A SWAN TAKES FLIGHT, INTERVIEW OF NINA & GREGORY BY PAUL LIEBERMAN

 

From: Los Angeles Times Magazine, June 21, 2000

By PAUL LIEBERMAN


A SWAN TAKES FLIGHT

After fighting for her artistic freedom, Nina Ananiashvili strives to balance her relentless perfectionism and a hectic international dance schedule


NEW YORK--Barely 12 hours after Nina Ananiashvili drew a standing-room crowd and a standing ovation for her "Swan Lake" at Lincoln Center, her husband is telling her, "You are insane. Certifiably insane."

Ananiashvili has been nit-picking her performance, not satisfied with a couple of her scenes as both the white swan who wins the prince's heart and the black swan who turns his head. "It's possible to stay longer," she says--meaning on pointe. "And possible to do better pirouettes." She explains that she had little time to prepare with her American Ballet Theatre partner, Julio Bocca--"two or three rehearsals, that's it." That's not uncommon for a marquee dancer counted on to carry productions for one company after another around the world--indeed, Ananiashvili was getting set to leave for a U.S. tour of her home troupe, Russia's Bolshoi Ballet, which arrives in Southern California this week. But with only two appearances left in New York before taking off, she wished "Swan Lake" was one of them, "so we do it better."

"Of course," she admits, "audience seem happy." Really? How about they kept her on stage for 15 minutes of curtain calls, fans rushing down the aisle to throw bouquet after bouquet over the orchestra pit. True--some audiences will cheer anything. But the critics tossed bouquets too: the New York Post describing a "flashing Ananiashvili" pulling off the demanding 32 fouettés --turns on one leg--and the New York Times calling it a "hair-raisingly brilliant and deep performance, whipping the audience into a frenzied ovation."

What else can the burly man beside Ananiashvili say? "Insane ballerina!" declares Gregory Vashadze, who is both husband and manager of the dancer he sees "forever chasing that bird of perfection." They are seated in a booth at Fiorello's Roman Cafe--as they often are when she's performing in New York--across Broadway from Lincoln Center. A key to sanity on the road, they've found, is to find a place in each city they can make their own. When they walk into Fiorello's for Sunday brunch, the maitre d' has a hug for Gregory and a two-cheek peck for Nina.

Moments later, he's pouring an Italian Bierra Moretti and she's ordering eggs Benedict with salmon while digging into the bread basket. No model's diet for "Nina Ballerina," as friends sometimes call her. Nina Ballerina may sound a bit playful, even as a nickname, for an International Star of the Classical Arts. But playful she can be, this ballerina whose analysis of pirouettes dissolves quickly to gleeful laughter. All it takes is her husband recalling how he too once threw flowers at her. That was 15 years ago in Moscow. She was a rising Bolshoi dancer, just 22. He was 27, and rising also--in the Soviet diplomatic corps. He was a legal expert in the delegation to the SALT arms talks in Geneva when he saw her on TV. He at first characterizes his conduct as "very French" or "sort of mystical." Then he concedes that "bottom line, it's an American soap opera thing."

Not even a ballet fan back in 1985, he flew from Switzerland to Moscow to follow "this urge" to see this dancer. But just as he took his seat at the Bolshoi, a staffer announced that Miss Ananiashvili was ill and would not perform. "Can you imagine?" he asks. Then he sent flowers, a huge basket, $300 worth. His note expressed his concern, as a fellow native of the republic of Georgia, for her health. He also gave a number in town. She picks up the story in her self-taught English: "I felt very sorry because some person with Georgian name come specially to see me. I was young ballerina, basket of flowers not usual. Bouquet, we have this tradition. But basket like this?"--she spreads her arms--"I think I need to call and say, 'Thank you.' "

He says: "Big mistake." She laughs: "Big mistake." When she phoned, he told her, "I really want to meet you." She said, "I'm sorry. I'm at home with my grandmother and I'm sick." He said, "Can I come tonight?"

