NINA AND THE STATE BALLET OF GEORGIA

 

BRINGING BALANCHINE BACK TO GEORGIA

 By Marylis Sevilla-Gonzaga

 

During a casual conversation just as she was contemplating the artistic directorship of State Ballet of Georgia (SBG), Nina told me that among her plans for the company would be a program of Balanchine. But back then, in June, 2004, she believed that the dancers would not be ready for the challenges of the master’s  choreography for at least a few seasons.

Obviously, the discipline and rigorous daily routine Nina has insisted on from day one already has paid off, because SBG has just triumphantly presented its first all-Balanchine evening. The ambitious program ranged from the classical Apollo (1928), the lyrical Serenade (1934) to the rambunctious Western Symphony (1954)---that tribute to the spirit of the American Wild West.

The May 19, 2005 premiere, naturally, did not happen without a lot of hard work. Repetiteurs from the Balanchine Trust---in this case the New York City Ballet veteran stars Maria Calegari and Bart Cook---alighted in Tbilisi weeks before the premiere to imprint Balanchine technique and style on the Georgians.

From 1974 through 1994, Calegari commanded the stage as one of New York City Ballet’s treasures.  A stunning exemplar of the Balanchine ballerina, the long-limbed redhead combined   strength, speed and technical panache with an alluring presence and unmistakable glamour. She was a delightful Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a romantic ideal in Serenade.

Cook, who joined NYCB in 1971, became a specialist in Balanchine’s “black and white” neo-classical creations, particularly the Melancholic variation in The Four Temperaments. He was also memorable in Rubies, Square Dance and Union Jack. In 1993, he played Herr Drosselmeier in the film version of Mr. B’s The Nutcracker.

In a telephone interview after their return to the U.S., Maria and Bart graciously shared their experiences for the benefit of this website.

Bart arrived some six weeks before the May opening date---and started work on Western Symphony right off. Maria followed two weeks later, and primarily helped shape (or in this case, re-shape), Serenade. Both artists collaborated on getting Apollo onstage.

Following are their lightly edited responses to my questions.

Q:  How did you find Tbilisi? The Georgians?

Bart:  I really enjoyed myself. The Georgians are fascinating people. They are spontaneous and exceptionally creative.  I discovered that they are very responsive to music and I came to realize that Balanchine was Georgian through and through. He was born there, but although he did not grow up in Georgia, his parents must have instilled that spirit in him.

Q: How did you find the dancers, the company?

Bart:  The dancers were technically well trained. They [displayed] a lot of individuality and creativity. I found I had to try to rope in that individuality and use the creativity. My biggest problem was the individualism.

Maria:  Everyone was intent on making it good. Everyone was kind and committed.

Q: I understand there were some problems with Serenade.

Maria: Yes---someone had tried to prepare them by teaching the company a somewhat  older version of it. [Balanchine continued to refine his ballets over the years.] So I had to deconstruct it---to correct steps, positions in order to shape it into the version currently danced at NYCB. It was difficult to undo. They would learn the proper way one day, and the next they would go back to the wrong one. But it all came together for the premiere.

It was a strain on the dancers----everything had to be done so fast---4-1/2 weeks altogether. We started working one week before the premiere of their new Don Quixote---and then we lost another day because of George Bush’s visit to Georgia---we could not get to the theater.

Q:  Was it difficult to communicate?

Bart:  Although there were translators, much was still lost in translation. We had taught in Perm before, so we had picked up a bit of Russian. But many of the dancers spoke nothing but Georgian, and the translators were not ballet people, so that was a bit of a problem.

Q: How did you approach teaching Balanchine style? Were there special warm up exercises or classes just to get the bodies ready for the requirements of Balanchine?

Bart:  Not this time---you explain technique as you go along. There simply wasn’t time. Perhaps next time.

Maria:  We worked straight from noon to 6 p.m., with ten-minute breaks. The dancers didn’t quite have the stamina---they were so tired since they were preparing for Don Q as well.

Q:  How did you cast the ballets. Were there any particular dancers you liked?

Maria:  There was a boy [Lasha Khozashvili], a natural for Apollo---beautiful like Michelangelo’s “David” with a nymph-type face. He also had a pretty good technique.  And there was girl---Nino Gogua--- with dark Georgian hair [she] had the body, feet, extension that even Suzanne Farrell would envy. She also had a natural feminine grace. Of course her technique has some ways to go, but she has such great potential.

Bart:  Yes---there was a girl---Nino Gogua, quite green, not much stage experience and she needs to develop strength. But she came through when she had to substitute for injured colleagues. And there were the other ballerinas Tsicia [Cholokashvili], Lali [Kandelaki], Anna.

Q: How was the audience reaction? Did you get the impression that there was particular pride in bringing Balanchine “home?”

Bart:  Yes, there were many interviews with dance critics and historians. The presentation itself was very moving---the curtain had that famous full figure image of Mr. B pointing down to his foot---illustrating a step.

The audience seemed particularly to enjoy Western Symphony---it was rhythmic and fun---I think they could relate to it because of their folk dance tradition.

Maria:  We stayed for all three performances. After the premiere, I got kissed so many times by so many people---I don’t think I have ever been kissed so many times before in my life.

Bart:  Everybody cooperated to make sure it was a success. The costumes and sets for Western Symphony were particularly wonderful. I was told that the seamstresses were locked in their workplace for the last 48 hours before the premiere---to make sure nobody bothered them as they were frantically finishing the costumes!

Q: So, would you go back for more?

Bart:  Yes, there are already plans for the next Balanchine evening. If all goes well, perhaps in November, SBG will do Mozartiana, Chaconne and Four Temperaments.

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