Georgian National Ballet : Dance and Dazzle

If Georgia’s cuisine is any indication, this country’s other arts are equally dazzling, especially music and dance. The first time I saw Georgian dancing was when the Georgian National Ballet Sukhishivili-Ramishvili visited Kyiv during my childhood. By then I had already studied classical ballet for several years, so it was hard to impress me with complicated turns or jumps, but when the Georgian troupe took stage, it charged up the whole auditorium with so much energy that for the two hours of the performance I felt myself soaring. I have since seen hundreds of dance performances, both folk and classics, but this feeling of intoxication and euphoria returned only on a few occasions since, the most recent being during Natalia Osipova’s performance of Giselle.

And it’s hard not to be moved watching Georgian dancing with its energy, rhythm, complex technique and precision. The clip above is the rehearsal of the same troupe I saw as a child, but of course, with a new generation of dancers. Sukhishvili-Ramishvili Ballet is based on traditional Georgian dancing, though they incorporate classical ballet elements to polish the movements further. Men dancing on bent toes, though, is part of the traditional repertoire, predating ballet’s en pointe technique. Although this clip is only the rehearsal, it gives you a sense of the troupe’s virtuosity. I watched it at least ten times, and I still hold my breath when the dancers do pirouettes on their knees, then raise themselves en pointe before jumping in the air and holding a trinacria-like shape for what seems like minutes.

The story of the Sukhishvili-Ramishvili Ballet is a story of love and dedication to art. It was established in 1945 by two dancers Iliko Sukhishvili and Nino Ramishvili. They met at the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theater, which among its founders counted Meliton Balanchivadze, the father of the American ballet choreographer George Balanchine. Nino was a classically trained ballerina, and according to the lore, the first time Iliko, a folk dancer was assigned to partner with her at the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theater where they both worked, he refused before even seeing her. He didn’t think that a classical dancer would be able to feel the rhythm of traditional movements. Yet, when he finally saw Nino, it was love at first sight, and they remained together for the rest of their lives.

The Sukhishvili-Ramishvili Ballet (officially The Georgian National Ballet) was created after WWII. Following a denunciation from another dancer, Nino was forced to leave the theater, as was Iliko. At first, they performed around the Soviet Union, but slowly they gathered a troupe and created their own company dedicated to both preserving traditional dance and giving it a new melody. Much of Georgian dancing is performed by men, especially the kind based on the martial arts, but Nino often danced such parts herself in a male costume and incorporated the male steps into the women’s dancing. She was the firebrand and innovator of the couple.

The Georgian National Ballet rapidly gained renown, and reportedly they were the first and only folk dance troupe to perform on the stage of La Scala Theater in Milan. Today the company is directed by the couple’s son, Tengiz Sukhishvili. The clip below shows the troupe performing during their 70th anniversary concert in 2015.

Those of you who live in Philadelphia, Washington DC or New York are in luck, because the Georgian National Ballet is doing its US tour between October 18-24th. The company will be performing in Washington on October 20th, in New York’s Lincoln Center on October 22nd, and in Philadelphia on October 23rd. If you have a chance to see Georgian dance live, please don’t miss it.

Georgia is a dancing nation, and Georgian dance is alive outside the theater. When I wrote about creating a Georgian supra, or feast, earlier this week, I mentioned that the most important part of any Georgian celebration is music. And where there is music, there is dance.

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38 Comments

  • Nora Szekely: Hi Victoria,

    Wonderful article.
    I have a question : Apart from the energy and technique what do you think, which are the main qualities to be a great dancer ? October 6, 2017 at 7:37am Reply

    • Victoria: Utter dedication to your craft and self-discipline. It’s such a hard profession, and if one is not prepared to give up everything to it, then it’s hard to move past the basic level. And this dedication is then translated into the energy that one conveys to the viewers. Of course, musicality is very important, the ability to feel the movements as more than simple steps. Technique by itself is not enough to move the viewer. For instance, the reason I found the rehearsal excerpts above so extraordinary is because you really feel that the dancers put all of themselves into the dance. October 6, 2017 at 11:06am Reply

  • Ariadne: WOW!!! October 6, 2017 at 9:31am Reply

    • Victoria: In the second rehearsal clip the camera can’t even keep up with the speed of those turns (at ~3:00). October 6, 2017 at 11:07am Reply

  • Jeanne: The dancers’ energy is amazing. I love the pirouettes on the knees-ouch! October 6, 2017 at 10:03am Reply

  • Karen A: Oh my my!!!! As Adriane said above, WOW!!! October 6, 2017 at 10:07am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m jealous of the folks in NY, PA and Washington who have a chance to see them perform this October. October 6, 2017 at 11:09am Reply

  • Rita: Victoria, I know what you are talking about. The dances are amazing, there is so much dignity in them. Noble and reserved. October 6, 2017 at 2:39pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, that’s what I found mesmerizing. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched these clips already. October 6, 2017 at 3:51pm Reply

  • MaureenC: Fabulous clips of film. I particularly enjoyed the rehearsals, you get a better sense of the dancer as a person as well as a performer in rehearsal before the very heavy costuming and make up goes on. October 6, 2017 at 3:48pm Reply

    • Victoria: I agree. You can see the precision of their movements better. October 6, 2017 at 3:53pm Reply

  • Kayliz: Oh my goodness. The skill, precision and artistry beggars belief. But their knees – how long do they survive? October 6, 2017 at 10:03pm Reply

    • SFSteve: This is what I wondered. I hope these dancers aren’t crippled at age 40. October 6, 2017 at 10:40pm Reply

