How Georgian was George Balanchine? It depends on whom you ask. Last week, the State Ballet of Georgia presented “Mostly B,” a triple-bill program at the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts in the Bronx. The company danced Balanchine’s Serenade and Concerto Barocco as well as Yuri Possokhov’s 2008 piece Sagalobeli. At the first intermission, the announcer described Balanchine as a “Georgian-born” choreographer, causing a few people to titter. While Mr. B was not born in Georgia, it’s a forgivable (and frequent) error. Some of Balanchine’s own dancers, after all, thought him a native-born Georgian, too.
In truth, Georgi Balanchivadze was born in St. Petersburg in 1904 to Maria Vasilyeva, a Russian merchant’s daughter, and Meliton Balanchivadze, a prominent Georgian composer. The family eventually moved to Tbilisi, but Georgi remained in Petrograd and continued to dance at the Mariinsky Theater before joining the Ballets Russes in 1924. (It was Sergei Diaghilev who suggested he Frenchify his name.) Though he never lived in his father’s country and could not speak the language, Balanchine admired Georgia’s traditional folk dances and costumes and referred to its people as “my tribe.”
His love for Georgians was mutual. In her recent biography Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century, Jennifer Homans writes that Balanchine was greeted like a movie star in Tbilisi during the New York City Ballet’s 1962 tour in the Soviet Union. There he was reunited with his brother, Andrei Balanchivadze, a successful composer and a winner of the 1944 Stalin Prize, for the first time since childhood. He also met his half-brother, Apollon (from his father’s first marriage to a Georgian woman), who had become a priest after surviving years as a political prisoner.
While many Soviet dancers responded enthusiastically to the NYCB, they were not yet allowed to dance Balanchine ballets themselves. The policy of Socialist Realism, established in the 1930s, demanded all works of art be “accessible” to the proletariat. Only story ballets were seen to fit this criteria, which did not bode well for Balanchine’s many abstract works.
Things loosened up six months after Balanchine’s death in 1983, when the Kirov Ballet (the Mariinsky Ballet’s name during the Soviet era) held a tribute to the choreographer. In 1984, Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times reported that the State Ballet of Georgia had become the first Soviet company to perform a complete Balanchine ballet (Serenade, learned from a poor-quality film) in public.
Twenty years later, the Georgian ballerina Nina Ananiashvili took over the Tbilisi-based company as artistic director, the post she holds today. A former principal dancer of the Bolshoi Ballet, she performed Balanchine repertoire for many years with the NYCB and American Ballet Theatre and is responsible for reviving his works in Georgia as well as commissioning new choreography that draws upon the country’s cultural heritage.
“Mostly B” opened with two pieces Balanchine made early in his career for his students at the School of American Ballet. The first was 1934’s Serenade, a mysterious moonlit ballet in four movements set to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. The unity and precision local audiences are used to seeing at the NYCB, whose dancers are drawn almost exclusively from Balanchine’s school, is impossible to match, but the SBG corps brought sky-high extensions, flurries of piqué turns in circle formations, and strong lines, though the soloists seemed to hold back when the music instead called for abandon. The troupe nevertheless built to a beautiful conclusion, in which several female dancers bourréed towards a beam of light at the back of the stage, while the figure known as “Waltz Girl,” who collapsed in the third movement, stood in a slight backbend, hair loosened, held aloft by two male soloists.
The second piece, 1941’s Concerto Barocco, set to Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins, is often described as a “mathematical” ballet that tests dancers’ minds as much as their bodies. Dressed in simple white leotards, the female corps embodies the orchestra, while two female soloists, danced stylishly by Nino Samadashvili and Mariam Eloshvili, personify the two lead violins. The dancers must perform syncopated steps to counterpoint rhythms, requiring tremendous concentration that perhaps accounted for a certain stiffness in the performance.
A completely different troupe—smiling, spirited, dynamic—seemed to emerge in the final piece on the program, Sagalobeli, named after the Georgian word for “canticle” or “hymn.” The tension sustained earlier in the night vanished as if invisible cords had been cut. Rollicking and enigmatic in turn, the ballet opened with a polyphonic vocal piece followed by numerous other examples of traditional Georgian music using native instruments including the duduki, a double-reeded woodwind, and the stringed panduri, a type of lute.
Yuri Possokhov, the Ukrainian-born former principal dancer of the Bolshoi Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, and San Francisco Ballet, where he is now a choreographer-in-residence, based the piece on his impressions of the region as an outsider. While Possokhov spared the male dancers some of the more extreme techniques required of traditional Georgian dancers—like jumping and landing hard on their knees and dancing on their toes—he conjured the same energy in other ways. The men stomped audibly on the balls of their feet, pivoted on their heels, performed headstands and somersaults, and lifted the female dancers up and down in bold sweeping motions. Two male dancers performed a tug-of-war duet with a rope, leaning and lunging with playful antagonism. At other moments, the female dancers created striking patterns in silhouette against a brightly lit backdrop, their arms and faces in profile like an Egyptian wall painting.
The piece is a strong argument in favor of combining neoclassical ballet and traditional styles of dance. Still fresh after fifteen years, Sagalobeli looks set to become the SBG’s signature piece, their very own Serenade.