REPORT FROM TBILISI, APRIL 2007

By Marylis Sevilla-Gonzaga

 

IMPRESSIONS OF TBILISI

Why would anyone visit such an off-the-tourist-track location as the Republic of Georgia? If you are a ballet lover, you already know one answer---Nina Ananiashvili. Since 2004, Nina has been Artistic Director of State Ballet of Georgia, and of course, its resident superstar.

This Friend of Nina, previously from New York, traveled to Tbilisi from Shanghai to witness her return to the stage after a two-year hiatus. (See review of Swan Lake, April 19, 2007.) I was not entirely surprised however, to find that aside from ballet, the Georgian capital had much to offer a visitor with interests in art, history and gastronomy.

The city itself is beautifully situated---sprawling comfortably on the gentle foothills of the Caucasus. Driving around the main streets, you notice landmarks of different eras of history. Most notable are the numerous churches and their cone-topped round towers. There are reportedly 150 of them in Tbilisi alone, the oldest surviving from the 6th century. The streets spiral around the hills, here and there suddenly turning into cobblestone patches, especially in the oldest sections, where newer houses are cheek-by-jowl with older homes graced wide wooden balconies and apartment complexes of uncertain age but visible disrepair. The recent history of Georgia as one of the Soviet republics is written on the public buildings, which, however seem to have escaped the monumentalism of their Moscow counterparts. Here they seem more humanly proportioned, less oppressive.

The Tbilisi Z. Paliashvili Opera and Ballet State Theatre (to give it its full name) sits on the graceful Rustaveli Avenue, sharing pleasant stretch in the center of the city that includes the Symphony hall, a couple of museums, government buildings, new hotels and upscale boutiques.

The classical façade of the Theatre, painted in a warm shade of creamy yellow, recalled that of La Scala in Milan to my mind. The auditorium itself, which seats about 950, is a modest yet elegant mix of cream and gold with golden olive upholstery. The carved decorations struck me as a graceful combination of Western baroque and Eastern decorative motifs. But I spent most of my time backstage, observing Nina prepare for her return.

REHEARSALS

I alighted at Tbilisi airport at 2:30 a.m., April 11.  Early morning is apparently when most flights arrive and leave Georgia. Contrary to my nervous expectations, the place was ablaze with lights and full of activity. My hotel near the Theatre was an easy 30-minute drive from there.

By 1 p.m. the same day, I was watching the first rehearsal with orchestra of State Ballet of Georgia’s revival of Vakhtang Chabukiani’s Laurencia (see review). Nina showed up a bit later---and when we hugged our hellos, I knew she was fit. I felt only bone, muscle and sinew, and the energetic way she moved was familiar from our previous encounters.

By 2:30 p.m., I was in the Theatre’s big rehearsal studio, watching Nina warm up. I began to appreciate how much discipline, dedication and time management it takes for someone to be artistic director and super ballerina. Nina is very much a hands-on manager. Questions and interruptions while she is in her office or in the auditorium are constant. However, she carves out the necessary time to get herself ready for her performances, and this one was a big one---her first stage appearance after two years off.

Dressed in layers topped by a black knitted overall with hot pink accents, Nina begins with stretching exercises on the floor, proceeding to kneading her muscles with a spiky rubber ball. When she’s ready, she puts on her toe shoes, lining them with paper towels! She comments rather than complains that after two years off, it is really painful to start dancing on toes again. Every day, “a different part of your feet hurt.” What’s more, she has not found a new cobbler who suits her, her old one having retired a couple of years ago.

A former SBG principal helps Nina with barre routines---starting with pliés, relevés and stretches, particularly of the feet. Nina removes layers of clothing as she warms up, and exercises proceed to leg lifts and rondes de jambe. After half an hour at the barre, with routines ending with battements in demi-pointe and balances on full pointe, Nina starts to moan---only half playfully---clearly needing to build up her stamina.

But center work still follows--- with another ballet mistress joining the team. Parts of Giselle’s adagio serves to continue the preparation for various balance positions, jumps and turns. One particular sequence of turns is proving a bit troublesome, but it is obvious Nina’s formidable technique is intact---she only needs to polish and refine.

