NINA ANANAISHVILI & STARS OF THE BOLSHOI BALLET IN JAPAN 2004

An essay on Nina published in the program for her Tour of Japan 2004; English version printed with permission from Japan Arts.

 

 

A BOUQUET FOR NINA

I fell in love with Nina Ananiashvili at first sight. It was the summer of 1987, and the Bolshoi Ballet had come in full force for a three-week season at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.  Among the galaxy of ballerinas the company brought on this U.S. tour were its established stars Natalia Bessmertnova and Lyudmila Semenyaka, plus a younger generation including Nina Semizorova and Alla Mikhalchenko.  There was much to admire in all of them, but it was Nina, with her fresh verve and technical panache, who became the favorite of the audience. I still remember the dazzling series of turns in attitude with which she capped a divertissement---it sent me running back to the box office, hoping to get tickets for the rest of her performances. Astoundingly, she danced Myrta as well as the title role in Giselle during that Met season.  I had never before, or since, seen a ballerina tackle both roles in such distinguished fashion. It was just a hint of the range of Nina’s capabilities that I would be privileged to witness through the years.

In 1988, I saw Nina again with Andris Liepa, her partner in those early years, when they became the first Soviet dancers to be invited as guest artists with New York City Ballet (NYCB). Together, they fascinated us in Balanchine’s Raymonda Variations and Apollo; and I can still see Nina’s mesmerizing swoon into Otto Neubert’s arms at the end of the second movement of Symphony in C.

Long years passed before I could see Nina again. Meanwhile, the thawing of political relationships between East and West had allowed her to dance with ballet companies around the world: she was expanding her repertory and becoming a ballet superstar. Then, as luck would have it, New York-based art patrons, Bill Rollnick and Nancy Ellison Rollnick, decided to sponsor Nina’s appearances with American Ballet Theatre (ABT).  Starting in 1993, she danced principal roles with the company during its spring seasons at the Metropolitan Opera House. I could delight in seeing Nina develop as an artist in Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote, Giselle, La Bayadère, La Sylphide, MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, Manon and many other works.

With repeated viewings over a relatively short period of time, my appreciation of Nina’s gifts continued to grow. Although my husband and I had been avid ballet lovers for more than thirty years, and admired many artists who came before her, in Nina we found that perfect balance of talent, physical beauty, intelligence and inner radiance. Finally, we decided that we had to do something for this artist who enriched our lives so profoundly. Through Nina Alovert, a ballet photographer and writer whom I knew professionally, we made contact with Nina’s husband, Gregory Vashadze. Our timing turned out to be perfect---they were being urged by fans to do a website-- and so, www.ananiashvili.com was launched in December 1997.

As the site grew, so did our friendship with Nina and Gregory. One precious privilege we were granted was to be on Nina’s guest list after every performance. It is thrilling to be able to see her just off the stage, still in her costume, greeting the fans who had found their way backstage at the Met. One thing that struck me was that Nina never seemed to sweat! It is a wonder how someone who has just danced something as arduous as Don Quixote or Swan Lake can look so fresh! Always gracious, she stops to give a hug and a kiss to faithful friends---and children get extra special attention. Once, I thanked her for making us feel so happy, and she said, “I’m happy, because that’s my job.”

The ballerina’s “job” is never done. Every day there is class, and afternoons are occupied by rehearsals. At ABT (unlike at the Bolshoi) the varied repertory and compressed season means that you are learning or reviewing one role while dancing another, frequently on the same day. Sometimes we are allowed to attend rehearsals, always a treat. Nina arrives early and begins stretching before the session begins. She once explained to me that even though she may be dancing similar classical ballets, each role has different requirements and steps, so it is necessary to warm up different muscles for each one.

As soon as Nina’s coach (almost always Irina Kolpakova, a great Kirov ballerina of a former generation) and the pianist arrive, work begins in earnest. This past summer, we watched Nina and Marcelo Gomes rehearse their duets for Don Quixote. Marcelo was making his debut as Basilio, and many adjustments in placement and timings had to be agreed upon. ABT’s artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, also made an appearance, since this was his version of the ballet; he was particular about all the details of the action.

On the way back to her dressing room, Nina happened to pass across the main stage, where two soloists were practicing their numbers. Nina watched for a while, then, to their delight, she gave them pointers on how to do execute some steps with more ease.

So why does Nina have to rehearse Don Q---a ballet she could probably dance in her sleep?  Because repetition is the basis of solid technique, and a dancer always needs a critical eye to keep her in top form. Even after twenty years onstage, it seems there is always one more detail, one more pause or snap of the wrist that somehow makes a phrase more dramatic or meaningful. Of course, the sessions with Kolpakova are always conducted in Russian, so we miss many details. But even so, just watching the corrections and Nina’s instant response is fascinating.

After watching a rehearsal, it is so much more rewarding to see the performance---knowing where adjustments had been made, and difficult parts smoothed out in practice. But although one might try to concentrate on these minute facets, it is never really possible to escape being swept up with the large-scale interpretation that Nina gives to each role. In ballet parlance, Nina “dances big;” her Bolshoi training is evident in the fullness of every physical gesture, the boldness of her leaps, the extreme extension of her torso, arms and legs, the amazing speed of her turns. Yet she never takes the “small” steps for granted. To see Nina execute delicate entrechats as Giselle, effortless sissonnes as Aurora and lacey pointe work as Raymonda is to realize that in fact, there are no small steps in ballet.

