At 0:05 Thursday, March 15, 2012, we took off from Shanghai for Doha, changed planes and went through Baku to reach our final destination, Tbilisi. When travelers are past a certain age, such a pilgrimage is not lightly undertaken, but with Nina celebrating her 30th stage anniversary we just had to be there.

Sleepless and bedraggled, we emerged at Tbilisi airport about 3 p.m., Georgia time, and were whisked away to our hotel, where many of the faithful were already gathered. On the way in, we ran into Japanese fan Izumi Takahashi and Dance magazine photographer Hidemi Seto, who were on their way to Rustaveli Theater to observe rehearsals for the next evening’s program.

A shower and a short nap later, we were eager for some Georgian cuisine. We hurried off to the old center of Tbilisi for those huge meat dumplings, kinkhali, grilled trout and the typical peasant salad of tomatoes and cucumbers, washed down with refreshing cherry juice. We delighted again at the wonderful freshness and flavor of everything, including addictive bread that had no need of butter or olive oil to satisfy. Finally, we felt like we were alive and in Georgia again.


The following morning, while other friends were still arriving for the festivities, Noel (the web techie/photographer who is also my better half) and I joined a special group of Japanese visitors. This delegation was headed by Masashi Miura, an eminent dance critic and editor-in-chief of Shinshokan Publishing Co. Representatives of Japan Arts, Nina’s and SBG’s presenters in that country, were also among the party. We hitched on for a tour of Nina’s childhood home and neighborhood, hosted by no less than her doting father, the retired geologist Vakhtang Ananiashvili.

The large apartment where Nina grew up is filled with pictures, paintings and memorabilia. Magazines, calendars, photo albums fill every room and table top; carefully arranged book cases guard an array of videos gathered from all phases of Nina’s career.




But before we were allowed to roam around this treasure house, Georgian hospitality had to be satisfied. The dining table was abundantly set with that wonderful cheese-filled bread, kachapuri, and an assortment of French-style pastries---plus wine from the family vineyards. An award-winning vintage---a white variety with an unusual coloring, a rosy-orange tint that the French call “oeil de perdrix” or eye of the partridge---caught everyone’s attention. A bottle with Nina’s image on the label was admired around the table.
















After we devoured the food and the collection, we were led to Vere Park. March is still cold in Caucasus foothills and this particular day was quite blustery, so it took all our imagination to picture little Nina playing among the trees and hedges of this patch of green so close to Tbilisi’s Philharmonic Hall, where the gala was to take place two nights hence.

The evening’s program at Rustaveli Theater showcased two ballets that will be featured in SBG’s gala at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan on July 21.

The first, Sagalobeli, choreographed by Yuri Possokhov to Georgian folk music, had been enjoyed by New York audiences at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2008 (see review, State Ballet of Georgia at BAM). Evoking the beauty, grace and warmth of Georgian people, the company danced it with more fluency this time, with the women flowing through steps with long, fluid lines and pliant torsos, the men with confident stance and partnering.

The evening’s third piece, and surely its highlight, was Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand, originally made for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. Nina is one of a select group of ballerinas who since have been accorded the honor of dancing this piece and she filled the role with consummate artistry. Partnered by Vasil Akhmeteli, who has grown more impassioned in his dancing, Nina tempered her still formidable technique to embody the vulnerable and fragile courtesan---her eloquent arms, the restrained angle of her legs and the delicacy of her footwork conveying the dying heroine’s joy and anguish. Margot and Rudi will remain in memory for their original interpretations, but Nina sets the standard for future ballerinas who may aspire to capture the tender, elegiac perfume of this piece.

Performed between these two ballets was a new work, Tampopo, which presented more questions than its title, the Japanese name for dandelion. This viewer could discern no connection between the name and the action in the piece (created by the Estonian Teet Kask to music by Arvo Pärt), wherein a group of weirdly costumed musicians accompanied bits and pieces of dancing. Nina, as a central figure, moved and re-arranged players and their instruments with no apparent purpose, and ended up laughing and shrugging her shoulders at the end. Perhaps it was a joke I didn’t get. Most of the audience seemed to feel the same way. For the record, the scenography was by Kask, the costumes by Nino Chubinishvili and lighting by Marcus Vaigur.

