Those who have lived in Georgia even for a short while will surely have noticed how artistic and expressive the Georgian people are. For instance, it is hardly possible to experience a Georgian supra during which people won’t be singing or dancing. Music and dance seem to be programmed into the genes of this nation. Maybe this is why this country has brought forth so many excellent artists and dancers.
Georgians love to dance. The tradition of the Georgian dance is centuries old. And classical ballet is a small child compared to this grandpa. But, nevertheless, Georgia is the home country to several famous dancers who shaped and reshaped the art of international classical ballet.
The most outstanding ones are George Balanchine (Balanchinadze) and Vakhtang Chabukiani, two Georgian dancers who gained worldwide popularity in the ’30s.
With George Balanchine (1904-1983), seen as the father of American ballet and as the co-founder of the New York City Ballet, American ballet became what we know and see today.
Balanchine was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and worked in Paris for the famous Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes before moving to the United States.
The Ballets Russes revolutionized classical dance by bringing into the focus the dancer’s movement, performed to accompaniment by commissioned works from avant-garde composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, and Sergei Prokofiev. Vakhtang Chabukiani (1910-1992), is considered to be one of the most influential male ballet dancers in history. Unlike Balanchine, he lived and worked in the Soviet Republic of Georgia, and he revolutionized men’s dance and the role of men in classical ballet by adding temperament, a Georgian trait, to classical works.
In order to learn more about ballet traditions in Georgia, I met with Nino Ananiashvili, a Georgian dancer and a living legend of the Georgian ballet, who is now the art director of the Georgian National Ballet Company. In 2016, she was selected as one of 12 greatest ballerinas of all time by the British newspaper The Telegraph. At 54, she is also one of the few ballerinas in the world who has continued dancing after her glorious 35 years on the stage, providing a living example of vivid artistic beauty for her students and the audience.
I walk into the side-entrance of the building of the National Georgian Theatre for Opera and Ballet, filled with several historic rooms.
I wait for Nino in her office, and she enters the room, approaching me in a vivid, cheerful way. When I stay close to her for the first time, I am conquered by her gazelle-like eyes, which remind me of the eyes of a child: curious, open, full of life and ideas. And so she immediately puts me at ease with her personality.
Nino is a sparkling woman in real life, not just on the stage. She looks and moves like a teenager girl, tender and slim, and incredibly enthusiastic.
Nino presents to me a book documenting generations of Georgian ballet dancers, which she recently helped to write and publish. We leaf through the beautifully restored and reprinted photos as she points out that she felt this book needed to be published. «Last year we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Georgian Ballet Art State School.»
A former prima ballerina at the Moscow Bolshoi Theater with a splendid 23-year career, Nino admits to have had a very fulfilling professional life. «In daily life, I feel like Kitri, the main heroine in Don Quichotte,» she says. «To complain is not my nature, nor can I stay sad for a long time.» Maybe there are these qualities that give her momentum to continue with dance.
«Unlike the Russian ballet, which was founded by the French choreographer Maurice Petipa, Georgian classical dance has its roots in the Italian ballet school,» Nino explains. «The first ballet school in Georgia was founded by the Italian dancer Maria Perini, who had a ballet studio in Tbilisi located in the building of today’s Art Academy. Vakhtang Chabukiani graduated from this ballet studio in 1924.»
Only one of her many dreams could not come true, she regrets. She always wanted to meet her famous countryman, George Balanchine. «Who knows how my life would have developed, if I had met him and learned from him one day?» she asks.
«Unfortunately, Balanchine’s ballets were not staged in the Soviet Union during the Soviet period. In Balanchine’s innovation, the tradition of socialist realism saw only formalism. And besides, we Soviet dancers of the Bolshoi Theater had no chance to work directly with great contemporary choreographers. All ballets we performed were staged by Yuri Grigorovich, the art director of the Bolshoi Theater who dominated the Soviet ballet scene for 30 years, and they had to be in the choreography of Maurice Petipa or in Grigorovich’s own interpretation.»
It was only much later, in the beginning of perestroika, that Nino and her dance partner, Andris Liepa, had the chance to visit the United States and dance as invited artists with the New York City Ballet. It was the first time that they studied and performed ballets with George Balanchine’s choreography, which differs a lot from the classical Russian ballet tradition. «It is all about another speed, another choice of music and about another lexicography,» Nino explains. «In New York, people saw us as guinea pigs. Will they manage to dance Balanchine with their background in Russian ballet education?» It was then, when she learned to value the Russian ballet school. «I did not expect it, but it was true. With our classical Russian ballet background, we could dance anything, and we could do it in such a way that everybody would write about us.»