As anyone who has seen her dance knows, Nina is no mere virtuoso. She imbues steps with meaning, weaving them into seamless musical phrases that communicate mood, feeling and story to the audience. One could compare her to a painter who, with brushstrokes big and small, creates a masterpiece right before your eyes. She also has that compelling stage presence that lights up the stage and makes everything and everyone around her seem more brilliant.

Among classical dancers currently onstage, one could say that the passionately lyrical Alessandra Ferri, the charismatic virtuoso Sylvie Guillem and the vivacious Diana Vishneva possess many of Nina’s virtues. And certainly there have been superlative artists in the recent past who have enriched dance with their memorable personalities and achievements. Having resided in the U.S. since the late 1960’s, I have enjoyed watching many top ballet companies and their principal artists. I was fortunate to catch the glorious twilight years of Margot Fonteyn; the radiant prime of Suzanne Farrell, Gelsey Kirkland, Merrill Ashley and Antoinette Sibley. Erik Bruhn, Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Anthony Dowell were among my favorite danseurs nobles. My own ballet training---family legend has it that my mother enrolled me for lessons at age two and a half---had prepared me to appreciate the varied qualities of these dancers. But, there is something about Nina that places her, in my mind, above the rest.

Above all, her mastery of virtually the whole range of ballets from Romantic, Classical, neo-Classical to Contemporary is, in my experience, unprecedented. Through her association with the Royal Danish Ballet, she has absorbed the soft, buoyant style of Bournonville for La Sylphide. Training with the Danes has doubtless also influenced her interpretation of Giselle; the images she evokes in the adagio movements of the Coralli-Perrot ballet have been the epitome of the Romantic ideal.

In the Classical ballets of Petipa and his followers, Nina is in a class all her own. She is the reigning Raymonda of her generation---sublime in the classical variations and diamantine in the Hungarian divertissements. Her Kitri in Don Quixote is an incomparable concoction of sunshine and bravura. Her flirty eyes, fearless jumps and endless balances leave you gasping for air. Her Aurora in Sleeping Beauty scintillates in the purity of her dancing. In a role that may seem one-dimensional to less imaginative players, Nina has sculpted a Princess who grows in each act; the coltish teenager of the Act I achieves mystery and allure in Act II, and full majesty in Act III. Her incarnation of this fairytale princess fills one with such wonder and joy that I have followed her to watch performances in Houston, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Kyoto. In her 2001 tour of Japan, her coterie of suitors was particularly impressive: Dmitri Belogolotsev, Sergei Filin, Giuseppe Picone, Yuri Possokhov and Andrei Uvarov!

Swan Lake requires more complex emotions. Through the years, Nina has added layers of feelings---particularly in Act II. For sure, her partners have something to do with this, and she has had many, including Liepa, Alexei Fadeyechev, Julio Bocca, José Manuel Carreño, Uvarov and Filin. I have seen her most often with Bocca, whose exemplary and passionate partnering has doubtless given Nina something to respond to. With him, she has become a more vulnerable, tragic Swan Queen. While adhering to classical form, she has accented movements to project meanings; even the way she breathes in, then out, as she unfolds her legs and body can break your heart. And who can be more bewitchingly virtuosic as Odile? The modulation of her arms and the angles of her legs alone can make any prince lose his mind.

Nina has also excelled in the ballets of two very dissimilar English choreographers. Her dramatic depths are fully explored by Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon and Romeo and Juliette; in Frederick Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée, Nina reveals a naughty side, making her a delightfully fleet-footed Lise. In new works, some commissioned by her, Nina has extended dance communication. She sparkles in the comic exaggerations of Charms of Mannerism, the pulsing exoticism of Dreams About Japan, both by Alexei Ratmansky, and the soaring lyricism of Ben Stevenson’s Three Preludes. Stevenson paid her the highest compliment by creating the full-length The Snow Maiden for her; more recently, the French choreographer Pierre Lacotte revived a forgotten Petipa ballet, La Fille du Pharaon, at the Bolshoi for Nina. There is a video of the premiere, which deserves to be commercially released.

Lately, the Georgian prima ballerina has had the opportunity to dance more ballets by her countryman, George Balanchine (born Balanchivadze). Her brilliant technique and speed are brought to the fore in this master’s pieces, yet she brings something more to them, for which she has sometimes been criticized---interpretation. Balanchine “experts” have been known to quibble and quote Balanchine’s dictum of “just dance.” Yet, in my view, the most successful of Balanchine ballerinas---including Violette Verdy and Suzanne Farrell---imbued their dancing with emotion. The formalistic steps and patterns acquire “meaning” from some personal impetus---and the most interesting artists have always been those who revealed a rich inner life through dance.

It is that inner life that perfumes all of Nina’s performances. It is compounded of intelligence, artistic integrity, courage, wit, humor and above all, generosity of spirit. Time, and the triumphs and trials of a twenty-two-year career have not dimmed Nina’s essentially beautiful nature. We share in this beauty every time we see her dance. As I have often said, we are blessed to be living in the age of Nina Ananiashvili.


By Marylis Sevilla-Gonzaga

Marylis Sevilla-Gonzaga is a New York-based freelance writer, formerly on the editorial staff of Opera News and Ballet News. She is currently the New York reviewer for Tokyo’s Journal of Professional Lighting.