Luck and circumstance brought this writer to New York in early March, in time to catch the last two performances (March 1 and 2, 2008) of State Ballet of Georgia at Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The program on both occasions consisted of George Balanchine’s Duo Concertant, Alexei Ratmansky’s Bizet Variations and Dreams about Japan plus Yuri Possokhov’s Sagalobeli.

SBG’s long-limbed principals, Nino Gogua and Lasha Khozashvili were eloquent in the playful exchanges between dancers, and between dance and music in the opening piece, a standard in the Balanchine repertory and well-known to the New York public. Obviously conscious of the comparisons many in the audience could make from previous viewings of the work with New York City Ballet, they nevertheless acquitted themselves honorably. Gogua was particularly notable, exuding natural warmth as she executed the Georgian-born master’s exacting steps. Further experience will no doubt allow these dancers to dance Balanchine with more freedom.

Ratmansky’s Bizet Variations, set to the composer’s Chromatic Variations, was newly created for SBG and had its premiere earlier in the company’s U.S. tour. In vaguely Spanish-flavored costumes, the company flowed lyrically through this bagatelle about the shifting attractions among a sextet of men and women. The choreographer gave Nina a central role---as the woman who draws the attention of all the men. Charmer that she is, it was not hard to believe that she could captivate yet reject all.  The piece, while easy on the eye, does not have the weight and depth that one has come to expect from this choreographer-of-the-moment, who just days before had turned down NYCB’s invitation to be its resident dancemaker.

In Sagalobeli, Yuri Possokhov, currently resident choreographer with San Francisco Ballet, tried to distill his feelings for Georgian culture. He succeeds to a large extent, portraying the strength and pride of Georgian men, the beauty and grace of Georgian women, the warmth of Georgian society.

The lighting (by Amiran Ananeli) added drama by starting some segments with dancers in silhouette and aptly supported the shifting moods of the piece. New York audiences were privileged to have the Sagalobeli Ensemble itself playing Georgian folk music on traditional instruments. The dancers seemed most at ease in this piece, moving with verve and confidence; music and dance built up to an exuberant ending that had the feel of a typical Georgian celebration.

More illustrative of Ratmansky’s range and talent is “Dreams about Japan,” which closed the evenings. Commissioned by Nina in 1998, it had its premiere at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and has been seen in St. Petersburg, Tokyo, Osaka, Paris and Vienna. Set on stars of the Bolshoi and Kirov Ballets, the technically challenging piece is based on various Kabuki representations of Japanese tales. Here, Ratmansky sought to capture the spirit of the stories without resorting to any steps overtly Japanese. Rather, the energetic and rhythmically complex sections suggest fragments of the tales in extended ballet dance language.

Using a percussive score composed by musicians of the famous Kodo “taiko” drum group, the exhilarating piece moves from the mysterious heron maiden who mourns her lost love; the vengeful spirits of two abandoned spouses; the broken-hearted maiden turned snake who kills the monk who rejected her; to a whirlwind finale involving a lion mask that forces a young man to dance to exhaustion.

Nina, in the central role of the rejected woman/Fire Snake, naturally commanded the stage with undiminished power and fluency. Her staccato footwork, exciting jumps and whipping turns made her a formidable foe---her attack on the hapless monk seeming fiercer than before. The Bolshoi’s Sergei Filin (whose pending retirement from the stage has caused a chorus of moans worldwide), reprised his original role as an abandoned husband with strong projection and finesse.

Though not yet matching the panache and prowess of the original cast, the Georgian soloists (Nino Ochiauri, Tsisia Cholokashvili, Lasha Khozashvili, Irakli Bakhtadze, David Khozashvili) danced with conviction; by the second performance their characterization and energy lifted the performance to an exciting level.

At the end of the evening---and the end of the BAM engagement, Nina and company bade farewell to the appreciative crowd by unfurling a huge Georgian flag. State Ballet of Georgia certainly had earned the right to wave it with pride.

                                                     Marylis Sevilla-Gonzaga