Grandma gave him 25 minutes, then checked him out the following day, with a few calls back to Georgia, a tightknit region of 5 million in the southwest corner of the then-Soviet Union: Mr. Flower-Giver was the son of the deputy prime minister. Grandma's next question was whether he was KGB. He swears he wasn't an agent. "It was a fantastic secret service which was outplaying Americans, British and everybody," he says. "I would be proud. But I was never proposed. Somehow I don't have qualities necessary."

She translates: "Not very disciplined person." He did show discipline in one pursuit--of the ballerina he had fallen for, right off the TV, and vowed to marry. "He needs three years," she says. She held out because "I want to show him how difficult life I have. But somehow, every time I have some problem, he says, 'No problem! We'll do this.' " He had a plan, naturally, when it came time for her showdown with the Bolshoi.

Nina Ananiashvili comes from Georgian aristocracy, but the family's wealth and land vanished with the Russian revolution. Her father's people were wiped out in the Stalinist 1930s. Of the males, only he was spared, being just 2 years old. He became a geologist and married a linguist. Their daughter, born in 1963, was sickly. At 4, they started her ice skating to improve her health. At 10, she won her age group in Georgia. A dance teacher saw how she moved on the ice--that balance and how she used her arms--and had her perform "The Dying Swan" on skates. Then she was taken to a theater and shown the feathered costume she could wear if she performed it on stage, just like Maya Plisetskaya, the Bolshoi prima ballerina. They had her.

If the ballet crowd campaigned for the little girl, who could blame them? Early photos show qualities beyond the extension on her jumps. Her almond-shaped eyes cry out in soulful sadness. The eyes--accented by the thickest black eyebrows--drew you in, even then. When she was 13, a Russian ballet official saw her in "The Nutcracker" and asked to speak with her parents. It took some prodding before they consented to send her to Moscow. Her grandmother retired from a career as a physician to go along.

If you ask Ananiashvili today when she sensed the otherworldliness of her talent, she says: Never, really. What she recalls is fear, landing in a big city where school was in Russian, not Georgian. She got Ds and fell into such a panic that she briefly went blind--she couldn't see the blackboard. Grandma sent for Georgian textbooks, and she began working in both languages, up to 2 a.m., until the Ds became As. On the ballet front, she recalls her mother visiting the academy "and every time, she ask this question of my teacher: 'If she's not so good and not so hard-working tell me--because I want to take her from school.' " Why waste a spot that could go to a more deserving youngster?

The teachers wanted none of that. "Don't touch this girl!" But when Mama was gone, they too got on her case. It was the Russian scolding approach to coaching: Whatever you do, "it's not good enough." They entered her in her first international competition in 1980, in Bulgaria. Ananiashvili was glum at the thought that she'd probably not get to wear all the pretty costumes her coach had sewed just in case she survived the round after round of judging. She wore them all, of course, en route to the gold medal. The next year, the Bolshoi signed her to a corps de ballet contract. She was 17.

Two days before the company's 1982 tour of Germany, she got word that the artistic director, Yuri Grigorovich, wanted her for "Swan Lake." She hoped she might be one of the would-be brides checked out by the prince. Not quite. Grigorovich needed a lead, the dual Odette/Odile role. Her coaches confined her to a rehearsal stage, watching videotapes, then repeating the moves. Ananiashvili figures a dancer has a handful of performances in a career that stand out as "like dream," when technique, emotion and the moment come together. Everything works. Her teenage "Swan Lake" was Dream No. 1. She was too numb to count, but others told her the audience in Hamburg brought her back for 13 curtain calls.

The first thing Ananiashvili does at the end of ABT's "La Sylphide" is find her wings on the stage. The wings are props, but they're century-old props, a cherished gift from the Royal Danish Ballet, which originated its "La Sylphide" in 1836. The company wanted to express its appreciation when she didn't just show up for a guest appearance--she took class. In fact, she did it for three months to properly learn the intricate style of August Bournonville, who choreographed the ballet about a man who abandons his bride on their wedding day, having glimpsed an idealized vision of a woman, a sylph. In the final scene, the wayward groom catches the ethereal creature, causing her death, as her wings fall off. Before the curtain calls begin, with the applause rising, she puts them safely into the hands of the Metropolitan Opera House's chief dresser, Mary Ann Gibbons. Only then does she head back out through the lowered curtain to bow her head, haloed in flowers. When the audience has had enough, the second wave of adulation begins backstage: pictures, kisses and goodbyes--for Ananiashvili heads out in the morning. She hugs her best friends in New York, Bill and Nancy Rollnick, who hurried backstage.

