By Marylis Sevilla-Gonzaga

The 100th birthday anniversary of the Georgian ballet legend VAKHTANG CHABUKIANI gathered ballet professionals and lovers from around the globe for a weeklong cultural program that intertwined history, religion, art, food and wine---all the elements that reveal the heart and soul of this bountiful nation tucked in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains.

Among the distinguished professionals—past and present key administrators with renowned ballet companies who continue to be valued advisers in the ballet field---were Frank Andersen from Denmark, Paul Podolski of Norway and Anthony Russell-Roberts from the U.K. Later in the week, Paul Curran, current Artistic Director of Norwegian National Opera and Ballet joined the group.  Among dance critics were Majbrit Hjelmsbo (Denmark) and Margaret Willis (U.K. and the world).

Kirov/Mariinsky luminaries Tatiana Terekhova and Sergei Berezhnoi livened up the party, as did Caroline Llorca from Munich’s Ballet Academy.

Loyal fans Iino Mayumi and Okamoto Atsuko flew in from Japan; your reporter Marylis Sevilla-Gonzaga, with photographer/website spider Noel Gonzaga came in from Shanghai.


Day 1, October 19, 2010: Predictably, the first event was an “arrival dinner” for the participants, held at the Kopala Restaurant in the old section of the city. Authentic Georgian dishes coupled with congenial company would have been quite memorable enough, but the restaurant also afforded a breathtaking view of the Narikhala Fortress and the Metekhi Church, lit up at night.















Food Highlights: The Georgian table has a well-deserved reputation for the freshness and quality of the local ingredients and the way they are combined in many delicious ways. At this dinner, the usual and delicious grilled marinated meats and stews were present, but standouts were an array of vegetable appetizers (tolmas) stuffed with herbs, spices and walnuts, strewn with pomegranate seeds. Also pleasantly surprising were salmon and trout fresh from mountain streams.


Day 2, October 20: A tour of Metekhi Church and Narikhala was thwarted by closures in preparation for Tbilisoba, or Tbilisi Day. Instead, the group visited the Holy Trinity Cathedral on Mount Elijah. Reputedly the biggest religious complex in the South Caucasus, this impressive cathedral is visible from almost every part of Tbilisi.



In the evening, State Ballet of Georgia presented its revival of Chabukiani’s Laurencia (see review from 2007).  Lali Kandelaki repeated the title role with her customary aplomb; Vasil Akhmeteli bravely took on the part of Frondoso, introduced to the world by Chabukiani himself in 1939. The company acquitted itself well with a rousing performance marred only by the strident quality of the recorded music. (The Paliashvili Theatre is undergoing renovations, so the company has been making do with facilities in theaters not made for ballet. This performance, and the subsequent Don Quixote took place at the Rustaveli Theatre.)


Day 3, October 21:  Our hosts, a revolving cast of SBG staffers, took us to Mtskheta, the ancient capital of Georgia.  Our first stop was Jvari, a sixth-century monastery on a rocky promontory overlooking the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi Rivers, as well as the Georgian Military Highway. The view from these heights is truly astounding.



In Mtskheta itself is Svetitskhoveli, originally a wooden church built over the spot where legend says Jesus Christ’s mantle was buried. Destroyed and rebuilt many times over, the grounds of the current basilica is the resting place of many Georgian kings and noblemen of past eras.







Food Highlights: Lunch on a balcony overlooking a valley was another sumptuous affair. Katchapuri, the heavenly cheese-filled bread consumed all over Georgia was a staple of our meals, of course. Here, the group was introduced to another Georgian favorite, khinkali--- big, meat-filled dumplings oozing with soup. Eating them requires a certain technique to avoid a mess, but they are definitely worth the effort. (Gourmands familiar with Shanghai’s xiaolongbao already know the trick.) This robust, three-inch cousin of China’s petite dim sum most probably is a legacy of the Mongol invasion of the country in the 13th century.







Day 4, October 22:  Rain finally came to Tbilisi on this day, so it was with muddied shoes that we trudged into the Museum of Theatre, Cinema, Music and Choreography, housed in an old palace built by a German aristocrat for his Georgian lover. Among the displays were numerous items of memorabilia from Chabukiani’s long career as dancer, choreographer and pedagogue. Costumes and manuscripts, including monograph pages of Tchaikovsky were proudly displayed.


Next stop was the Ethnography Museum---an open-air field with a collection of houses from different eras and  regions of Georgia. 





Food Highlights: Lunch---an extravagant feast by Turtle Lake---included one of my favorite Georgian dishes, garlic fried chicken. Pieces of chicken are fried in butter and oil, then smothered in copious amounts of garlic and ground walnuts. Just as we thought we were too sated for anything else, out came platters of chicken livers----perfectly cooked and flavored with just the right amount of onions.



At the Rustaveli Theater that evening, two young soloists from the Bolshoi took the leads in Don Quixote. The sound system had been tweaked to an acceptable quality of sound, so this performance was easier on the ears. Anastasia Stashkevich, a petite, well-proportioned dancer was taking on Kitri for the first time. She showed off that vaunted Bolshoi schooling and plenty of personal charm. Her partner, Vyacheslav Lopatin, was even more impressive as Basil, displaying brilliant moves and strong control of his body in the showy passages. The SBG soloists and corps held up their own end in Alexei Fadeyechev’s vibrant staging.



Day 5, October 23: A light drizzle continued to fall as we made our pilgrimage to Mt. Mtatsminda and Chabukiani’s grave, which was bedecked with floral offerings.












Later, at a park in the center of the city, the hardy members of our troupe helped Nina and the Mayor of Tbilisi plant trees in memory of the legendary dancer.



Food Highlights: Our reward for all these arduous tasks was yet another banquet---this time at a downtown restaurant named Chakrulo, where the khatchapuri was outstanding. A grilled river fish also was memorable for its freshness and simplicity. For this dinner, we were blessed with wine from Nina’s and Gregory’s own vineyards. Georgia, which has credible claims to be the cradle of winemaking, produces some of the most delectable vintages I’ve ever tasted. Gregory’s wines are, in my opinion, worth the trip.


Day 6, October 24: At last, Tbilisi Day was upon us, and the group was guided on a walking tour of the old city (and a new footbridge); the twisting pedestrian lanes filled with enticing restaurants and shops had been transformed into a fairground displaying Georgian craft, food and wine.



That evening, we were herded early into the Tbilisi Concert Hall for the opening of an exhibition of  Chabukiani photos.

The gala concert (see review: Vakhtang Chabukiani Celebrated) and reception followed.




 Day 7, October 25: With most guests having flown away from Tbilisi in the dawn hours right after the gala, my photographer/husband Noel and I were left to our own devices. Eka Shavliashvili, a company soloist and teacher graciously let us observe her class of beginners---a wonderfully instructive experience in the thoroughness of the Vaganova method of instruction.



A climb up to the Narikhala Fortress was a good prelude to late lunch, and a chance for a rendezvous with Nina and Heleniko.