30 Years on Stage – A Festival of Nina Ananiashvili

We are delighted to welcome the wonderful Graham Watts – or @GWDanceWriter as he is known on Twitter – as this week’s guest blogger. Graham chronicles below a very special weekend among ballet royalty in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Reflections on a weekend in Tbilisi, Georgia: March 2012

Having missed the midnight plane to Georgia, my long weekend in Tbilisi was cut short by an unscheduled sleepover in Istanbul. We were not alone. The airport was packed with stranded passengers disembarking from delayed incoming flights. Jon Gray – the Editor of Dancing Times – and I were eventually herded into a minibus with some chain-smoking Armenians before being deposited in a dark street, in the early hours of the morning, somewhere in downtown Istanbul. We stood outside a building bearing no sign of light or life. London in the blitz would probably have provided more illumination. But the door opened and a man giving every indication of unwillingly being roused from sleep, grudgingly handed over some room keys. The next morning, each person arriving at breakfast had a bandaged face and it seemed we were gate crashing a convention for a peculiar cult where the nose is a forbidden sight. It turned out that the hotel was adjacent to a hospital and these recent recipients of plastic surgery were recuperating next door because it was cheaper than remaining on the wards.

Eventually, 18 hours later than expected we made it to Tbilisi, arriving at the airport little more than an hour ahead of the curtain rising at the Rustaveli State Academic Theatre for the triple bill that was to open this Festival, celebrating Nina Ananiashvili. A quick dash by taxi for Jon, myself and the renowned opera director Paul Curran (also stranded overnight in Istanbul and – we were quickly to learn – a former dancer with Scottish Ballet); a lightning bag drop and brushing of teeth at the hotel; and, still in the same clothes we had worn when leaving Heathrow more than 24 hours earlier (at least I managed to add a tie), we arrived at the theatre at around 8-15pm, just as the welcoming speeches were ending. I noted later that the Triple Bill should have started at 7-45, so thank heaven for “Georgian” time (or very long speeches)!

Artists of the State Ballet of Georgia in Sagalobeli

Artists of the State Ballet of Georgia in Yuri Possokhov's Sagalobeli Photo: © David Makhateli

The mixed bill was the oddest concoction. Beginning – very appropriately – with Yuri Possokhov’s Sagalobeli, which is a pot-pourri of contemporary balletic dances set to a compilation score of Georgian folk melodies. For a country that lists dance amongst its principal activities and exports, this homage to the themes of national dance in a one-act ballet was a rousing introduction to the three days of activities. It explained the deep roots of Ananiashvili’s 30 year career in dance and showcased the leading soloists of the State Ballet of Georgia, amongst whom Lali Kandelaki’s flowing, quicksilver elegance of discipline was especially notable. My one regret of the whole festival is that the beautiful Georgian ballerina, Nino Gogua, was injured and unable to dance.

Nina Ananiashvili and Vasil Akhmeteli in Tampopo

Nina Ananiashvili and Vasil Akhmeteli in Teet Kask's Tampopo Photo: © David Makhateli

The middle item was the real oddity. Hats off to Nina for adding in a world premiere of such outrageous modernism but Tampopo – by the Estonian choreographer, Teet Kask – was a piece of experimental dance theatre that travelled well beyond Bonkers City into the outer reaches of La-La land. It began with a man with a hammer and a pointe shoe crying copiously before a small musical ensemble assembled on stage, dressed in strange black Gaultier-like costumes (actually designed by Nino Chubinishvili), combining Dracula-style capes and leather skull-caps sporting odd extensions, including a very large pair of bunny ears. When I add that the violinist spends part of the time under the piano it will help to speed up the picture. The imagery is all angular and the movement mostly staccato and the only sense of it comes in the final moments as Ananiashvili – wearing a striking tutu with a white skirt, sheer black sleeves and black tights – spreads her arms widely, while standing in a box, then shrugs and laughs uncontrollably. Exemplifying Nina’s mischievous inner self it effectively summarised the amusement we all felt at such a strange and unusual (although never unpleasant) piece.

The intervals gave an opportunity to explore this wonderful baroque theatre, located on one of the Tbilisi’s main streets – Rustaveli Avenue. Built at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and opened in 1901, the theatre was fully renovated at the beginning of this century. It has the most wonderful Rococo features, particularly in the plethora of arches in the catacombs beneath the theatre. Dissidents during the Soviet era would paint pictures amongst the labyrinth of these underground walls and many have been left intact to provide us with a magical mystery tour of apparently innocuous and innocent graffiti that, if discovered in the act, could have cost the life of each artist. Incidentally, the State Ballet of Georgia is performing at the Rustaveli Theatre while the National Opera House is undergoing extensive renovation.