The Rollnicks are the reason the ABT can afford one of the world's top ballerinas. Bill Rollnick, 68, is the former owner of an electronic equipment rental firm and a former board member of Mattel. He has funded operas and race cars, and donated enough ($456,000) to the Democratic National Committee to earn a night in the Clinton White House. In 1991, he was part of the U.S. delegation observing the historic Russian elections won by Boris Yeltsin. Courting Nancy Ellison at the time, he asked her along. Ellison, a photographer, picked up some gigs of her own, including one to shoot a dancer. A dutiful suitor, Rollnick volunteered to lug the gear up to the Moscow apartment. He was greeted by Vashadze, the husband-manager, then barely 30 but already with a Mercedes and chauffeur. The Georgian admits he assumed--for a moment--that this American was, in fact, a lowly photog's assistant. He learned the full truth when he mentioned that his wife would love to work with the ABT someday. Rollnick confessed, "I'm on the board." Ananiashvili has been a featured dancer with the American company for eight years now. The programs explain that her appearances are paid for "by the William D. Rollnick and Nancy Ellison Rollnick Foundation."

This evening, they head for Ananiashvili's dressing room, where a procession begins at the door. ABT board members want to pay their respects. Blaine Trump, Donald's sister-in-law, stops by. Outside, waiting for autographs, is Marylis Sevilla-Gonzaga, who once danced with a Philippine folk troupe ("I was one of the bamboo clappers") on "The Ed Sullivan Show." She now operates, with her husband, the "Friends of Nina" Web site, http://www.ananiashvili.com. In the dressing room, Ananiashvili gives one of the evening's bouquets to Gibbons, the dresser. Another staffer blow-dries a sweaty costume. Vashadze collects the colorful tutus piled on the floor into a large laundry-type bag. Gibbons finds scissors to snip the laces tying the back of Ananiashvili's white bodice. Nina Ballerina takes a swig of bottled water and says, "All men out! Please."

The Bolshoi Theatre is as old as the United States. Bolshoi means "big," and it is. Big sets. Big casts. Big stories. The theater has 2,632 employees, including 212 "artists" in the ballet wing. Although Russian ballet in general has long been the envy of the world, the aura surrounding the Bolshoi was never more evident than in 1959, the peak of the Cold War, when promoter Sol Hurok arranged an American tour. One million applications were received for 165,000 seats. When the tour opened with "Romeo and Juliet," the New York Times gushed that the "teeming dramatic pageant" would cause "the term ballet . . . to take on new meaning in these parts." When the "Great Spectacle" headed West, the Los Angeles Times spotted Clark Gable among the who's who at the Shrine Auditorium, the Norman Chandlers seated a row behind.

Four decades later?
Even the current tour's promoter agrees that the Bolshoi "has to prove itself again." What happened? First came the defections at the highest levels of Russian dance, as stars such as Nureyev (1961), Makarova (1970) and Baryshnikov (1974) fled to the West. Though the Bolshoi was not as hard hit as the Kirov--its biggest loss was Alexander Godunov, the future movie actor--the defections fostered defensive paranoia and artistic isolation. After the Cold War thawed and borders opened, it was nothing novel to have a Russian name in the cast. The Bolshoi name was not helped, meanwhile, by attempts to exploit it. A series of promotions tried to lure ticket buyers with partial "stars of" or "highlight" tours. The nadir came in 1996, when the company made a deal with a green promoter for a bona fide Bolshoi tour, but to Las Vegas of all places, then L.A. The backers gambled that the Middle Americans on the Strip would pay $300 to see "Swan Lake." Bad bet. With money short for any real promotion, few fans showed up in L.A. either.

