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Nina Ananiashvili’s Double Return to the U.S.

This week Nina Ananiashvili, ballet superstar, is visiting New York as a member of the jury of the Valentina Kozlova International Ballet Competition, and in July she returns to USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi, to celebrate 30 years since her historic Grand Prix there.

Two former Bolshoi superstars—Valentina Kozlova and Nina Ananiashvili—come together at VKIBC, photo by W. Perron

Like Kozlova, Ananiashvili is one of the more dazzling products of Bolshoi training. With both outsized bravura and poetic tenderness, she excelled in classics like Swan Lake and Don Quixote. A box-office draw at both the Bolshoi Ballet in the 1980s and American Ballet Theatre in the 1990s and 2000s (with stops along the way at The Royal Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet and Houston Ballet), she also was instrumental in inviting new choreographers (e.g. Alexei Ratmansky) to make work at the Bolshoi.

The esteemed panel of VKIBC judges also includes Andris Liepa (pictured below on the October 1986 Dance Magazine cover with Ananiashvili), Martine van Hamel, Margo Sappington, Joe Lanteri and Lawrence Rhodes. The Award Ceremony and Gala Performance at Symphony Space this Saturday is dedicated to the late Violette Verdy, who was a mentor to Kozlova. In tribute to Verdy, Daniel Ulbricht and Erica Pereira will perform Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, which Balanchine made on Verdy and Conrad Ludlow in 1960.

Ananiashvili’s second appearance in the U.S. will be onstage in Jackson on July 16. The USAIBC celebrates 30 years since Ananiashvili ad Andris Liepa won the very first Grand Prix there. They were among the earliest competitors from the Soviet Union, and USA IBC is calling its gala the Reunion Gala. She will perform Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand with the State Ballet of Georgia, the company in her homeland that she has led since 2004.

I got a chance to chat with Ananiashvili about her company, her views on competitions, and her reunion at USA IBC. Because the way she speaks English is so charming, I left the language as is, to give you the flavor of her voice.

Your company just returned from a tour of Italy and Spain. How did it go?

I’m so proud because it was difficult program. The company does Concerto Barocco and Serenade brilliantly. Even on small stage was looking very beautiful. When you have big stage, you need to watch side by side like this [her eyes move back and forth as though watching a ping pong game]. But it was a small stage, and full picture in the front of your eyes!

There has been a change of regime in the Republic of Georgia. Do you still get support from the government?

Yes, we have a new theater, with a beautiful opera house. We have fantastic lighting equipment. Ballet artists have their own dressing rooms. We are having a successful season that will be over in June.

Dance Magazine cover, Oct. 1986, with Nina Ananiashvili and Andris Liepa

As a young dancer, you did very well at competitions. You won a gold medal at Varna in 1980, a Grand Prix in Moscow in 1981, and the  first Grand Prix in Jackson in 1986.

I was lucky. Jackson—I have long-distance love of this place. In 1986, I was a winner, and 28 years later I went there as judge. Some of the same people were still there, and they see me and they say, “What we can do to have you back here?” They invited my company to perform a whole evening in Jackson this summer. I am so happy.

What do you think is good about competitions?

Today’s competition, it’s different than our time. For a long time I would always say I don’t want to judge because I remember how hard it was to compete. Today, everywhere competitions. The good thing is, first we have a lot of private schools and studios that before, didn’t have the possibility to show off the students. And lots of them are really good—sometimes better than in the big academies. Second, we on the jury are lots of directors. Either they have possibility to come work in another theater or somebody will give scholarship. Also, when they have just private school training, they cannot perform in a theater for an audience. In Moscow we had small theater and children perform on Bolshoi stage sometimes. In private schools, it’s impossible now because it’s so expensive. The competitions give possibility to children to perform for an audience. Also, it is better for ballet generally, because it raises professional audience later. These kids, if they don’t become professional, they will always love ballet because they learned it as children.

Is there a downside to competitions?

They take children very young, and this can be difficult for children later. Sometimes kids 10 years old, they are not afraid of anything and they get medals at Grand Prix, and suddenly at 16 or 18 years old, nobody needs them. They get lots of medals, but nobody give them a job because either they don’t want this size or height or form, and this is difficult for children, They think, “If I’m so good then why I have problem to get job?”

What’s the latest news with your company?

We opened the season with myself onstage in a Chabukiansi ballet Gorda (1950). It was famous ballet with a Georgian story. I’m restaging, everything new, I tried to work with projections and lighting. We also have a new Swan Lake by Alexei Fadayechev, really beautiful. It was absolutely sold out. We have Fokine program: Andris staged Firebird and I staged Les Sylphides and Spectre de la Rose. We will soon start rehearsals for company premieres by Kylián and Balanchine.

During your time as a ballerina and now as artistic director, how have you seen ballet change?

Before, each company had their own style: Denmark is Denmark; Russian is Russian, New York City Ballet was City Ballet. ABT was most combination. Now people are free to travel around. But today, what I see in competitions and Facebook, for example girls turning 15 turns. They’re doing something technically strong and amazing, but not a lot of people are expressive with emotion and with art. They don’t really live in the roles. The audience should enjoy performance, not just tricks.

Now there is so little time in company schedules to work deeply on a role.

This is also a problem. Everything becomes mechanical. We need time to recover, it’s so difficult to dance. I always love to have at least one day off if I do one big performance, I am tired—not technically, but tired in my insides.

What advice would you give young dancers participating in a competition like VKIBC?

When I was competing, my teacher told me, “I don’t need your medals. Just come out and dance as best you can do.” Just enjoy to be onstage with this wonderful public. If you have good results, wonderful. If not, don’t worry. Just love this beautiful art.Also be willing to criticize yourself. You need to see yourself in order to improve. And you need to have a little bit of humor in our job. Ballet is so difficult, you need to have humor to stay in it.

For more info on VKIBC click here, and for info on USA IBC, click here. To lern more about State Ballet of Georgia, click here and then click Translate. To see the video of my interview with Ananiashvili from 2010, click on Part I, Part II, and Part III.

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