Nina Ananiashvili and Vasil Ahkmeteli in Marguerite and Armand

Nina Ananiashvili and Vasil Ahkmeteli in Ashton's Marguerite and Armand Photo: © David Makhateli

It was particularly intriguing to watch Marguerite and Armand while sitting next to the ballet’s owner – and Sir Frederick Ashton’s nephew – Anthony Russell-Roberts. It is, of course, a ballet that Ashton made on Margot Fonteyn and which she danced all around the world in the prolonged twilight of her glittering career. It was supposedly not to be danced by others but since the revival by The Royal Ballet – in 2000 – with Sylvie Guillem inheriting Fonteyn’s role of Marguerite, a few prima ballerinas, including Tamara Rojo, have imprinted their own particular magic on this tragic story. Ananiashvili premiered the role in Georgia in 2009 and it is the perfect vehicle for her strength of emotional performance, soulful technique and the maturity of her stagecraft. The slowly dying vitality and smouldering passion that she brings to this “Lady of the Camellias” reaches out to be felt by the entire audience (including a very proud owner sitting besides me). Her partner, Vasil Akhmeteli, began nervously but grew stronger as the ballet progressed to its bitter end.

I doubt if an after-show party could rival such a roll-call of guests. Turn around from a chat with Sergei Filin and there is Frank Andersen talking to Kevin McKenzie and Andris Liepa. Introduced to a quiet Russian woman, with beautifully rolled blonde hair and striking features, Jon Gray immediately recognised Tatiana Terekhova, a ballerina who had lit up performances for him during the Mariinsky’s visits to London in the 1980s. However, in spite of all this ballet glamour, there were three tired Brits who were very glad to get back to a hotel and a bath!

Nina Ananiashvili and ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie Backstage

Nina Ananiashvili and ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie Backstage Photo: © David Makhateli

The next day saw the launch of a superb limited edition book, chronicling Nina’s 30-year career in a wonderful series of gorgeous photos (although hundreds are included, a thousand more had to be left out: she really is one of the most photogenic dancers – strike that, women – of our age). TV cameras everywhere – even I was asked for a quote! There then followed a whistle-stop tour of Tbilisi, which included a visit to the new and imposing cathedral during a service being given by the Patriarch (and during which a French dance critic and I became separated in the throng and on the wrong side of the Patriach’s seemingly never-ending procession); a long Georgian late-lunch (there is clearly no such thing as a quick meal in Georgia!); and then in the evening on to the opening of an exhibition of Nina’s costumes at the National Library of the Georgian Parliament (Nina’s husband, Grigol Vashadze, is the Georgian Foreign Minister).

This was not just an excuse to slip a few old ballet tutus on some dusty mannequins but a really thoughtful and dynamic exhibition. Costumes were displayed in unusual circumstances, subtly lit in a dark and cavernous room. Familiar ballet music played (Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky) and many film snippets of Ananiashvili dancing bounced like ghostly memories around the ceilings and walls. It was the most absorbing and well curated costume exhibition I have ever seen. However, we lost a Japanese guest in the darkness of the hall and by the time I had helped the guide to find her, the entire party had moved on and we missed the evening’s dinner. You will have gathered by now that successful logistics were not my strong point over this weekend!

The following day saw the caravan of guests bussed 75 kilometres west of Tbilisi to visit the ancient cave dwellings near the city of Gori. About half our number was made up of Russians and Gori is the birthplace of Stalin. It was also bombed and occupied by the Russians during the South Ossetian War of 2008 (yes, less than four years ago). Some of our Russian journeymen were determined that we should visit the house of Stalin’s birth (the railway carriage in which he travelled – he refused to fly – is also parked outside) even though the itinerary didn’t allow for it. A compromise was reached whereby we would stop briefly outside the landmark so that photos could be taken but some of the group ran straight into the office to buy a ticket. The Georgian guides protested mildly and were told in no uncertain terms that did they not know that Stalin was the most famous Georgian that had ever lived. One of the guides – whose parents’ apartment had apparently been bombed in 2008 and who told me that she had lost friends in the recent conflict – asked if Hitler could be considered as the most famous German that had ever lived, to which came the unforgettable, unquestionably logical (although perhaps infamous might have been the more accurate description) and incredibly tactless response…. “but, of course he was!” Eventually, the Russian group re-joined the bus although large tracts of the subsequent lunch and journey back to Tbilisi were spent in subdued silence.

The wounds of the recent conflict between Russia and Georgia are clearly a long way from being healed and I tell the story of this troubled trip to Gori merely as a means to emphasise how incredible it is for Nina Ananiashvili – and ballet, in general – to remain wholly untarnished by this deep social and political rift. If ever there is to be lasting peace and reconciliation between the Georgian and Russian people, then Nina Ananiashvili is clearly the potential ambassador to carry that magical olive branch. That this extraordinarily astute woman has a political career waiting down the line seems beyond any doubt.

