Georgia on Her Mind

July 15, 2007

To fly into Tbilisi, Georgia, you must land in pitch dark in the middle of the night. (Night air space is cheaper.) Even so, the crowd welcoming passengers boils up outside the airport’s glass walls—waving, gesticulating, soundlessly shouting. When you launch yourself into the town the next morning, your taxi and the other cars speed wildly along lane-less highways, swerving to avoid the potholes. When you get to the heart of this old city and proceed on foot, you find ancient courtyards with wood bay windows obscured by hanging laundry. If you get lost in the maze of streets, signs display what looks like some squat version of Arabic.


Life is incomprehensible, crazy, chaotic—“Mediterranean,” as the half-Georgian Balanchine liked to say—and utterly fascinating, in this ancient capital of this new republic (it got its independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved) stuck between Russia, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. How surprising, then, to enter the stage door of Tbilisi’s Opera and Ballet Theatre, to proceed through long dark corridors and to hear in the distance the familiar calming piano music of a ballet class.


But it’s more than surprising: It’s a triumph. The State Ballet of Georgia has come back almost literally from the dead. In an enormous gray studio, a curly-haired male teacher in black paces the room. Ranged along the barres on the three sides of the room are world-class dancers. Certain individuals stand out: a tall, long-haired man in gray—Irakli Bakhtadze; two shorter, black-clad men with curly black hair—the Khozashvili brothers; a compact lighter-haired woman (one of the few) in blue—Nino Gogua; a trim clear woman in a white skirt—Lali Kandelaki. Their Georgian faces (pale, with dark hair and dark pop-eyes, like the faces of Byzantine icons) seem to give them an extra theatricality, an extra poignancy.


But despite the pull of the many talents in the room, one’s eye keeps returning to the quietest figure, the tall female in the left back corner. She’s swathed in sweaters and tights. She’s getting back into shape after the birth of a baby. But there’s no mistaking the long legs, the sharp pointes gesturing at the end of them, the small neat head (with icon eyes), the aura of feminine liquidity. It’s Nina Ananiashvili, one of the world’s few ballet super-stars. She’s also the new director of this old-new company. In July, 2004, she came home to Tbilisi from Moscow, New York, and Houston, to bring this company back to health and world-stature. And it’s worked. A major U.S. tour, the first of two, gets underway this month.


“This directing wasn’t in the plans,” Ananiashvili tells me in her office, a cozy bright place with wood desk and striped couch. She’s changed into street clothes; she’s serving tea. “I was an active ballerina. I was thinking that I might try teaching in the future. But the president said, ‘We need you now. We need to have a very good ballet company.’”


That president is Mikheil Saakashvili, the young, U.S.-educated politician who in November, 2003, led a Tbilisi crowd to parliament, where they put roses into the gun barrels of the forces protecting the corrupt and just re-elected Eduard Scheverdnadze. Before that, the country had endured almost 15 years of civil war between the passionate supporters of the Russian-identified Scheverdnadze and the equally passionate constituents of Gamsakhurdia, the nationalist president he unseated. In the ensuing chaos, areas on Georgia’s edges (Ossetia, Abkhazia) asserted their independence. All this, plus what Caucasus expert Thomas Goltz calls “localized corruption and greed” shut down basic services in the capital. Hot water disappeared, then heat and light. Schools closed, (though groups banded together and opened impromptu schools, in the cold). Life in Tbilisi sank to near primitive conditions.


Saakashvili took office in January, 2004. Everything was broken. Within six months he asked Ananiashvili to come home. Fixing the ballet as a top priority? This would be like President Bush asking New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre to help with national morale. Working conditions were dire. The money had dwindled. Many of the current principals had left in the late ’90s to dance in other companies. Even the teachers left to find better work—to the U.S., Portugal, Turkey, Germany. “ I still get calls from a colleague in Norway,” says Ciskari Balanchivadze, a former dancer (and Balanchine’s niece) who retired from the company in 1990 to teach in the ballet school.


