New York City Ballet's spring season celebrates the vision of choreographer and company founder George Balanchine, but it also pays special tribute to his ancestral homeland: the country of Georgia.
At the close of the season, the 80-member Georgian State Dance Company takes to the stage with their traditional folk dances depicting everything from sword fights to shepherds to elegant damsels. And though Georgia borders Russia and was part of the U.S.S.R., the sunny country has a vibrant character all its own.
Take it from Balanchine himself. "We Georgians are not Russian in culture, not at all. We are Mediterranean people, like Italians," he said, according to biographer Bernard Taper.
Indeed, the romance and courtliness of some of the dances suggest Romeo and Juliet‹not snow-covered tundra. And the music, which will be played live on stage by a ten-member ensemble, has a decidedly Greek sound. So while you can expect to see some typically Russian moves, there's much more to Georgian dance than men squatting and jumping with their arms folded in front of their chests.
Russian folk dances were surely part of the young Balanchine's training in St. Petersburg, and through his family he was exposed to Georgian cultural traditions, which remained very close to his heart. When Balanchine first moved to America, he would attend formal dinners with others of Georgian descent in New York, and he had a traditional Georgian outfit‹a long, tightly fitted Cossack coat, with soft boots‹to wear on these occasions.
Balanchine may or may not have seen The Georgian State Dance Company when it first started appearing in the U.S. in the 1960s, produced by Sol Hurok, but he definitely attended the company's performances in Hamburg in 1968. Balanchine was in that city to stage an opera for the Hamburg State Opera, and his assistant at the time, Barbara Horgan (now the Trustee of The George Balanchine Trust), remembers going to see the Georgians perform with Balanchine. "He had such a good time, we went back the next night," Ms. Horgan says, "and then word got around that he was there, and the company invited him to a huge party on a ship, there in the harbor."
Balanchine had a chance to repay this hospitality in 1975, when The Georgian State Dance Company came to New York on tour. "He threw a big party at a restaurant across from the theater‹we took over the whole place," Ms. Horgan remembers. "The party was for the entire Georgian company, including the musicians, who are very much part of that company, and for the entire NYCB. That was quite a night."
So what is it about this company that delighted Balanchine so much? At its core, The Georgian State Dance Company preserves dances‹some dating back to medieval times‹that reflect various aspects of village life. Love, honor, war, art, and simple gatherings are all represented with movement that varies for each occasion. A festival dance like the Partsa is a celebratory occasion with intricately organized rows of dancers. The Kazbeguri, a dance of shepherds, has explosive moves for male dancers who put Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to shame. But in an exquisite, slow piece like Samaia, inspired by a fresco, it is the regal beauty of the women, who nearly float across the floor, that commands attention.
What makes these different dances equally fascinating is the technique underlying the artistry. The men dance in boots of supple leather, which allows them to articulately walk the floor using the full length and sides of their feet‹and often their toes. There are no pointe shoes here, but these men balance and walk calmly on their toes, using nothing but their own strength.
Those controlled moves, however, are only half of the story. When they're not gliding smoothly across the floor, the male dancers are shooting through the air with jumps and turns that lend an almost circus atmosphere to the stage. As nimble as acrobats, these men are dynamos that you've got see to believe.
By contrast, the women step gingerly in character shoes, or pumps, and at all times look as beautiful and aloof as possible. The women are typically clad in long, flowing robes and headdresses accented by exaggerated braids of hair streaming down from underneath. (It's not far from here to Rapunzel.) While these dresses somewhat restrict the lower body, the women's undulating arms and delicately placed hands make for a fascinating display of movement balanced by stillness.
While these movements have been handed down through the centuries as part of specific dances‹such as the Khevsuruli, an exciting dance of swords and chivalry that originated in a mountain village‹The Georgian State Dance Company also creates new works inspired by tradition.
Established in 1945, the company was founded by Iliko Sukhishvili (1907-1985) and Nina Ramishvili, who met while dancing for the Tbilsi Opera and Ballet Company. Sukhishvili, with his wife, sought to create a folk dance company that could present to the rest of Russia and the world the culture of their region.
More than half a century later, that mission is still going strong. Meanwhile a new generation of the family leads the company: artistic director and choreographer Tengiz Sukhishvili is the son of the founders, and chief choreographer Iliko Sukhishvili, Jr., is their grandson.
Through their leadership, we are still fortunate enough to witness dance traditions from the land that gave the world George Balanchine. And even as the Balanchine centennial season comes to a close this June, The Georgian State Dance Company will bring our attention back to the land where it all began.
Pia Catton is the dance critic for The New York Sun.