When the curtain went up at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on opening night of the State Ballet of Georgia’s recent New York engagement, one feature immediately stood out: each of the half dozen ballerinas on stage, dressed in light gowns and divided across the floor like chess pieces, was wearing her long hair completely down. No buns, no braids, no tiaras–not a choice typical of ballet. It was a good introduction to this atypical company that, after more than 150 years, the seismic stylistic shifts of different artistic directors, and its homeland’s civil war and continuing political upheaval, is experiencing a heartening creative renaissance.
Tbilisi-born Nina Ananiashvili, for many years a star of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater and the American Ballet Theatre, and a guest dancer in venerable companies worldwide, was approached in May of 2004 by Georgia’s young President, Mikheil Saakashvili, who had taken office only five months before. Saakashvili requested a meeting with the dancer, who was then at work with ABT in New York, and told her he wanted the nation’s august but faltering company restored to its former glory, and that he wanted her to make it happen. Despite her lack of business experience and brimming international dance card, she accepted the job. By 2007 the State Ballet of Georgia was touring the world with over 20 new productions in its repertoire, receiving more popular acclaim than it had ever previously enjoyed.
Ananiashvili’s dancers appeared to embody this sea change when they performed at BAM in February and March. George Balanchine’s Chaconne, with the un-bunned ballerinas, opened the show. After their exit, the more predictable round robin of couples outfitted like woodland elves and fairies began. The effect of their symmetrical movements, especially set to selections from the 18th century Gluck opera Orpheus and Eurydice, was soothing and a little sleepy. Simultaneously, though, many of the corps de ballet appeared nervous, their legs noticeably taut and suffering the occasional visible tremble during a lift. One dancer took a spill, but recovered gracefully after a few soft gasps from the audience.
Thankfully, and attesting to the company’s resilience, the evening got better as it went on. The next of the four pieces, comprising Program A of their tour repertoire, was another by Balanchine, but brilliantly different from Chaconne. Duo Concertant, choreographed for the New York City ballet in 1972, was unfaltering in its high-contrast edginess and involving emotional path. The duo, dressed in plainest black and white, at first stood to stage right beside pianist Eric Huebner and violinist Miranda Cuckson who played the Stravinsky accompaniment (which was vibrant and seamlessly complimentary from beginning to end). After the introductory bars, the music paused and the dancers made their way to the center of the stage, which acted throughout the piece as their magnetic point of origin. Suggestive of the core of their relationship, it was always the place to which they came leaping home after taking turns orbiting out to the recesses of our vision. Measured and unselfish, the metaphoric Duo was a perfect showcase for these dancers, whose tall, lithe bodies stood like artful representations of the human frame, and whose sometimes obvious nerves enriched Balanchine’s depiction of us as perpetually walking the line between togetherness and independence, sound and silence.
The New York premiere of Bizet Variations followed, choreographed by Russian Alexei Ratmansky, a frequent collaborator of Ananiashvili’s. The piece sets three couples’ flirtatious rituals to Georges Bizet’s Chromatic Variations. Ananiashvili, as half of one of the couples, easily justified her reputation for staying emotionally connected with the dance without sacrificing her impeccable technique. She can’t help but outshine her compatriots, but she doesn’t do so proudly; though she has the makings of a prima donna, she remains, wonderfully, a classic diva.
The last dance, Sagalobeli, stole the show. Also a New York premiere at BAM, the dance is the product of Ananiashvili’s request to her old Bolshoi friend Yuri Possokhov, a Russian, to choreograph a ballet to Georgian folk music–specifically, the urban folk music of Tbilisi. Possokhov was at first reluctant, but his commitment to her idea paid off in the form of a beautiful, multi-dimensional dance that shone with sophisticated national pride unblemished by anything sappy or provincial. The scenes were spliced together energetically, and held in cohesion by the warm, solid Sagalobeli Ensemble. The men looked bold and strong in tunics, tights, and black boots, and the women pretty and able in long dark dresses with detailed bodices. The dancers were most confident in this piece, seeming finally acclimated to the stage and pleasantly awash in the music as they tried out shoulder stands with cycling legs; square, down-turned arms with rigid palms; sensual, synchronized lifts that imbued notions of joyous pastoral galas past with contemporary vigor.
It is a thing of beauty to see a company with such a rich but fraught history rise from its ashes and show its mettle so happily and willingly. Ananiashvili and her dancers have more work ahead of them, but, in just over three years, they have already made a truly admirable resurgence onto the world’s stage.
April Greene, the Rail's dance editor, lives, writes, and bikes in Brooklyn.