Ananiashvili was not part of that fiasco. But she was very much caught in the winds buffeting the mighty Bolshoi. To understand the insecurity that comes with being a ballerina, ask one--no matter how accomplished--whether she still has the Nightmare. It goes like this: You hear your music and you're not ready. You don't have your pointe shoes on. Or your tutu. "And it's some important performance," says Ananiashvili, "like somebody important see you, your career could be changed. And you not ready. Then you wake up." Some anxiety she likes. She thrived in the demanding, scolding Russian ballet culture. She loved how the coaches would come backstage between acts to rant about her foot position. She saw how this linked her to Russia's great dance heritage: Her Bolshoi coach was Raisa Struchkova; she had been a student of Elizabetha Gerdt; she was the daughter of Paul Gerdt; he taught--we're at the turn of the century now--the great Anna Pavlova. . . .

But it bothered her, still, what happened after her teenage triumph in Germany--a full year passed before she was assigned to do "Swan Lake" again. Sure, the company liked the gold medals she kept winning with her first partner, the dashing Andris Liepa, and the rave reviews they gained during tours in 1986 and '87. Yet even as the troupe thirsted for stars, this posed a dilemma for Bolshoi officials. Once you build 'em up, how do you keep 'em on the farm? Such dancers couldn't help but be tempted by the opportunities --creative and financial--offered in the West. So after Liepa didn't return from a North American tour in 1988, the Bolshoi brass balked when Ananiashvili was invited to appear in a Paris gala with Makarova and Baryshnikov. They began giving her fewer roles and telling foreign ballet officials she was unavailable to dance. This anxiety Ananiashvili didn't need. She toyed with giving up performing and going home to Georgia. "I really don't want to think about defecting," she recalls. "If I do, I don't see my parents, don't see my people, don't see my coach." "Don't see me," another voice says.

Months earlier, she had given in and married Vashadze. He decided that the ballet world might require the same tough diplomacy as international arms talks. "I never planned to interfere in her professional life. I was not qualified," he says. "But she came home crying. They have withdrawn her passport and they have said to everybody in West that she is gravely ill." He wrote a letter for her, addressed to the director of the Bolshoi: Give me my freedom and let me live a normal life--performing where I want--or I'm quitting. Petrified, she sat on the letter for a week. "I think more," she says. In truth, even her husband expected a less-than-ideal ending. "I thought she will have to sign that [resignation]. We will go live in West. I never thought it be that easy," he says, "to keep Russia and enjoy rest of the world too."

But that's what happened. The head of the Bolshoi tore up the letter, she recalls, then told her, "You have not written anything. I have not read anything. Go and enjoy your life--and still dance with us." That's how Nina Ananiashvili became the model of the modern global dance star. She remained rooted in Russian ballet but on her own terms. Today, her second professional homes are with ABT and the Houston Ballet, where she dances each year. In between, she is all over the world stage, performing with the Royal Danish Ballet or the Royal Ballet in London or with the Kirov, or taking her own small troupe, Nina Ananiashvili and Stars, to appearances from Japan to Jacob's Pillow in the Berkshires.

The sad truth is, a dancer--like an athlete--has only a limited window of time to go full-throttle. May was not atypical for Ananiashvili, who began it in Moscow, leading the Bolshoi's high-profile re-creation of a 19th century work. Three days later came the ABT gala in New York, then six performances over three weeks with that company before meeting the Bolshoi in Washington, D.C., for the launch of the U.S. tour May 30.

It's in part because she signed on to be there that the Bolshoi was able to pull off its return to America with "Romeo and Juliet" and "Don Quixote." The New York-based producer, David Eden--a survivor of the Soviet system  himself--had "convincing" to do with arts officials in the tour's five cities who worried about the multimillion-dollar costs at a time when ballet is not the easiest sell. So he flew them to Moscow last year and sat them in the old "Czar's box" to see Ananiashvili in "Romeo and Juliet." Each locale then signed up, he said, on one condition. "That she appear each first night." Gregory Vashadze is on the fourth-row aisle of the Kennedy Center, playing with his thick mustache. "When I'm nervous only about Nina, it's tolerable," he
says. "When I'm nervous about the whole company . . ."