While talking about ballet, her life-long passion, Nino frequently mentions her teacher, the Bolshoi Theater ballerina Raisa Struchkova, whom she warmly calls her «ballet mom.» «Ms. Struchkova was not only a great ballerina, but she was an incredibly good teacher. She let me into so many small dance secrets only a real master can know. She guided me everywhere. When I first came back to Tbilisi to dance in Don Quichotte, she accompanied me in order to support me and to «protect» me from too much supra-ing, the Georgian traditional endless feasting, and from the excessive company of well-meaning friends and relatives.»
Echoing her mentor, Nino has a «mom’s» role for her own students now. She has become a passionate teacher. In 2004, she was invited by the then-Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to revive the Georgian ballet. This is how the former prima ballerina became the art director of the Georgian National Ballet Company. «When we returned to Tbilisi, the country’s economy was still in dire straits. At the opera theater, there weren’t even proper toilets or changing rooms. All artists there at that time where working out of pure enthusiasm,» Nino says. Last year, after six years of profound renovation, the Georgian National Opera and Ballet Theater reopened.
In her first six years as an art director, despite all the hardships, Nino staged 27 ballets. «We knew that our Theater for Opera and Ballet would soon be closed for renovation, so we had to work hard.» During the renovation the artists performed on other stages, such as the Russian Griboedov Theater and sometimes the Rustaveli Theater, but mostly without the orchestra.
In the thirteen years of her career as an art director, Nino has raised a splendid generation of young «baby-ballerinas»: Nutsa Chekurashvili, Nino Samadashvili, and Katerina Surmava. When Nino Ananiashvili talks about «her girls,» she says proudly, «They can easily perform both the modern and the classical dance, and they can switch between them smoothly.» Several foreign dancers have joined the Georgian Ballet Company. They come from Italy, England, Japan, Holland, Belgium, the United States, and even from Peru and Brazil in order to work with and learn from one of the great ballerinas of all times, Nino Ananiashvili.
Nino declares classical dance as the vocation of her life, and she would like to introduce to her students the tradition of the Georgian choreographer Vakhtang Chabukiani. He not only brought new challenges into men’s dance, but also started to stage classical ballets with elements of Georgian dance.
Nino recently revived Chabukiani’s version of «Gorda,» a two-act ballet by the Georgian composer David Toradze, which first premiered in 1949 at the Georgian National Opera and Ballet Theater. And in 2018, she would like to stage the ballet «Laurencia» with Chabukiani’s choreography. The Georgian dance company is also working on one of August Bournonville’s rare ballets, «From Siberia to Moscow.» Nino shares a secret: «In this ballet, I will stage one Georgian national dance, performed by our young dancers, which was not in the initial script. I am sure the audience will love it. You cannot cheat your genes.»
Nino Ananiashvili feels close to the national Georgian dance tradition. For the anniversary of Vakhtang Chabukiani, she danced the Lezginka. Afterward, for the last anniversary of the Sukhishvili Dance Company, she performed the Georgian dance ilouri.
Toward the end of my long conversation with Nino, I ask her what dance means to her. She says, without any hesitation, «Classical dance is my life. But to live this life each day you have to start from zero, from the basics. First position, grand batman, demi-plié, battement tendu for your whole life. There is no other profession like this in the world.»
She admits to being a happy woman too, as not only her job has become her vocation but also because her husband, Grigol Vashadze, who was Minister of Foreign Affairs in Saakashvili’s government, has been her greatest fan and supporter for 29 years.
«He has seen my ‘Swan Lake’ 150 times. He has learned everything about ballet terminology, and he has almost not missed a single performance I was in. My teacher, Raisa Struchkova, was so right when she once told me, ‘Remember, my girl, all your memorabilia means nothing unless you have found a soul mate who supports and understands you.'»
She has a fulfilling life, she loves traditions, but, nevertheless, she is not closed to innovation. With Nino Ananiashvili, the glorious Georgian ballet seems to have great future prospects.
Publication in June 2017 in Investor Magazine: http://www.investor.ge/article.php?art=12