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State Ballet of Georgia

'Chaconne', 'Duo Concertant', Bizet Variations', 'Sagalobeli'

by Catherine Pawlick

February 14, 2008 -- Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, California

Few balletomanes worldwide have not heard the name Nina Ananiashvili, but those who have witnessed her dancing are blessed indeed. The former Bolshoi ballerina, frequently paired with the famous danseur Andris Liepa in her earlier years, became a long time principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre and has a glorious international reputation that precedes her. The recipient of two international gold medals, the National Prize of Russia, State Prize of Georgia and the highest Russian State award, Ananiashvili is a People’s Artist of Georgia and Russia who continues to blossom in her career, directing and dancing in the State Ballet of Georgia since 2004.

The company culls its dancers from several local schools, namely the Tblisi State Choreographic School or the State Choreographic School of Georgia, both based on the famed Vaganova method of classical ballet training. Several of the principal dancers have experience in other companies in Turkey, but most of the corps de ballet appeared fresh out of their respective training grounds, visually no more than 16 years old. The company is small – no more than 25 dancers – and opening night’s mixed program offered plenty of dancing opportunity for all of them.

The program opened with Balanchine’s “Chaconne”, an apt selection given Mr. Balanchine’s own Georgian roots. The Gluck-inspired piece opens with young women bourée-ing in pale, flowing dresses, their hair down. Anna Muradeli, a beautiful blonde with strong, tapered legs, slender arms and high arches, created a lyrical fantasy with partner Vasil Akhmeteli, whose serious demeanor added a note of gravity to the dance. Muradeli’s beauty of line is mesmerizing to behold. In one series of partnered turns, her spine was so erect so as to suggest a spinning top. Muradeli’s regality and elegance of movement are sure to lead her to a long and fruitful career.

The signature Russian arabesque position – back squared off, but hip open to enhance the line – appeared across the corps de ballet, underlined by low arabesque arms. The trio who entered in the emboité-piqué arabesque sequence, Rusudan Kvitsiani, Ekaterina Chubinidze and Otar Khelashvili, managed to hold their balanced poses together, adding a nice layer of structure in the corps work. Unfortunately while Tsisia Cholokashvili, a shorter soloist in a small green “leaf” tutu, imbibed the petit allegro section with plenty of charisma, her dramatic flair did not compensate for unrefined footwork and weaker lines than the other soloists displayed. In particular, the promenades in attitude derrière on a bent supporting knee – not the most elegant pose to begin with – seemed stiff, at one point partner David Khozashvili resorting to a tug to keep the movement going. On the other hand, Mariam Aleksidze’s ability to hold one’s attention in the middle of four other female soloists pointed to her own budding star qualities.
It must be noted that Russians trained in the Vaganova style do not, as a rule, dance Balanchine the way that New York City Ballet dancers do. Whether or not this is a flaw is debatable – the Georgian dancers offer their own version of Balanchine, similar to Kirov-Mariinsky interpretations. As long as one is prepared for the difference, expectations can be kept in check.

So, if the quality of the legwork in some of the female corps lacked refinement in “Chaconne”, the signature Vaganova port de bras and épaulement made up for that with synchronized lines, pliant upper backs and uniform arm and head positions. However, that upper body pliancy greeted us along with crisp legwork in the program’s second piece, “Duo Concertant”, another Balanchine work set to music by Stravinsky.

In this ballet, a couple stands near the onstage piano and violinist, listening to a musical selection, and then walks to center stage to dance. Nino Gogua, a dark-haired beauty with perfect legs set off by a white leotard dress, danced alongside partner Lasha Khozashvili, perhaps the most sophisticated male in the company. The couple’s crisp delivery, emotional interaction, and polished technique took the evening up several notches. I could have stared at Gogua’s legs for hours – soft, pliant ankles proved strong as steel throughout her footwork, and several poses displayed her flexible upper back. At one point the theme of searching appears as spotlights are used to separate Gogua and Khozashvili from each other. Her love-infused kiss blown to the air, and his attempts to find her in the darkness added a special dramatic edge. Judging by the audience’s wild applause, this is a piece the company would do well to repeat.

Alexei Ratmansky, whose much advertised imminent departure as artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet has caused a stir in the ballet world, created a “Bizet Variations” for the State Ballet of Georgia, employing the sculpted grace of the Russian school in a balanced if complex interplay between three couples. The women, dressed in various shades of periwinkle and purple organza knee-length gowns, and decorative flowers in their hair, were met, partnered, and chased by three men. Ratmansky’s excellence in choreography – he hears each melody and theme, dissects it, and shows us the musical notes through the bodies onstage – revealed itself in sweeping lifts and turns. His refreshing use of canon and various couplings lent an additional depth to the piece as we witnessed brief pas de deux between men, or the trio of women dancing alone. He often employed a saut de basque into a deep lunge position – the women’s legs reaching behind them on the floor with their arms stretched taut in front, pulled forward by their partners. Ratmansky left no level of elevation unexplored, whether on the floor or high in the air. Without question, Nina Ananiashvili herself stole the stage in this piece with soulful emotion that shifted to playfulness with one of her partners. There was even one sparkling grand jete, the Bolshoi kind, where the front leg kicks out and the body continues to soar forward, as if the dancer weren’t meant to walk on the ground with other human beings. When one watches the composer’s “Chromatic Variations”, is a lovely piece that reveals the talents of its choreographer while offering the dancers a substantial dish of dancing on which to chew.

Bay Area favorite and resident San Francisco Ballet choreographer Yuri Possokhov created the last ballet of the evening, “Sagalobeli”, set to recorded music by the Georgian Sagalobeli Ensemble. As the program notes, Possokhov was surprised when Ananiashvili, a fellow Bolshoi schoolmate, asked him to stage a ballet to the music of Tblisi’s urban folklore. The result, a flavorful, earthy and ethnic mix set to drum- and flute- based music, utilizes the contrast between strong masculinity and soft femininity to create a uniquely Georgian feel. The men, dressed in brown vests and boots à la Spartacus, showed off toned biceps while performing any number of flexed heel steps, abrupt direction changes, high jumps and rhythm-based movements, initially using a rope as a prop in a male pas de deux. The women’s graceful rhythms appeared more delicate in contrast, their flowing arms creating silhouettes against an ochre colored backdrop, no doubt meant to evoke the warm Tblisi sunshine. Possokhov’s choreography made for a good beginning, which progressed towards a sensual pas de deux by the couple who danced in “Duo” -- Gugoa and Khozashvili. Further to his credit, it would be hard to imagine any other company achieving the proper balance of soft and hard, feminine and masculine, emulating the warm Georgian sunshine, the southern tempo of life and love in this short piece. However, the ballet ended abruptly, lending a sense of incompletion when the lights finally went dark. Despite its ability to achieve ethic energy, “Sagalobeli” needs more development.

The State Ballet of Georgia is a fine company of young dancers and several emerging talents. Led by Ananiashvili’s name and fame, its future possibilities certainly look bright. Following the Berkeley stop, the company will continue onto a five-week tour with stops in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, New York, Chicago and Minneapolis. Those who have the opportunity to see the State Ballet of Georgia would be remiss not to indulge. Rare is the chance to see budding international stars in the making.

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