Puzzlement about the piece provided some conversational fodder at the reception following the performance. Most of us simply concluded that it was a brave experiment in widening the already rich repertory of SBG. However, the appearance of Nina and many of her former cavaliers soon brightened the focus of the evening. Andris Liepa, who elicited much applause when he entered the auditorium, was much sought after, as was Sergei Filin, current artistic director of the Bolshoi. Also present were Alexei Fadeyechev (now artistic director of Rostov State Opera and Ballet), Jose Manuel Carreño, Yuri Possokhov and Vadim Pisarev (artistic director, Donetsk State Opera and Ballet).

Some dancers who were slated to appear at the gala were sighted at the party: Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili from the Joffrey Ballet, Denis Matvienko from the Mariinsky (who partners Nina for the Japan tour). Frank Andersen, former artistic director of Royal Danish Ballet and the éminence grise of the gala, introduced his latest finds, a Chinese pair from Liaoning Ballet, Dong Ting Xing and her partner, Zhong Ren.

Other VIPs seen at the reception were American Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin McKenzie, the Ashton Foundation's Anthony Russell Roberts, Tatiana Terekhova of the Mariinsky and Caroline Llorca, a professor at the Ballet Academy of the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Munich. Margaret Willis (UK) and Erik Aschengreen (Denmark) were among distinguished ballet critics in the mix.


A sumptuous spread provided by sponsors of State Ballet of Georgia at the Marriott Hotel for the launch of Nina’s new photo album wowed attendees who were greeted by a huge wedding-like cake, a chocolate fountain and tiers of finger sandwiches and 30th anniversary cookies. Somehow that bounty proved a fitting frame for the thank-you speeches and the inevitable media attention to the occasion.

Publishing is a perilous business nowadays, with even such venerable institutions as The New York Times resorting to limiting free online accessibility to maintain profitability. “Niche” books---such as an album summarizing a superballerina’s 30 years onstage---are NOT undertaken for profit motives, so we must be especially thankful to those institutions and persons who made this tome possible:

The Ministry of Culture and Monuments Protection of Georgia

Zakaria Paliashvili, Tbilisi State Opera and Ballet Theatre

Cezanne Printing House, Tbilisi, Georgia

Nancy Ellison’s photo of Nina in an iconic Swan Lake pose graces the elegant, vellum-like jacket of the hefty coffee-table book; a smaller photo of the ballerina, in La Sylphide costume, tying her toe shoes is on the back cover. In between are priceless images of the dancer in her major roles; a series of black and white photos of The Dying Swan is especially evocative. Her significant partners are featured, as are studio shots in rehearsal with her teachers and mentors. Backstage photos with colleagues, friends and fans are included as are rare photos with her closest family members.

Nina Alovert, Hidemi Seto, Igor Zakharkin, Monroe Warshaw, Bill Cooper and Judith Heaton are among many renowned dance photographers who contributed images.

Ilia Tavberidze compiled and edited the volume, which was designed by Besik Danelia. The introduction was written by this author, Marylis Sevilla-Gonzaga.

 (N.B. Copies of the photo album, with text in Georgian and English, will be made available in Japan during SBG’s tour in June-July, 2012.)

Complementing the album is the current issue of SBG’s magazine, “Arabesque,” a copy of which can be downloaded as a pdf file from their website. The issue, with Nina posed pensively in Don Q costume on the cover, has more photos of her celebrated colleagues and their heartfelt tributes to the artist.

That evening we were all bused to the National Library of the Parliament of Georgia to view an exhibition of Nina’s costumes. On entering the dimly lit hall, one was disoriented but ultimately beguiled by the installation, designed by Nino Chubinishvili, David Giorgadze and Tamuna Karumidze. The darkness and lack of conventional labels were at first frustrating, but once you allowed your imagination to take hold, it was a magical experience to see the colorful costumes lighted from within, seeming to float in space.


Images of Nina in various ballets were projected high along the walls and vaulted ceiling, heightening the spatial illusion. Those familiar with her multiple roles easily could identify most items. However, there were some ambiguities---was that Giselle’s or Lise’s costume? Raymonda’s or Aurora’s? In the end, it didn’t really matter. The show simply stimulated our memory cells---it made us think back to the joys of performances past.


Tbilisi’s Concert Hall became the center of the ballet universe for this evening, as Nina, surrounded by former partners, current colleagues and budding luminaries of the next ballet generation gathered for a wondrous evening of dance.

One does not really review galas, and this one in particular invited the lucky viewer to sit back, enjoy and count one’s blessings. A few observations however:

In excerpts from Reflections, by Yuri Possokhov to Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 1, SBG corps groupings in brightly colored tutus had fun with gliding steps; in the pas de deux section, Nina, in a translucent, abbreviated skirt was partnered by Akhmeteli in various off-kilter poses. It would be interesting to see the whole piece.

