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By Hedy Weiss
One glimpse of the Joffrey Ballet’s Victoria Jaiani, with her pale skin, enormous, liquid brown eyes, and exquisite profile, is all it takes to carry you back to the late 19th century. They just don’t make faces like hers anymore. She easily could be mistaken for a contemporary of Anna Pavlova.
But not quite so fast. Watch the 25-year-old dancer onstage, and you see a subtle chameleon at work. She can capture the essence of playful naiveté early in Giselle, before making the most haunting, weightless, otherworldly second-act transformation. She can be the coolest, most regal of Snow Queens in The Nutcracker. She can wag her behind in comic mockery of her wicked stepsisters, who appear in drag in Ashton’s Cinderella. She can give herself over completely to the band of male angels who help her soar and dive fearlessly in Gerald Arpino’s Round of Angels. She can move with sharply angled dynamism through the pas de deux in Edwaard Liang’s Age of Innocence. And, costumed in classical white tulle and eye-catching red pointe shoes for James Kudelka’s Pretty BALLET, she can shift seamlessly from the swirling lushness that defines much of that work into the eerie beauty and remoteness of suddenly automaton-like moves.
Indeed, one of the more fascinating things about Jaiani is the way her almost antique beauty and alluring romanticism meld with her totally modern, often angular spirit. It is the tension between those two qualities, as well as a great many other things, that makes Jaiani’s performances so thrilling.
Jaiani grew up in Tbilisi, Georgia, a former Soviet republic that is also the homeland of Nina Ananiashvili. She arrived as a scholarship student at the Joffrey school in New York as a teenager and spent three years there, working with the touring Joffrey Ensemble Dancers, which performed modern work as well as classical. After winning the bronze medal at the 2003 New York International Ballet Competition, she joined the Joffrey company in Chicago—just as she was about to turn 17.
Ashley Wheater still recalls seeing Jaiani for the very first time when he came to teach company class at the Joffrey studios before being appointed artistic director of the company in 2007. “I picked her out immediately,” he says. “She was just such a striking beauty. And her body is so perfectly proportioned and very, very easy in the way it moves. She clearly was exceptionally well trained from early on, with beautiful port de bras and lovely turns. Her jump seemed to spring from nothing, like a deer. She has such a fluid upper body—something I think we’ve lost globally in ballet—so she really stands out.”
Christopher Wheeldon was so taken with her when he set his Carousel (A Dance) on the company in 2009 that he chose her to dance his celestial After the Rain (created for New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan). It will be performed in the Joffrey’s All Stars series in Chicago this month.
In the seven years since joining the Joffrey Ballet, Jaiani has morphed from the girl who almost instantly assumed star status by dancing the lead in Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet, to a woman of mature artistry.
Four years ago she married fellow Georgian and Joffrey dancer Temur Suluashvili, whom she “had the biggest crush on” in student days. The couple live in an airy loftlike condo. They own a car. Suluashvili, who has a wicked sense of humor, does the driving, and says on performance days he is compelled to drive to the theater only along a particular route for fear that Jaiani, who describes herself as “a creature of habit,” becomes unsettled. They have an adorable dog, Chapa (named after a Georgian cartoon character). And to relax, Jaiani enjoys making her specialty in the kitchen: dolma (stuffed grape leaves). The two will occasionally rehearse tricky lifts in their living room, and from time to time he will partner her onstage, though this is rare. They both agree that it is best to “leave work at the studio.”
Jaiani says she knew she wanted to be a ballerina from earliest childhood. The deal was sealed when her grandmother took her to see La Fille Mal Gardée, danced by the State Ballet of Georgia (now run by Ananiashvili). Had she remained at home, that company would have been the only place where she could have forged a career, and it was in a precarious state at the time. (Her fallback career, she notes with a laugh, was dentistry.)
“It is hard for dancers there,” says Jaiani. “Many of our friends are trying to get out. But it also was very hard when I first arrived in New York and lived with my older sister. I was homesick, and really missed my mom and friends.” (Her mother now lives in New York, and Jaiani says she checks in with her twice daily, “even if it’s just to say ‘Hi. The performance went well. Bye.’ ”)
Jaiani, who was the baby of the company when she first joined, says she loved working with company co-founder, the late Gerald Arpino. He would tell her, “Baby, when you’re good, you’re good, but when you’re bad…” and never finished the sentence. And unlike many Joffrey dancers, she says, “I didn’t feel a radical change when Ashley Wheater arrived. I work in the same way as I did before, although he is a fantastic teacher and I love his classes. Having the artistic director in the studio every day, watching everything you do, is great. It’s also good that when your interpretation is right he will say, ‘You spoke.’ But I never want him to settle with his expectations of me, or I will know that is the time to go.”
With her easy extension, pliant back, and expressive face, there is not much need for fixing. Yet Jaiani admits to being “very conscious of my feet, and really focusing on brushing the floor with them.”
“In this profession you must work every day, even when you think you’ve got it,” says Jaiani. “The demands I put on myself keep getting bigger. But I’ve also learned to take my time with new roles, to really understand what the movement is about.”
It was “a really big moment” when Edwaard Liang chose her for Age of Innocence. “It was the first time someone had chosen me as the tool of his expression.” Kudelka was a completely different experience, she says. “But I loved going on that journey, too. What I learned from him is to just let my body do the movement without overthinking it, and to trust that he will decide how he feels about it.”
But even before working with him, she learned from Lar Lubovitch when dancing Desdemona in his Othello. “I really began to go with the flow rather than fighting his movement. Some of the turned-in positions were hard for me, but I found an internal beauty in them. And dramatically it was so cool.”
Last season Jaiani also worked with Jessica Lang on her new work for the Joffrey, Crossed. It was her first experience with a female choreographer, and she was impressed by how “emotionally involved Lang was, and how she let her passion show.”
Jaiani, too, lets her passion show in the many different characters she has portrayed. Back home, at the V. Chabukiani Tbilisi State School of Ballet Art, her technique classes were a blend of the classic Vaganova style and the more fiery Georgian-bred mode of Vakhtang Chabukiani, a hero of Soviet ballet. They also had acting classes. “I still remember having to act out standing in hot sand, or being in a cage, or melting like ice cream,” says the dancer. “As we got older we worked on actual character interpretation and ballet mime. It is still my dream to play Odette/Odile, and dance a dramatic work by Mats Ek.”
Many opportunities lie ahead for Jaiani. “Victoria is very much her own person,” says Wheater. “Choreographers love her because she absorbs things like a sponge. She is always hungry for more corrections and input. And while there is almost an Old World aura around her—when you see her dance Giselle you think, ‘That is who she is’—there is a whole other dimension of her that has opened up in recent seasons. Her ability is just so huge.”
Jaiani admits to feeling freer these days. “I am very happy right now with where I am in my career,” she says. “My expectations for myself keep getting bigger. As for success, I think that’s a very personal thing. And mostly I just feel so lucky to be able to do what I love.”
Hedy Weiss is a dance and theater critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Photo by Matthew Karas.