You arrive in Georgia in the early hours of the morning but this time, unlike past visits where I have waited outside a grubby shed in the pitch darkness for my luggage, Tbilisi now boasts a spanking new airport with all modern amenities. At passport control, the security men smile and wish you an enjoyable visit while the drive into the centre of town along clean and washed streets, shows newly painted and renovated buildings and plenty of western hotels. Georgia has come a long way since my last visit a few years ago.
We had come to Tbilisi at the invitation of Nina Ananiashvili to see a lost Bournonville ballet, re-staged by the Royal Danish Ballet’s ex-director, Frank Andersen for the State Ballet of Georgia. Interestingly, all the ballet action takes place in Russia - not the most popular of subjects these days in Georgia. However we were quickly informed that the plans for this production had been forged three years ago, long before Russia and Georgia locked horns in August 2008.
From Siberia to Moscow, was the last ballet created by August Bournonville and had premiered on November 29th 1876 at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen and was last performed there in 1905. This October it was staged once more and a few western critics were invited to see it: Jonathon Gray, editor of Dancing Times, Wendy Perron, editor of Dance Magazine, Erik Ashengreen, the eminent writer and expert on the Danish Ballet, myself and my daughter Ali, (who came for the experience but ended up using her television producing skills to get a short piece about the ballet on Denmark’s evening news). We spent four remarkable days in the Georgian capital with some remarkable people.
The small but dynamic country that borders Russia and Turkey saw its first ballet performances in 1852. A school was established at the beginning of the 20th century and one pupil, Vakhtang Chabukiani, became one of the Kirov’s greatest male dancers before returning to Tbilisi to manage the Georgian company. In the 1970’s the company was run by Giorgi Aleksidze; in the ‘80’s by the Bolshoi principal, Mikhail Lavrovsky. Five years ago, the mantle was passed to Nina Ananiashvili who has inspired not just the company, but also the whole country with her dedication, devotion and incredible success in putting the Georgian State Ballet on the international ballet map.
Ondines and God of Rivers in the Act 2 Divertissement of From Siberia to Moscow
© State Ballet of Georgia
Making good use of the excellent connections formed during her own international ballet career, she has brought many of today’s top young choreographers to Georgia - Alexei Ratmansky, Trey McIntyre, Yuri Possukhov and Stanton Welch - and has mounted classic ballets from several disciplines. She has strengthened and refined her dancers, as was seen at the Edinburgh Festival in 2008 where they demonstrated their versatility and talent with these different techniques.
Most impressively, she has added an incredible average of five new productions each season and the repertoire is now rich. For example, Ashton’s La Fille mal Garde, Two Pigeons, and Marguerite and Armand as well as many Balanchine ballets including Bugaku and Mozartiana. Her Danish connections have produced Flower Festival in Genzano, La Sylphide, Le Conservatoire and now From Siberia to Moscow.
After a lively breakfast (our hotel was filled with the directors, crew, actors -- including Andy Garcia and Dean Kane --and muscular extras who were on location making a Hollywood blockbuster to be released next spring about last year’s war, and aptly called ‘Georgia’), we set off for the Paliashvili Theatre and wound our way up to the studios where we watched company class given by Maia Zurashvili. She started with many gentle warming up exercises, allowing the dancers to slowly get every muscle moving. There were around forty dancers – the other half of the company was in another studio--from corps to principals. All are Georgian except for a few - one boy from Kazakhstan, a New Zealander who joined the company in February, and two British lads who joined this season. Nina was also in class at the back barre wrapped in plastic warm-ups and a wrap-around cardigan. While she watched herself in the mirror, she also kept an eagle on her dancers and gave orders from the barre in a mix of Georgian, Russian and English; ”stretch your foot more’; keep your turn-out; tighten your legs; pull up” etc, She missed nothing! Though she has danced her last with American Ballet Theatre, she still regularly performs with the company and as a guest with other companies—though sadly she had an injury and was unable to dance in the new Danish ballet. In class she looked just as good as in all the years I have been watching her (30 and counting). Her line is still gracious, her feet wonderful, her balance and poise remarkable and she doesn’t look any older! Somehow, teacher Maia managed to keep the exercises coming despite the loud corrections going on behind her.
After another star-filled breakfast, there was a short visit to Mtatsminda Church, and lunch at the Italian Ambassador’s residence -- his wife is the new chairman of Friends of The Georgian Ballet. Then it was off to a concert at the Rustaveli Theatre by the ballet school students. Though they had only been back at school for three weeks, the pupils put on a terrific show for us demonstrating good teaching. We were treated to classical, character and national dances from students aged six to sixteen. We returned to the theatre for a more comprehensive press conference. Ilia Tavberidze, the editor of the ballet magazine Arabesque gave a short history on the theatre and the ballet company then Erik Ashengreen talked about Bournonville and his connections with Petipa and Russia. Next Frank Andersen whose connection with the Danish ballet began when he was seven years old and continues today, told us the remarkable history behind his reconstruction of From Siberia to Moscow, and the story of its phoenix-like rebirth was as fascinating as the scenario:
From Siberia to Moscow press conference - shown here Dinna Bjoern, Frank Andersen, translator, Nina Ananiashvili
© State Ballet of Georgia
Andersen and Ananiashvili have known and worked with each other for over twenty years. On becoming artistic director of the State Ballet of Georgia, the famed ballerina told Andersen that she would like to stage a Danish ballet that no one else was performing.
