NINA and THE STATE BALLET OF GEORGIA
NINA IN GEORGIA
The following article was commissioned by Japan Arts and was featured, translated into Japanese, in the souvenir program of the 2007 Japan Tour of Nina Ananiashvili and State Ballet of Georgia.
If I had the chance to stand before Harry Potter’s Mirror of Erised sometime in these past two years, I might have seen Nina Ananiashvili dancing Swan Lake. As millions of readers know, this magic mirror shows not your face, but your heart’s desire.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to act on my dream last April, when I journeyed to Tbilisi, Georgia. Nina had chosen Odette/Odile for her return to the stage.
Nina’s life had changed dramatically since our last meeting in New York. The dance world knew she had become Artistic Director of State Ballet of Georgia in 2004 at the invitation of President Mikhail Saakashvili. Many others were aware that she had achieved a more personal and deeply desired goal---motherhood.
Our reunion at the State Theatre in Tbilisi took place in semi-darkness, but I knew when we hugged that she was in great physical form. She was all muscle, bone and sinew, and her movements were crisp and energetic.
She was supervising the first orchestral rehearsal of Laurencia, a ballet by Vakhtang Chabukiani that was being revived by the company. Microphone in hand, she kept up a stream of corrections, suggestions and encouragement. She also had impromptu conversations with artistic and technical personnel on hand. The premiere was a week away, on April 18; Nina’s own stage comeback was slated for April 19.
Efficient time management is paramount to Nina as she juggles her varied responsibilities. Obviously she has found reliable colleagues to delegate the day-to-day training and coaching of the SBG dancers. They were perceptively in good spirits, willing to work hard and happy to be getting the attention of one of the most respected artists in ballet.
Prior to 2004, this was not the case, and anecdotal reports indicated a company in the doldrums, poorly funded and under-trained. I had seen the Georgians only once, when they toured Japan with Nina in February 2004 with an abbreviated Swan Lake. By then, Nina’s directorial hand had started to revitalize the troupe. Viewing photos of the corps de ballet later that year, Nina had commented, “Not bad.” This was high praise indeed from a perfectionist.
While at the Theatre, Nina makes herself available to all---her office is open to department heads, staff in charge of fund-raising, those who deal with the media and patrons. It is not unusual for someone to knock on the door to ask her a question even while she is in the shower! Above all, Nina responds to the concerns of her dancers. On the eve of Laurencia’s debut, she made a personal visit to the costume department to make sure adjustments were made to the male principal’s outfit.
By virtue of her international stature as an artist, Nina has also become a cultural ambassador for her native land. The President of Georgia brought the President of Poland to view one of her Swan Lake stage rehearsals---taking along their entourage, security detail and the entire Tbilisi press corps.
Still, Nina manages to carve out closed rehearsal time. I watched as she put herself through the routines of stretching, warming up and doing all the little and big steps necessary to put together a performance of Swan Lake that is up to her standards and that of her discerning fans. After two years off pointe, it was painful to start again. “Every day, a different part of the foot hurts,” she confided, as she put on toe shoes over thin socks. “Are those paper towels you are using to line the shoes?” I asked, not believing my eyes. “Yes,” she said simply.
She also mentioned that she has yet to find another cobbler who can make shoes to her satisfaction. Her former one had retired, and so far, neither Capezio nor Freed has managed to provide slippers cut to her precise needs. She is using the last precious few pairs from her old shoemaker.
Nina was also breaking in a new Siegfried. A company principal, Vasil Akhmeteli, was substituting for Sergei Filin. Because of a recent bout with flu, Nina had postponed her comeback performance for a few days. Filin, who had other commitments, could not make it to Tbilisi. During these afternoon sessions, it became obvious that Nina’s technique was intact. She merely needed to polish steps, build her stamina and prepare the particular muscles needed to dance this role.
Her permanent role these days is that of mother. Helene, one-year, two-months-old in April, greeted Nina at the door as she came home. She clung to her mother with cozy affection then proceeded to scrutinize me (with scrunched eyebrows over her bright eyes). I knew I had passed muster when she broke into the most captivating smile I have ever seen from a baby.
The Vashadzes’ new home is a multi-level house in the oldest section of Tbilisi. Its living room windows frame a magnificent view encompassing the river bisecting the city, and across it, a hill topped by an ancient citadel. On the surrounding slopes, at least eight churches, the oldest dating from the 7th century, complete the breathtaking panorama.
But Helene is the heart of the household. Her doting parents delight in taking turns catering to her needs. At playtime, Nina sits on the floor and encourages her to walk or wiggle as she makes funny faces and emits pre-verbal sounds. Of the many toys around, Heleniko (Little Helene) seems to favor anything that makes music---and her father has already predicted that she will be an opera singer. No, not a ballerina, both parents hope---too many sacrifices have to be made for a career in dance.
Nina, of course, has made all those sacrifices and her fans are the lucky beneficiaries of her dedication. Her Odette/Odile on April 19, 2007, was a triumph, and a promise of great performances still to come. It’s as if Nina never left the stage. Her eloquent arms, beautifully articulated legs and feet, wonderful jumps and heart-stopping fouettés were all there, making the tragic Odette and the heartlessly alluring Odile come to life. Above all, her magical stage presence lifted the audience to a different realm of being.
Japanese audiences will be somewhat familiar with SBG’s version of Swan Lake. While adding a rehearsal studio framework to the classic, Alexei Fadeyechev has trimmed extraneous material added by more recent hands to the full-length Petipa/Ivanov original. He also restored the masters’ choreography for the last act. The realistic settings---a moonlit lakeside, a blue and gold Gothic ballroom---provide ample ambience without upstaging the dancing. It’s probably as close to Petipa’s vision as we can get today.
The corps de ballet did honor to the masterpiece, moving and breathing in graceful unison. The soloists were technically assured and full of spirit. Those who have seen the company before and after Nina think she has worked miracles.
A heightened sense of vulnerability enriches Nina’s current shading of Odette, and it may be a reflection of something Nina admitted to me one day. “Now, with the baby, we are scared.” She meant, of course, that as parents, she and Gregory have to make sure they will be around to take care of Helene.
“A dancer who relies on the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.” So said the autocratic impresario Boris Lermontov in the movie The Red Shoes. Nina, among others, has proven him wrong. With a lot of hard work, a supportive spouse, a little luck and great timing, love can nourish and enhance a great dancer.