The next two afternoons, Nina’s new partner joins the latter part of the rehearsal (Vasil Akhmeteli has gained the honor. Sergei Filin was to have partnered Nina in her return to the stage, but a change of date had made the Bolshoi star unavailable.)

The White Act pas de deux requires much adjustment as Akhmeteli learns how and where to place his hands; the timing of lifts is also practiced repeatedly.  The Black Act requires even more precise timing and discussions in rapid, multi-syllabic Georgian. Finally, the dancers essay their variations. The rehearsal room breaks out in applause when Nina completes her fouettés, the first time she has attempted the 32 turns in two years. Only later did I learn that Nina, like many others in the troupe, had come down with the flu only a few weeks before.

THE RUN THROUGH FOR SWAN LAKE

April 14, which had previously been announced as the performance date, became the run through date. Swan Lake was put onstage with only few interruptions and some missing costumes. The high level of professionalism in the company became obvious at once. Dancers who had been deep in preparation for Laurencia, which was to have its premiere April 18, suddenly transformed from Spanish peasants into swan maidens and courtiers. I had seen no rehearsals for the Petipa classic, but the company looked thoroughly at ease with the change of style from playful bravura to classical restraint.

The soloists for the Pas de Trois were a revelation--- flowing through the steps with easy grace. The courtiers too stepped lightly through the Polonaise. But it was Nina’s entrance that really switched on the company. She came onstage and all of a sudden, a hush of expectation spread through the corps and the auditorium. Her presence alone seemed to lift the performance to a different level.

My notes on that day may seem a bit over the top, but I quote myself, ” I can’t believe she has been offstage for two years---I watch her Odette/Odile undiminished by passing time and years fall away from me.”  Indeed I felt rejuvenated just experiencing her sublime dancing. I had watched her difficulties through the rehearsals but, “All effort melts and only art, magic remains. Arms, legs, head, torso, timing---everything that makes Nina unforgettable are once more onstage.”

Later I found out that members of the corps had to be reprimanded because they were watching Nina instead of keeping their heads in proper position. How I sympathized with them!

SWAN LAKE, THE PERFORMANCE

I have reviewed the performance elsewhere on this website, but let me just add a few anecdotes.  The whole auditorium was packed, naturally, and extra chairs had to be provided for the overflow. The main concern for the staff was the traffic delays caused by security measures provided for of the President of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, who was in attendance.

During intermission, a member of the diplomatic corps, obviously impressed by the performance, was heard to ask, “Is this the local company, or a visiting troupe?”

A close friend of Nina’s reportedly joked to her husband, Gregory, “Are you sure Nina is the mother of Helene? She does not dance like someone who has had a baby and been offstage for two years!”

Finally, a member of the SBG staff said to me---I thought I had seen Swan Lake before, but I realize now that I had never seen it. The young woman confessed she had never seen Nina dance before.

The applause at the end of the performance seemed never-ending---and bouquet followed bouquet---I have never seen so many at the same time. Yet, my bouquet was not among them, as I had chosen a different way to honor Nina---through a donation to her Foundation.

THE NINA ANANIASHVILI FOUNDATION AND FRIENDS OF GEORGIAN BALLET

The Georgian government generously subsidizes the State Ballet of Georgia. But as a country still struggling economically after declaring independence from the former U.S.S.R., Georgia has many other needs and priorities. Hence, two organizations have been established to raise funds to continue and enhance the activities of the ballet company, and of ballet training for future dancers.

The NINA ANANIASHVILI FOUNDATION was established in September 2005. Its aim is to popularize the art of ballet in Georgia, improve social conditions for State Ballet of Georgia’s artists and support development of professional skills for students of the Choreographic School in Tbilisi. (For example, my modest contribution was slated to provide ballet shoes for students in the School.)

FRIENDS OF GEORGIAN BALLET uses donations to support the revitalization of the company. Prominent citizens as well as members of the diplomatic community in Tbilisi have been the founders and early benefactors.

