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Celebrating Nina

Posted on April 24, 2012

Jonathan Gray journeyed to Tbilisi in Georgia, to see the celebrations marking Nina Ananiashvili’s 30 years on stage. Here, he offers a personal tribute to a great ballerina

 

Not so very long ago, it was not unusual for a ballerina’s career to last well into her forties and beyond – just think of some of the great names from the past, like Anna Pavlova, Galina Ulanova, Margot Fonteyn, Maya Plisetskaya, Antoinette Sibley or Lynn Seymour.

As a balletomane, one revelled in the star quality and the glorious maturity these women brought to their dancing, either through live performance or the medium of film, illuminating choreography with an understanding gained through years of experience. Just search a couple of the names listed above on YouTube, and you will see what I mean.

Today, however, those special “mature” ballerinas have become a rarity because the short-sighted belief that dance is all about “youth” has saturated just about every ballet company you can think of. One ballerina who made an immediate and lasting impression on me right from the beginning of her career was the Georgian-born Nina Ananiashvili, whom I first saw dance when the Bolshoi Ballet appeared at Covent Garden in 1986. The ballet in question was Raymonda, but Ananiashvili wasn’t performing the title role that evening – she appeared only in the first solo of the Act I vision scene, but she made a huge impact. I can still recall the authority and musicality of her dancing that night, her long-limbed, dark-haired beauty, and, above all, the warmth of her personality. I marvelled at her fellow dancers, too, but it was Ananiashvili who stood out for me, a dancer I instantly and unconditionally admired. I thought to my 19-year-old self, “I’m going to remember that name, even if it is difficult to pronounce, because she’s going to be really, really, really good!”

And so I did, and so she was. That summer, I saw Ananiashvili again in Les Sylphides, and then, later, when the Bolshoi appeared at the London Coliseum, in Giselle, Swan Lake, Raymonda, and Don Quixote. I became a fan. A friend gave me a signed photograph of her rehearsing in the studio with her coach, Raissa Struchkova, I bought her videos, and I went to as many of her thrilling performances as I could, especially when she appeared as a guest artist in The Prince of the Pagodas, The Nutcracker, Symphony in C, La Fille mal gardée, Cinderella and The Firebird with The Royal Ballet.

Ananiashvili was lucky her career coincided with glasnost, that tremendous thaw in Russia’s icy grip over the lives of its citizens that eventually led to the downfall of the Soviet bloc. This enabled her to dance with western ballet companies, most notably New York City Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre, where she would become an audience favourite and a great star. For her, this was a voyage of discovery. An inquisitive artist, she was ever searching for new experiences and different styles of choreography, whilst maintaining the glorious beauty of her Russian training. (How I envy those who saw her in Bournonville’s La Sylphide and Napoli, Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty and La Bayadère, and MacMillan’s Manon and Romeo and Juliet.)

Since 2004, Ananiashvili has been director of the State Ballet in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, where she has improved the company’s standards and strengthened its repertoire by introducing works by Ashton, Balanchine, Bournonville, Kylián and Ratmansky, as well as maintaining the 19th-century and Soviet classics. I was invited to Tbilisi in 2009 to see a revival of a long-lost Bournonville ballet, From Siberia to Moscow, staged for the company by Ananiashvili’s great friends Frank Andersen and Dinna Bjørn (see Dancing Times, January 2010), and I saw there at first hand Ananiashvili at work as director: participating in company class; acting as an exemplary ambassador for the company to the media, where she was often followed by a phalanx of television cameras; being a charming hostess to her guests from abroad, even though she must have had a thousand other things to worry about before the premiere of the ballet. Above all, she had the charm and warmth of personality in real life that was so readily apparent on stage.

Injury prevented Ananiashvili from dancing during that visit, but when I was invited to witness the celebrations of her 30 years on stage earlier this year, I accepted without hesitation – how could I miss such an historic event for a ballerina I so admired?

The celebrations turned out to be a mini-festival of all things Nina. An exhibition of her stage costumes, dramatically lit, opened at the National Library of Parliament of Georgia on March 14; the launch of a beautifully illustrated limited edition book, Nina Ananiashvili, covering her entire career to date, took place at the Tbilisi Marriott Hotel on March 17; and there were two special celebratory performances, the first at the gorgeous rococo-style Rustaveli Theatre on March 16, and a gala concert with international ballet stars at the Tbilisi Concert Hall on March 18.