A sense of déjà-vu ensued as we arrived back at the hotel just in time to leave it again for the festival’s finale (although at least there was barely sufficient time to change). A gala celebration of Nina’s career to date (and I add this emphasis because there is no sign whatsoever of her need or desire to hang up her pointe shoes) was held in the magnificent glass and steel rotunda of the modern Tbilisi Concert Hall.

Nina danced in four of the gala pieces, showing her diverse range from the sparkling classicism and perfect 32 fouettés of the pas de trois from Le Corsaire with Akhmeteli and Denis Matvienko; to her superb attempt at virtuoso male Georgian dancing in Gia Marghania’s Khorumi. For a small nation, Georgia has exported so many great ballet dancers throughout the generations – think just of Chabukiani, Toumanova (Tumanishvili) and Balanchine (Balanchivadze) – and that this exodus populating the world of ballet continues was evidenced by the return of Elena Glurdjidze (to dance the Raymonda Pas de Deux with a strangely lacklustre Sergei Polunin); the Makhateli siblings, David and Maia, danced exquisitely together the Balcony scene from Lavrovsky’s Romeo & Juliet; and Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili came from the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago to dance a lyrical work entitled Bells by Yuri Possokhov.

The Matvienkos

The Matvienkos backstage Photo: © David Makhateli

Ananiashvili’s time at the Bolshoi was represented in the precision of the pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty by Evgenia Obraztsova and Dmitri Gudanov and in the virtuosity of the Diana and Acteon Pas de Deux from La Esmeralda by the husband-and-wife partnership of Viacheslav Lopatin and Anastasia Stashkevitch. And Nina’s ground-breaking career at American Ballet Theatre was reflected in the leitmotif of Angel Corella – on particularly outrageous form – whizzing through the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (with the delightful Momoko Hirata) and repeating the fireworks in Russell Ducker’s solo, Suspended in Time. Anywhere else and Corella’s antics would certainly have seemed over the top in terms of their outlandish showmanship but, here, he could easily get away with it. He also partnered the star of the show in Ratmansky’s Waltz (to music by the Georgian composer, Khachaturian) alongside Jose Manuel Carreño (who also performed a solo to Ave Maria), together with Matvienko and Akhmeteli.

Tomorrow’s stars of ABT were paraded in the partnership of Maria Riccetto and Blaine Hoven, although I would have chosen a better extract for them to have danced than from Twyla Tharp’s spritely oddity, Known By Heart. Matvienko returned with his wife, Anastasia, to fizz through Gsovsky’s Grand Pas Classique with the by-now-familiar huge jumps, long balances and multiple spins. The most intriguing dance of the evening was seeing the doll-like perfection of Dong Ting Xing and Ren Zhong of China’s Lianoning Ballet, delivering Bournonville style crisply and perkily in the pas de deux from La Sylphide. I dare say that Gala Director, Frank Andersen, had more than a little something to do with this.

Nina Ananiashvili after the gala

Nina Ananiashvili after the gala Photo: © David Makhateli

And so to the finale and a quick change into a ball gown with a long, feathery skirt for the gala’s subject, so that Nina could receive countless curtain calls and bouquets and a single long-stemmed rose from each of her many partners present, both old and new, from Liepa to Akhmeteli. Many fortunate guests were able to join the Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili and the cream of Georgian Society, at a post-Gala dinner in honour of the great ballerina. Nina is the godmother of Saakashvili’s son and as the party started to get going shortly after midnight, it is perhaps the first and only time that I shall ever see a country’s President giving a ballerina the “bumps”! Since I sat at the table next to the President’s party, it is also the first time I have ever eaten a meal with a gun-toting, eagle-eyed, plain-clothed security guard standing within a few feet! By dint of some strange coincidence he seemed to be permanently stationed behind Sergei Polunin’s chair (or perhaps he reads Twitter?). In one final little twist, Nina’s birthday is generally given as 19 March 1964 (see Oxford Dictionary of Dance, for example), which would have made her 48 on this day, but everyone who knew her said that she was actually 49.

As we arrived in a hurry, so we departed: leaving the party by minibus just as it was in full swing (my last memory is of a very “happy” Yuri Possokhov singing, or perhaps more accurately slurring, a song for Nina. But, we were gone, and unlike Gladys Knight and her Pips I was leaving on my (post) midnight plane back from Georgia, and this time, thankfully without a hitch.

It was a memorable weekend, for sure. I have no doubt that we will be back to celebrate Nina dancing at 50 (albeit one year earlier than I had anticipated) and I don’t bet against a gala to celebrate 40 years on stage in 2022. Only a political career will prevent it.

Nina Ananiashvili

Nina Ananiashvili Photo: © State Ballet of Georgia

About the Author:

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He writes for Londondance.com, Dancetabs.com, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and has been Chairman of the National Dance Awards since 2011. He holds the MA module in dance writing and criticism from the University of Chichester. Graham was awarded the OBE in the New Year’s Honours in 2008.

Follow Graham on Twitter: @GWDanceWriter

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