His wife has been nervous too. One of the prices of freedom--and ballet globalization--is the readjustment required when stars like her or the Argentine Bocca rejoin one of their companies. She has spent the last five days preparing with coaches and her latest Bolshoi partner, the lanky Andrei Uvarov, only 27, rehearsing in a warehouse-sized studio, then returning to work alone, watching videotapes, repeating her moves. Now, as the full orchestra launches the Prokofiev music, Vashadze folds his arms, fighting the anxiety. This is a different audience than in New York, a bit more conservative, less ballet hip--quite a few of the men appear to have been dragged along by wives. In New York, there surely would be applause when the curtain goes up, showing three figures--Romeo, Juliet and the priest--on podiums, as classical statues. Here there's uncertainty. Ananiashvili will have to warm them up, then win them over.

After the first act, the nervous one is Eden, in another aisle seat. "It's so big!" he exclaims to Vashadze. "Now I know why no one wants to bring this on tour!" The Kennedy Center stage barely holds the lush curtains and sets that took seven full shipping containers to import from Moscow. "For some of the tour we'll have to cut down," he says. During the second intermission, he worries about the lighting. "This afternoon, we're not sure we have a show. So many problems."

Familiar faces come down the aisle: the "Friends of Nina" Web page crew from New York. Also here is California's Russian ballet historian Dwight Grell, who is organizing an exhibit on the Bolshoi for display in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and Orange County Performing Arts Center. Whenever it comes to L.A., he prepares bouquets--handmade carnations, roses, Casablanca lilies--to throw at the artists. He is not nervous. Ecstatic is more like it. "Nina," he says. "Nina. Just see the expression. Everything about the body expresses. Even the eyelashes. Sublime." It's much like what you hear about her throughout the ballet community--so unaffected offstage, so transformed on it. "You know she will light the stage up with this brilliant energy, this fabulous attack," says Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre. "You know she's going to come out there and be herself with total self-assurance. That's the gift."

The next day, Ananiashvili gives her usual verdict. "I think we did good performance," she says. "Almost everything." They found their Washington restaurant in the Watergate complex, a few jetés below Kennedy Center. After a rehearsal of "Don Quixote," one of the waiters at Dominique's waves them to his section. Vashadze says he's already eyeing a refuge in L.A., as well. "Valentino's," he says. "I'm told that's the best Italian."

He may well sell to these places someday--he's invested some of their money in vineyards in Georgia, once a booming wine region. They bought 375 acres, right where her family owned land before the revolution. There are walnut trees, a trout stream, blue mountains--plenty of space for the kids they hope to have soon. Friends have noticed how he already speaks to her about "life after," so she won't be caught adrift, like some ballerinas, when the artistic director begins looking for a fresh set of legs from the corps de ballet.

At 37, she has visions of building an all-purpose academy as well as a house. To settle down, though, she'd have to resist the lure of a ballet master's post with one of her companies and the privilege of scolding others. Think that's not in her makeup? When another dancer made the mistake recently of muttering about too much coaching, Ananiashvili wagged her finger at the young woman and lectured, "You're not good enough to say that." "But this is my fantasy," she says as her husband pours her a glass of Chateau de Candale. "When I finish dance, we live there and I open something like this school. I teach ballet and you"--she pats his shoulder--"you will be like person who teach, because
you are person who know a lot of things."

He has planted the first two sections of the vineyard. He hopes to divide it into five domaines. The first? "Domaine St. Nina." They're lost for a moment in the far-off world. But then it's time for sleep--Chicago is next, then Seattle and California, then back to Lincoln Center for the finale of the ABT season and performances with the Bolshoi. Then to Egypt and Israel. Then--a vacation. "He promise, he promise, he promise!" she says As they laugh and link arms for the walk back to their hotel, Vashadze says, "Remember what James Joyce used to say. 'Dance first, think later.' "