This new hour-long film created by the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet State Theatre and premiered by Northrop University, Minnesota gives a glimpse of the company led since 2004 by locally-born former Bolshoi Ballet prima ballerina and American Ballet Theatre principal dancer, now Artistic Director Nina Ananiashvili. With the support of Alexei Fadeechev, she has clearly done a fine job.
Ananiashvili is clearly proud of the company and what it has achieved in the past two decades, but also of her city and country. Tbilisi is the capital of Georgia and is located close to the Silk Road. Facing Europe and Asia, it has been fought over for centuries, latterly descending into the brief civil war of 1991/92 before becoming independent. Her rebuilding of the company has played an important role in the city’s latest renaissance.
She first guides us through its long the history noting that the first ballet danced in Tbilisi (by Russian dancers) was the second act of Filippo Taglioni’s La Sylphide in 1851. The original opera house, described by Alexandre Dumas as “the most beautiful and attractive theatre I have ever seen in my life,” (drawings suggest he may have been correct) was destroyed by fire but 22 years later a new theatre was opened.
The first Georgian company was formed by the Italian dancer, Maria Perini, a pupil of Cecchetti. Vakhtang Chabukiani, one of her pupils, would later teach Ananiashvili in Georgia before she continued her studies in Moscow, thus providing a direct line to the dancers of today. Chabukiani’s most famous ballet, Laurencia, is in the repertoire. The often very grainy archive film is fascinating. Among other interesting titbits is that George Balanchine’s brother was a composer at the theatre.
Ananiashvili goes on to walk us through the theatre and its studios. We see her taking company class, where, watching her demonstrate, it’s difficult to believe that she recently celebrated her 58th birthday. Something may have been lost in translation, but the documentary is sometimes a little more formal than is now the norm. The section where she guides us around some costumes and paintings in particular feels a little too much like a dry museum tour.
Today, the State Ballet of Georgia attracts major choreographers from all over the world including Alexei Ratmansky, Yuri Possokhov, Jiri Kylian and Frank Anderson who staged the Bournonville ballets. The repertoire also includes many of the Petipa classics, and they were the first post-Soviet company to stage Frederick Ashton’s choreography. His Marguerite and Armand is popular with audiences.
George Balanchine, in spite of his ancestry, first travelled to Georgia in 1962. Ananiashvili recalls watching New York City Ballet as a youngster when they visited the theatre, and how Balanchine picked her out at school (she was then an ice skater). “I could never have imagined, that sixteen years later, I would be a ballerina in New York City, at his theatre and in his choreography. Dreams do come true,” she says.
Ten of Balanchine’s ballets are in the Georgian company’s repertoire but it also looks to the Soviet heritage, taking on Leonid Lavrovsky’s famous Romeo and Juliet in 2018. They also have Andris Liepa’s restaging of the Firebird.
Clips of the company performing suggest a top ensemble. Modern performance clips are interspersed with moments from rehearsals, archive film and dancers and coaches talking about roles. Among the beautifully filmed moments is Giselle on a rooftop, backed by twilight views over the city. We also get to see Balanchine’s Serenade, Mozartiana and Symphony in C, Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. In The Nutcracker, watch out for the super backdrops, one with a giant snowman.
There is longer footage of Chabukiani’s Laurencia, described by Ananiashvili as outstanding, challenging and with extraordinary male and female variations. She pays tribute to his reforming the role of men in ballet, and reworking of many variations. First staged by the company in 2007, ten years later she staged a new version of Laurencia closer to the original.
Also very appealing and reflective of the State Ballet of Georgia today is Possokhov’s 2007 ballet Sagalobeli (Canticle), a work set to a compilation of Georgian traditional folk melodies that combines old world classicism and lyrical sensibilities with a modern feel. It is no surprise that it has become the company’s signature ballet and is much applauded when the company tours abroad. It was seen in the UK at the Edinburgh Festival in 2008.
I just wish we could have seen more, and that the film might herald the chance to see them live on tour in the not too distant future.
The film, State Ballet of Georgia Today is available on demand until March 28, 2021. Visit www.northrop.umn.edu for access and details.