To make a donation to NINA ANANIASHVILI FOUNDATION, send an e-mail to tako rtveliashvili at tako_foundation@yahoo.com. She will be able to provide banking coordinates for wire transfers. For FRIENDS OF GEORGIAN BALLET, send an e-mail to friends@ballet.ge.

HISTORIC SIGHTS, DELICIOUS FOOD AND WINE

Tbilisi

I have to confess that this ballet obsessive did not see much of Tbilisi, but my Georgian friends did manage to show me some highlights. Only a handful of rooms were open at National Museum, which was undergoing renovation. There happened to be a temporary exhibition of noted native painter Gigo Gabashvili’s works, redolent of Georgia’s past. Later, I was surprised and delighted to discover the work of his gifted pupil, Elene Akhvlediani. Housed in her former townhouse in a charming section of town that could have been some neighborhood in Paris, Akhvlediani’s home/studio (12 L. Kiacheli St.) is filled with canvases that speak of her love of Georgia, and Tbilisi in particular. The colorful, beautifully composed images captured the undulating contours of the hills, filled with jumbles of balconied houses, churches and people. She studied in Paris during the 1920s, where her work was admired by Picasso among others.

Tbilisi was founded in the fifth century, and is named for the hot springs discovered in the vicinity. A picturesque huddle of tiled domes in the old district still serve as sulphur baths, which function like their Turkish counterparts. For a luxurious treat, one can rent private suites by the hour, enjoying tea in the cozy dressing room before relaxing in the hot showers, the big marble soaking tub and tiled tables where attendants give you a head to foot scrubbing and soaping, followed by a massage.

Mtskheta

The ancient capital, Mtskheta, is situated at the confluence of two rivers---the Aragvi and Mtkvari. It is the site of the first Christian church in Georgia and is home to two of the country’s greatest churches.  Jvari Monastery dominates the top of a hill and provides a wonderful panoramic view of the city, the rivers, and the snow-capped Caucasus mountains. In the lower slopes is Svetitskhoveli, the royal cathedral, where for centuries Georgian monarchs were crowned and buried.

Georgian gastronomy

Having Georgian friends is like having a second family so I was very warmly received and feted during my stay. Georgian hospitality is legend---and Georgian cuisine delicious. I got reacquainted with the famous Georgian staple, khatchapuri---flatbread filled with cheese. It is simplicity itself, but when newly made and hot from the oven, it is heavenly.

Georgian cooks are lucky to have fresh ingredients grown locally and untampered by bio-engineering. In mid-April, there were already luscious, vine-ripened tomatoes. The chicken tasted like the chicken you remember from childhood, before chicken factories and their antibiotic-laced fowl were propagated. And the potatoes! I could not get enough of them---simply pan-fried with a sprinkling of parsley.

I recall various stews, the freshest vegetables---plain, baked, stuffed---and irresistible fruit preserves. You could taste the height of summer in every spoonful of apricot, strawberry, and a fruit I had never encountered before, called cornel. (Later I found out it comes from a species of dogwood!)

On our outing the Mtskheta, I was introduced to a variety of spicy, meat-filled breads---sort of flattened calzones, and the soup-filled dumpling, khimkali. These are enormous compared to Chinese dumplings, being about three inches in diameter and stuffed with three kinds of meat. Three or four make a very satisfying meal.

Georgia is conceivably the cradle of wine cultivation, and there is a variety of grape only grown there which reportedly goes back three thousand years. Georgian wines have been held in high esteem in Russia, where the best kinds had been sought after. Currently, politics have banned exports to Russia, so presumably the locals are enjoying more of their best product. I had sampled fine Georgian wines before in Moscow, but those served by Nina and Gregory from their young vineyards were unbelievable. Night after night, I was treated to bottles that would compare favorably with those from some of France’s appellation controlée domains. (N.B. These wines will be available for export in about four years.)

So, would I visit Georgia again? Yes! And I would not even need the incentive of upcoming SBG premieres of five Ashton pieces, including Marguerite and Armand (with Nina and Sergei Filin) or more Balanchine, slated for June and Fall 2008 respectively. (Watch this website for confirmed dates.)