But the president, who speaks the language of political symbols, wanted them back. “Ballet is terribly important for Georgia,” explains producer Manana Kvachadze, whose Georgians in Maryinsky just screened at New York’s Dance on Camera Festival. “There’s a tradition of opera and ballet that goes back to the mid-19th century in Tbilisi. We’ve always tried to be a fashionable city. And our folk arts of dancing and singing are on a very high level, so audiences connect to ballet.”


Then there was the dazzling figure of Vakhtang Chabukiani, a Georgian folk hero, a Soviet ballet star of the 1920s and ’30s. He came home to his native Tbilisi in 1935 to found the present company, with scenic artist Simon Versaladze and composer Andria Balanchivadze (brother of Balanchine). And he directed it for nearly 40 years, putting it, if not on the level of the Kirov and the Bolshoi, at the forefront of Soviet companies. Chabukiani’s energy, and that of Giorgi Aleksidze, who followed as director, made balletomanes of the Georgians. I first came to Tblisi in 1988, on tour with Dance Theatre of Harlem. I remembers the masses of happy, well-dressed people who flooded into the theater to see the American guests.

Flash forward to 2004, when the native daughter came home. “The arrival of Nina Ananiashvili today is of the same importance as the arrival of Vahkhtang Chabukiani in 1935,” wrote another great Georgian dancer, Zurab Kikaleishvili, in 2004 in a Tblisi newspaper. (In Chabukiani’s Othello he was Iago to the master’s Othello.) He praised her for putting her country’s good ahead of her own career. He warned her to keep a balance, in the repertoire, of Georgian ballets and ballets from outside. And he gave her his blessing.


“Eighteen new ballets in two seasons,” says Ananiashvili counting them off. New ballets, from top-of-the-list choregraphers like Stanton Welch, Trey McIntyre, and Alexei Ratmansky. The classics: Don Quixote, and Swan Lake (both staged by Alexei Fadeyechev), Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, and Ashton’s Fille Mal Gardée. And nine new ballets by native son Balanchine (born Balanchivadze), with a 10th on the way. A special curtain with Balanchine’s image on it appears in the theater when they are danced. And the abonnements have come back—the subscriptions for school kids that every Georgian remembers from Soviet days.


Outside the theater, Saakashvili’s battle for morale is visible everywhere. (Even if his bravado sometimes irritates the big guy up North—when this reporter visited, Russia president Putin had cut off all contact between Georgia and Russia—at home he seems to have the balance right.) The city’s buildings are being painted in cheery hues like mint-green. He loves fountains: fountains are being built in many city squares. Georgians call their young president “Shadrevan I”—“Fountain the First.”


And inside the theater: a flurry of activity. I watch the first stage rehearsal of another ballet new to the company: Bournonville’s charming 1849 mock-evocation of a ballet school, Conservatoriat. Ananianashvili directs from the darkened house, speaking a mix of Russian, Georgian, and English into the microphone. Only warmth can be felt in these corrections—not the acerbic punishing wit sometimes favored by male directors holding microphones. She calls the dancers by name. “Bournonville arms,” she says quietly, and a young woman crossing the stage in sideways jetés quiets her downward-held arms.


And what dancers! They whip through the fiendish Bournonville variations with clarity, and a kind of savoring of steps that cannot occur in a demoralized population. Many have come back since Ananiashvili took over—and they’re still coming.


“There’s perspective for us here,” says Vasil Akhmeteli, who returned from Skopje, Macedonia, in February. “There are young people now in our company, and a good repertoire.”


“Everybody tries hard,” says Anna Muradeli, one of the first to be drawn home, in 2004. “Everybody relates to the work with a work-loving spirit. I’ve grown so much as a dancer—and as a person.”

Elizabeth Kendall, the author of Where She Danced, and the forthcoming Autobiography of a Wardrobe, is working on a book about the youth of Balanchine and his classmate Lidiia Ivanova.

State Ballet of Georgia on tour

Spoleto Festival, Charleston, SC, June 7–10: Swan Lake

New Haven Festival of Arts & Ideas, CT, June 15–16 Giselle with Nina Ananiashvili and Sergei Filin

Jacob’s Pillow, Lee, MA, June 20–24 : DonQ, Mozartiana, and McIntyre’s Second Before the Ground