Frank’s suggestion was to reconstruct From Siberia to Moscow despite there being very little record left remaining since its last performance in 1905 - just one page of libretto and a crackly film dating from 1905 showing the Jockeys’ Dance from Act 2, which Andersen had revived as a party piece in the 1970’s.
Assisting him with the reworking of the ballet was Dinna Bjoern, whose father had been director of the Royal Danish Ballet for twelve years. His ballet archives were packed into 650 boxes in her apartment and so it seemed a sign for the success of the project that in the very first box of archives that Dinna opened, she found a yellowed page in Bournonville’s handwriting entitled From Siberia to Moscow. Unfortunately, there was not much more to go on - just a few dance instructions giving very little detail, five prints of the first act costumes and one of the set designs. Then another discovery - the original score by Carl Christian Moeller, which had not been touched since 1904. And so the decision was made - not to attempt to reconstruct the original ballet piece by piece but instead to create a credible work using Bournonville’s values and technique to make it valid for the dancers of today. With Andersen, Bjoern, Anna-Marie Vessel Schlueter and Eva Kloborg’s experience and knowledge of the Danish school, the ballet slowly started to live again.
That evening we dined at Nina’s beautiful house though her foreign minister husband Gregory was away on business alas. However, little Elena now three and a half came down to say hallo before rushing back to play with her cousin upstairs.
Day Three and First Night
Had breakfast with Alexandre Vassiliev the costume designer. Such a funny person with the most outrageous tales to tell of the famous people he has met. We were rolling with laughter. He has worked three times with Nina and is the author of 20 books on Russian fashion including three bestsellers, which ‘enable me to live’!
Nino Gogua and Vasil Akhmeteli in Act 1 of From Siberia to Moscow
© State Ballet of Georgia
At 7pm, we finally stepped into the beautiful white and gold theatre which seats 1,064. The stage cloth showed the Moscow Kremlin Square with officers in red uniforms on horseback and local folk in carriages and strolling. While using C. C. Moeller’s operetta style score for the ballet, Andersen felt that it would be fitting to open the evening with Tchaikovsky’s Festival Overture on the Danish National Anthem and conductor David Mukeria jubilantly took up the baton for the rousing overture, almost dancing through it himself.
Bournonville had always been interested in Russia and visited as a tourist in 1869. He was fascinated by both the folk and ballet traditions of the great country and while in Moscow, was delighted to meet up again with Marius Petipa whom he had met in his youth. Mixing historical facts with the fiction of the original scenario, Andersen uses this reunion of the two ballet giants as a foundation for his recreation. In the foyer of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Petipa tells Bournonville a tale of a nobleman sent to Siberia with his daughter who escapes back to Moscow. There his daughter Natalia dances before the Grand Duchess Marie Fedorovna, a Danish princess married to the future Tsar whom Bournonville had taught ballet when she was a child. The first act takes place inside the father’s hut in Siberia. The news that Natalia’s officer sweetheart has been pardoned and will secretly take the two of them with him back to Moscow, gives cause for a celebration and the opportunity for the Cossacks to show off in bravura folk dancing. An added token (which most surely was not in the original), was a Georgian dance performed to perfection by tiny five and six year olds. They spun on their knees, danced on their toes in their soft leather boots, and strutted and twirled with great solemnity. The audience loved it all.
Nino Gogua and Vasil Akhmeteli with Grand Duchess Maria in From Siberia to Moscow
© State Ballet of Georgia
Act 2 takes place at the royal court in Moscow. A ball is planned and Petipa has created the divertissement—the rivers of Europe. The scene is stunning. David Monavardishavili’s sets are lavish and Vassiliev’s costumes opulent. John B. Read from our own Royal Opera House did the effective lighting. The divertissement gives the Georgian dancers the opportunity to show off their Danish technique and neat footwork, which they did well. There are fisher folk from the Rhone, the Jockey Dance from the Thames - here performed by two coquettish girls rather than boys -- the company needs more strong men. Three Spanish dancers depicted the Guadalquivir in an Andalusian dance while the Rhine heralded the festivities of the grape harvest. When they have finished, Natalia appears and performs a Russian dance representing the Neva. Due to Nina’s injury, Nino Gogua a pretty, elegant and precise ballerina took the role of Natalia both nights. Her partner for the premiere was Vasil Akhmeteli who jumps high and strongly and partners well. William Pratt, the New Zealander, had a solo role in the Rhone section and showed himself a good light-footed dancer.
Grand finale of From Siberia to Moscow
© State Ballet of Georgia
A trip to the ancient capital of Georgia, Mtskheta was on offer, but since my daughter and I had been there before, we chose to stay and meet up with old friends. In the afternoon there was a meeting with the Editor of Arabesque who wanted to know what we were going to write about the performance!
Natia Sirbiladze, Frank Andersen, Nino Gogua, Nina Ananiashvili, Dinna Bjoern, Vasil Akhmeteli, Eka Shavliashvili (assistant to choreographer)
© State Ballet of Georgia
The evening was spent in the theatre again watching different dancers in the roles. Irakli Bakhtadze, a tall, handsome dancer and more impressive in the role of Kipiani the young officer, partnered Nino this performance. It is a production the company can be proud of. It was visually impressive, beautifully designed and costumed, with dancers who seem to love performing it. I am sure it will remain in the repertoire for many years to come, now that it has been brought back from its 105-year sleep.