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Ballet company finds audiences

By Kristin Aoun

Feb. 18, 2008 10:00 p.m.

The phrase “Dance like no one is watching” is commonly used to inspire confidence in performers. However, for the State Ballet of Georgia, this phrase possessed an unfortunate truth.

The State Ballet of Georgia was established in 1935 as the resident company of the Georgian Ballet Theater in Tbilisi, which dates back to 1852. But in 2004, despite its rich history and talented dancers, the company was literally dancing for itself because of a four-year-long civil war in Georgia.

The dancers would rehearse in layers of clothing and coats because of the freezing cold weather, for low wages. And with a civil war going on, people were not attending the ballet. But the dancers continued anyway, feeling a commitment to the great ballet tradition in Georgia.

Now, the dancers of the State Ballet of Georgia are coming to UCLA Live with its L.A. debut in two programs: the classical George Balanchine ballet “Giselle,” and “Mixed Repertory,” which will feature Balanchine “Chaconne” and new ballets by Yuri Possokhov and Alexei Ratmansky. Performances begin this Thursday in Royce Hall.

Selected performances feature legendary Georgian ballerina Nina Ananiashvili, prima ballerina and artistic director for the State Ballet of Georgia. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili asked Ananiashvili to help rebuild the company when he took office in 2004 through a bloodless coup.

“(President Saakashvili) started telling me of his plans to move Georgia closer to the West and to undertake a series of reforms in the country,” Ananiashvili said. “He asked me to be a part of this renaissance and to come and take over the ballet company that had fallen on very hard times, was barely functioning ““ saying that this will be part of giving new energy to the country.”

Ananiashvili is accepted as one of the greatest ballerinas now performing. After training at the State Choreographic School of Georgia, Ananiashvili joined the historic Bolshoi Theater in 1981, dancing as prima ballerina in virtually every great ballet, from Odette in “Swan Lake” to Aurora in “Sleeping Beauty.” She has since toured the world, dancing with numerous established dance companies, and is also a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre.

“She has incredible musicality, phrasing, and an incredible sense of dramatic movement,” said David Eden, producer of David Eden Productions, Ltd., which is bringing the State Ballet of Georgia to UCLA. The company produces international artistic works in the United States, including the Gate Theatre Dublin’s “Waiting for Godot,” which performed through UCLA Live in 2006.

Since taking over as artistic director and prima ballerina, Ananiashvili has returned the company to its former glory, with higher wages, better dancing conditions and larger audiences. With works by international choreographers created for the company, the State Ballet of Georgia has also developed the repertory of Balanchine, Georgia’s world-famous native son.

“I have been dancing “˜Giselle’ for over 20 years now, and I always find new dramatic and stylistic nuances to the role. It really is a benchmark role for a ballerina: Reputations are built and fall on how good you are in the role,” Ananiashvili said.

“Giselle” tells the story of a young maiden who is in love with a nobleman disguised as a peasant. When Giselle discovers the identity of the man and that he is engaged to the daughter of a duke, she dies of a broken heart.

“Giselle for a ballerina is what Hamlet is for an actor, an inexhaustible role that the more you do it, the more you see in it the potential of what could be done with it. … Everyone can identify with her attraction to a man and the ensuing heartbreak,” Ananiashvili said.

Giselle must try to save the man from the “wilis” ““ fairy spirits of engaged women who died before their wedding day. The wilis try to make the man dance to his death before they must return to their graves at sunrise.

“In the second act, which is completely about style, with flowing, seamless, very difficult dancing, (Ananiashvili) is just amazing,” Eden said. “When other dancers in her company now do “˜Giselle,’ you can really see that they have worked with her.”

Ananiashvili will only be dancing in the Saturday evening performance of “Giselle” and in the mixed repertory show on Thursday.

The matinee performances of “Giselle” at UCLA Live will be danced by younger ballerinas in the company who are “really, really superb,” according to Eden. Ananiashvili is passing on the Georgian tradition of “Giselle” to a new generation of ballerinas.

“I now feel that my presence on stage helps to push the dancers in my company to do more and try harder,” Ananiashvili said. “And I am glad that the audience still comes to see me.”

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