State Ballet of Georgia

October 22, 2009

From Siberia to Moscow

State Ballet of Georgia

October 22–24, 2009

Tbilisi Z. Paliashvili Opera and Ballet State Theatre

Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia

Reviewed by Wendy Perron

Photo: Nino Gogua and Irakli Bakhtadze. Photo by Lado Vachnadze, Courtesy State Ballet of Georgia


Re-creating a full-length ballet is an ambitious project, and re-creating a 133-year-old ballet is doubly so. Frank Andersen, former director of the Royal Danish Ballet, and his team (Dinna Bjoern, Anne Marie Vessel Schlueter, and Eva Kloborg) planned for more than three years to make his dream of reconstructing Bournonville’s ode to Russia a reality. With only a page and a half of choreographic notes and five costume sketches (found by Dinna Bjoern in one of 650 boxes kept by her father, Bournonville expert Niels Bjoern Larsen), Andersen went to work re-imagining Bournonville’s last ballet. This remake of From Siberia to Moscow was eagerly commissioned by State Ballet of Georgia’s artistic director, ballet superstar Nina Ananiashvili. (The company hosted several international critics, including me, for the premiere.)

Of course no one can say how close they came to reproducing the original ballet, which was last performed in 1904. Certainly the low-held arms, allegro footwork, and heartfelt mime were typical of Bournonville. With lavish sets (David Monavardisashvili), From Siberia to Moscow tells a story within a story that hinges on the real-life meeting of Petipa and Bournonville in 1874 and the tale of exile and royalty that Petipa relays to Bournonville. This is a spirited, charming production that shifts nicely from Moscow splendor to Siberian spareness, and back again.

The evening started off with a bang as conductor David Mukeria, with an appealing fury, led the Tbilisi Z. Paliashvili Opera and Ballet State Theatre Orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s forceful Triumphal Overture, Op. 15. Hand picked by Andersen, this overture has a strain of the Danish national anthem as well as hints of the Russian anthem. When the curtain rose, the original score for the ballet, by Carl Christian Moeller, emphasized rustic charm rather than military fervor.

As Natalia, the daughter of one exile and sweetheart of another, Nino Gogua carried the ballet with her engaging lightness and warmth. Her combination of expressive power and careful technique reminded me of the American ballerina Kyra Nichols. In a poignant moment when Natalia realizes her lover has been summoned back to Moscow, she removes her medallion necklace and places it upon him. In every move, her love, yearning, and sorrow were palpable.

The energetic highpoint was the Cossack Dance (choreographed by Kloborg), in which the men broke out of the farewell party scene, kicking up their heels and squatting in the kazatsky. They burst out on a diagonal, each with a different wild jump. Then five little boys came forward in the traditional Georgian folk dance, winning everyone’s adoration. One charismatic 12-year old, who proudly stomped on crunched toes and spun on his knees, earned bravos. (These spectacular boys are part of a resident group at the theater under the direction of Tamaz Gogotishvili.)

All costumes (185 of them!) were handsomely designed by Alexandre Vassilyev, the Russian fashion guru and historian. Even the messenger, who appears for only a few seconds, is decked out in a stunning cape and fitted uniform. But in the opening scene when Petipa and Bournonville meet, the two are dressed identically, and look more like diplomats than choreographers. Their rather formal mime scene together does not help identify them as individuals, let alone as great choreographers. (One easy way to distinguish them would have been to give Petipa his mustache.)

The second-act divertissements, each named for a river, were not memorable for the choreography. But they gave opportunities for State Ballet of Georgia’s excellent dancers to shine. Mariam Aleksidze brought a freshness to the Rhine section (the Vineyard People); and in the second cast, Iasha Mergaliev, who led The Rhone (Provencal Fishers), had a strong, open upper body and plush landings. (Mergaliev, from Kazakhstan, is one of the few in this 83-strong company who is not Georgian.) The Thames (Two Jockeys), the only section preserved on film, lost some of its punch from being transferred from two men to women.

One might question whether the trademark Bournonville harmony is right for a work about exile. But the ballet moved quickly, was attractive, and was danced beautifully by this newly invigorated company, under Ananiashvili’s direction since 2004.