The Bolshoi Ballet’s Evgenia Obraztsova and Dimitri Gudanov moved with confident grace through the grand finale pdd of Sleeping Beauty. Her sweet face lent particular charm; he partnered faultlessly in the Petipa classic.

Maia Makhateli (Dutch National Ballet) and David Makhateli (late of the Royal Ballet, Covent Garden) moved sweetly through a ppd from Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. Dong Ting Xing and Ren Zhong (Liaoning Ballet) delighted in a stylish performance of a pdd from Bournonville’s La Sylphide. Angel Corella (American Ballet Theatre) and Momoko Hirata (Corella Ballet) displayed technical brilliance in Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Jose Manuel Carreño followed with a soulful solo choreographed by Igal Perry to Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria.

Think 30, 49, 32. Thirty years on stage, forty-nine birthdays, thirty-two fouéttes---all combined to bring the house down as Nina concluded the pas de trois from Le Corsaire in awesome style. The showpiece for three, Vasil Akhmeteli (SBG) was Conrad, Denis Matvienko (Mariinsky Ballet) Ali, ended the first half of the concert, with the celebrant providing the most fantastic fireworks. Comment overheard at intermission, “ She is not a normal human being!”

A reprise of the bagatelle Alexei Ratmansky made for Nina’s farewell season at American Ballet Theatre opened the second half of the program. The catching lilt of Khatchaturian’s Waltz from Masquerade served the flirty ambiance of the piece, where a bevy of cavaliers fight over a ballerina. Carreño, Corella, Matvienko and Akhmeteli played their parts to the hilt. (Those of us who wished that former partners who were in the audience would join the fray were severely disappointed.)

Elena Glurdjidze (English National Ballet) and Sergei Polunin (formerly with Royal Ballet, Covent Garden) returned proceedings to the classical vein with a pdd from Raymonda, with choreography attributed to Rudolf Nureyev instead of Petipa. Anastasia Matvienko and Denis Matvienko (Mariinsky Ballet) did honor to Viktor Gsovsky’s Grand Pas Classique.

In between, American Ballet Theatre couple Maria Riccetto and Blaine Hoven brought ballet up to date with Twyla Tharp’s Known by Heart, a kinetically exciting piece sparked by the pair’s vibrantly polished performance. The Georgians answered with another piece from Possokhov; Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili (Joffrey Ballet) proved equally able in the modern inflections of Bells, made to music by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The Diane and Acteon pdd from Esmeralda is a quintessential gala piece, and the Bolshoi’s Anastasia Stashkevich and Vyacheslav Lopatin made the most of Agrippina Vaganova’s flamboyant choreography. Angel Corella, who has become a favorite with the Georgian audience, roused the crowd with his exuberant solo, Suspended in Time, by Russell Drucker.



A Georgian gala requires Georgian music and the finale provided it with the premiere of Khorumi, a pastiche from the ballet Heart of the Mountains by Andria Balanchivadze, choreographed by Gia Marghania. The company proudly showed off folk dance motifs interspersed with Old World ballroom scenes. It ended with a solo turn for Nina, a reprise of “Lekuri” which she danced at the Chabukiani gala in 2010.





The ovations were long and joyous, and that mood led right into the after-gala party. Felicitations to Nina and other participants, plus reunions with longtime ballet friends and acquaintances continued into the night.

A latecomer to our table, current Finnish National Ballet artistic director Kenneth Greve, made us aware that we were not the only ones to make extraordinary efforts to get to Nina’s celebration. Kenneth had partnered Nina earlier in his career as a principal at Royal Danish Ballet. He had taken multiple flights from Finland that day and arrived in Tbilisi just in time for the gala. He declared he had not eaten since breakfast, so Noel and I solicitously handed him all the choicest goodies arrayed in front of us. Others at the table made sure he got his fill of wine.

There was a pause at midnight to mark the celebrant’s 49th birthday anniversary. Yes, Nina’s correct birth date is March 19---a fact long-known to many but which Nina didn’t want corrected in the many published biographies in print and online, reasoning that a few more days didn’t make any real difference.

In the event, the music band struck up the “Happy Birthday” tune and everyone, including the President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, provided vocals. In a wonderful surprise, six-year-old Elene got up on the dais and sang the song in Georgian for her Mom. Who could top that?

As a recent documentary said it, Vivat, Nina, Vivat!!!

Marylis Sevilla-Gonzaga