It is typical of Ananiashvili’s adventurous spirit that the performance on March 16 included the world premiere of a new ballet, Tampopo, created for the occasion by Teet Kask. This bizarrely dressed work showed the ballerina dancing with Vasil Akhmeteli and Otar Khelashvili amidst musicians Tea Tchkuaseli, Lela Mtchedlidze and Giorgi Jorjadze. During a duet, Akhmeteli draped Ananiashvili’s limbs around his body before spinning her on the floor. At the end she stepped into a box and started to giggle, opening her arms out wide in amusement to the audience.

The evening opened with Yuri Possokhov’s Sagalobeli, an ensemble work that showcased the State Ballet of Georgia’s beautiful female dancers, especially principal Lali Kandelaki, and closed with Ananiashvili and Akhmeteli in an authentically staged production of Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand. Marguerite is the kind of role in which a mature ballerina can excel, and here Ananiashvili looked ravishing, her dancing undimmed, her character coquettish and carefree until tragedy overtakes her. She made the role her own, and was especially touching in Marguerite’s now-famous teetering exit on pointe following Armand’s devastating insult.

The gala in the Tbilisi Concert Hall gave the opportunity for Ananiashvili’s many friends and colleagues to celebrate her anniversary in style. Travelling from Spain, the US, Russia, China and the UK, the dancers included Ángel Corella and Momoko Hirata in a sprightly account of Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Maia Makhateli dancing with her brother, David, in the balcony duet from Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Elena Glurdjidze and Sergei Polunin in an extract from Raymonda, top Bolshoi stars Evgenia Obraztsova, Dmitri Gudanov, Anastasia Stashkevich and Viacheslav Lopatin, and Anastasia and Denis Matvienko in Gsovsky’s Grand Pas Classique.

Ananiashvili herself appeared in several items: a duet with Akhmeteli from Possokhov’s Reflections, an amusing Waltz by Alexei Ratmansky partnered by Akhmeteli, Jose Manuel Carreño, Corella, and Matvienko; and her stunning Lekuri solo, where she whizzed about the stage impersonating a male Caucasian dancer. The audience went wild during the coda for the pas de trois from Le Corsaire, clapping along to Ananiashvili’s fantastic fouettés so noisily that at its conclusion she grinned broadly, tapped her ears and shook her head, indicating she hadn’t been able to hear the music. Finally, amidst cheers and acclaim, Ananiashvili was presented with roses from all the dancers and also from some of her former illustrious partners, including Alexei Fadeyechev, Sergei Filin, Andris Liepa, Vadim Pisarev and Yuri Possokhov, all of whom had journeyed to Tbilisi to be present.

It was a great way to bring the celebration to a conclusion. Was it worth the delayed flight from Heathrow, the missed connection to Tbilisi, and the unexpected overnight stay in Istanbul? Absolutely! Nina Ananiashvili is a rare, brilliant and wonderful artist, and one who lays claim to people’s affections, both on and off stage. I salute her achievements, and wish her many, many more years of dancing.

 

Photographs: Nina Ananiashvili in Tampopo; Nina Ananiashvili and Vasil Akhmeteli in two scenes from Marguerite and Armand; Nina Ananiashvili, Vasil Akhmeteli and Denis Matvienko in the Pas de Trois from Le Corsaire; Nina Ananiashvili and Vasil Akhmeteli, Jose Manuel Carreño, Ángel Corella and Denis Matvienko in Waltz; Nina Ananiashvili in her Lekuri solo; Curtain Calls after the gala performance. All photographs by Lado Vachnadze.

Jonathan Gray is editor of Dancing Times. He studied at The Royal Ballet School, Leicester Polytechnic, and Wimbledon School of Art where he graduated with a BA Hons in Theatre Design. For 16 years he was a member of the curatorial department of the Theatre Museum, London, assisting on a number of dance-related exhibitions, and helping with the recreation of original designs for a number of The Royal Ballet’s productions including Danses concertantes, Daphnis and Chloë, and The Sleeping Beauty. He has also contributed to the Financial Times, written programme articles for The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and is co-author of the book Unleashing Britain: Theatre gets real 1955-64, published in 2005.

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