was originally much faster. A little allegretto, a light little thing, so you can imagine someone doing quick, small jumps. Now men are expected to do much bigger leaps and more powerful, bravura solos, so the music has changed. It’s not what Tchaikovsky intended but the innovation is very good for serving the ballet. We all try not to muck around with what Tchaikovsky had intended with the music, but that’s the one big change, and that’s for a pretty good reason, and the end result seems to work very well,” he says.

Gaynor would like to see more new scores being written for full-length Australian ballets.  “I have to say that, from my perspective, there’s not been enough of this in Australia at all. And certainly, one of my highest aims while I am here at Queensland Ballet is to get an Australian score produced.”

He is also hoping that new scores will be commissioned for shorter works in triple bills perhaps. “It’s being discussed here,” he says. “I can’t actually talk about what’s going to happen in the future, obviously [but] it’s certainly something that we hope to do in the foreseeable future.”

Swan Lake plays at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC. A limited number of tickets remain.