Balanchine's dance roots Georgian company shows origins of his style
George Balanchine, the presiding genius of 20th century ballet, was from Georgia, at that time a southern province of Russia, and his surname is a French contraction of his original name, Balanchivadze.
Ballet historians don't make much of his Georgian ancestry, but when the Georgian State Dance Company performs at the Naval Academy tonight and the Kennedy Center in Washington Saturday, the connection should become clear. Until Balanchine, women in the world's ballet companies were graceful, willowy aristocrats or short, strong technicians.
His female dancers were tall, leggy women with small heads, appearing smaller because of the ballet style that pulls the hair back into a bun at the crown of the head. They were trained for speed and precision without being showy about it. Because of their look and the impassive expressions they cultivated to perform his abstract ballets, some critics of his style derided them as "pinheads." Later, in the 1950s, when his mastery was acknowledged, the term was used affectionately.
You can see the origin of the "pinheads" in the women of the Georgian State Dance Company, who are tall, long-limbed and preternaturally calm. From the way they glide across the floor in their long skirts, you would never suspect the quick footwork that propels them -- just as dance critics took a long time to realize the strength and speed behind the deceptive serenity of early Balanchine ballets such as "Serenade."
Georgian folk dance is severely divided by gender; women and men dance in sharply different styles. The women's dances are smooth, elegantly patterned and based on roles or clothing traditionally allotted to women: the samaya or dance of the bride's attendants; the narnari, in which the arms ripple like silk scarves; the tzkarostan, a dance of water carriers.
The men, by contrast, dance as competitors and warriors. The mkhedruli, for instance, is a dance of cavalrymen; the khandjluri, a dance of fighters with swords and knives; the lelo, a kind of soccer game in which one side scores by kicking the ball across the lelo, or dividing line.
In addition to their high-energy athleticism, which is common to many Central Asian cultures, the Georgian men preserve the ability to dance on their toes. It's a little like pointe work in ballet, except that the Georgian men dance in soft shoes and bend the toes under, so they are really dancing on the knuckles of the toes.
Georgia was a crossroads of trade and culture, and its dances reflect its rich mixture of peoples. Its Caucasian tribes embraced Christianity in the fourth century, but they also preserved their language and pre-Christian customs, in fierce opposition to centuries of Russian domination.
As a stop on the Asian trade routes, Georgia also came to know (and to assimilate) the sinuous music of Middle Eastern lands and the subtle, supple shimmer of silk drapery for its costumes. The life of its nascent aristocracy is demonstrated in a dance such as the davluri, a slow ceremonial walk not unlike the baroque minuet.
Its cross-cultural heritage also is demonstrated in the exaggerated respect of men for women. In the Georgian dance repertory, men and women do not touch, even in couples dancing; and one dance, the khevsuri, is a stylized battle between rival suitors, who stop when the young woman they are fighting over throws her headdress into the ring and indicates her choice of bridegroom.
The Georgian State Dance Company was founded by the late Iliko Sukhishvili and his wife, Nina Ramishvili, who met as soloists in the late 1920s with the Tbilisi Opera Ballet. Ramishvili is now the folk company's director emeritus and chief choreographer, and her son, Tengiz Sukhishvili, runs the company. His wife, Inga, and their children, Iliko and Nina, are dancers in the troupe.
As with the other folk companies of the former Soviet Union, the Georgian State Dance Company was fed by a state-supported network of scouts and trainers who selected children as young as 5 for their coordination and flexibility. These were funneled into the central school in Tbilisi. Many of the current company members grew up in the school and will return to teach there when their performing careers are over.
By Judith Green