      • Victoria: Doesn’t seem to be the case, although I imagine that like all professional dancers they have their share of injuries. But then again, these people aren’t mere mortals. They get trained from childhood and they come into the studio with the type of physical prerequisites that most other people don’t have. October 7, 2017 at 10:31am Reply

    • Victoria: All types of professional dance (and sports) are hard on the body, but with the right kind of training and technique, one can avoid major injuries. The traditional Georgian dance isn’t any different. October 7, 2017 at 10:24am Reply

  • AndreaR: Mesmerizing. I think i knew that George Balanchine was from Georgia.So interesting that his father was one of the co-founders of the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet. The passion and energy of the traditional Georgian dancers certainly found it’s way into Balanchine’s choreography. October 7, 2017 at 12:09am Reply

    • Victoria: He trained in St. Petersburg, but as I was watching these clips with their rapid-fire footwork, I was wondering if that’s not what inspired Balanchine’s famous attention to small, precise, fast foot movements.

      He knew Iliko Sukhishvili, and apparently in 1924 he was trying to persuade him to leave Georgia. Sukhishvili refused, because he didn’t think that he could achieve the same level of recognition with the traditional Georgian dance abroad as he could at home. October 7, 2017 at 10:35am Reply

  • Silvermoon: Wonderful article and absolutely stunning dancing. I especially loved the rehearsal sessions. Very beautiful to watch and be amazed! And the story of Iliko and Nino made it more special. Thanks Victoria. October 7, 2017 at 9:26am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m glad that you did. As a dancer (and a former pro dancer), I find the rehearsals even more fascinating than the actual performance. They can give you such a candid glimpse into the dancer’s art. October 7, 2017 at 10:37am Reply

      • Silvermoon: This is so true. Also the plain black clothes without decorations allow one to clearly see the body move without distractions. So, the black with red skirt performance costumes just fluttered around and did not show off the dancers’ movements as well. All the same, thoroughly enjoyable. October 7, 2017 at 6:07pm Reply

        • Victoria: But for the true effect, they must be seen live in full costume, because it’s also part of the dance and the story. Otherwise, it’s a bit like hearing opera singers rehearsing arias. Fascinating, but lacking the context. I just think that dance is hard to capture on video, so I tried to select as well as I could to give you a little taste. October 10, 2017 at 9:29am Reply

  • Eudora: My 6 year old daughter and me saying WOW all time. Thanks for sharing Victoria. October 7, 2017 at 4:37pm Reply

    • Victoria: Glad that you both liked it! October 10, 2017 at 9:26am Reply

  • Carla: Gorgeous dancing! Somewhat repetitive but amazing energy and feels modern somehow. October 8, 2017 at 12:47am Reply

  • James: Incredible! I’ve never seen anything like that. Wish I could see them on stage. October 8, 2017 at 6:36am Reply

    • Victoria: I hope that they will tour in your town. October 10, 2017 at 9:30am Reply

  • maja: Extraordinary. I don’t find it repetitive because all these variations are so wonderful and performed in a different way. It’s a sort of exploring in depth. Besides, I guess that in folk dancing as well as in folk literary production there is something epical about repeating some fundamental concepts or moves.
    And I can only imagine the amount of physical preparation it takes. May their knees serve them long. October 8, 2017 at 7:53am Reply

    • Rachel: I used to dance modern and lyrical, but I wasn’t aware of such types of turns before. The only repetitive thing about it was that I kept saying “wow” nonstop!

      I’ll admit that I know next to nothing about Georgia, but your recent posts were fun. October 8, 2017 at 8:04am Reply

      • Victoria: Glad to hear it, Rachel! I enjoyed sharing. October 10, 2017 at 11:31am Reply

    • Victoria: Nor do I. Even though it’s only a rehearsal and not even a full dance. To me it’s like a melody that grows in complexity. I also traditional Georgian music, and if you have a moment, please listen to the ensemble called Zardesha. October 10, 2017 at 11:30am Reply

  • Nora Szekely: Hi Victoria and perfume lovers,

    Watching the rehearsal, I remembered something from my own experiences.
    I’m rereading Amelie Nothombe’s book called “Robert des noms propres”. It is about a girl who’s destined to be a ballet dancer. Her teacher says when she’s just a child, that she has dancer eyes and it is most important to have those to be an exceptional dancer.
    I know a Hungarian group called Coincidance (sic!) who won me over with this principle actually.
    They mix modern jazz ballet and irish step and their performances are asounding, Apart from their passion and technique, they make eye contact with the audience, drawing us into their world.
    It is such a joy that dance is a language all nations can speak. October 9, 2017 at 7:30am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m looking up Coincidance as I type! It must be the autumn under the Hungarian-Georgian spell for me, because besides all other things I mentioned, I have been reading Antal Szerb and re-reading Banffy. October 10, 2017 at 11:34am Reply

  • Sherry: I must have watched the video over a dozen times in the last few days. I am not a dancer but the rehearsal gave me chills every time I watched it… Wow and thank you for sharing this from your trip! October 10, 2017 at 10:17am Reply

    • Victoria: That was me this past weekend too. 🙂 My pleasure to share, of course. October 10, 2017 at 11:49am Reply

  • Aurora: No wonder Sukhishvily wanted to stay in Georgia with its enthusiastic crowds! Thank you for sharing so many aspects of Georgian culture lately, I did not comment on the recipe books but I can see myself drawing much needed inspiration from the use of herbs especially, a wealth of ideas for a vegetarian and I can adapt the chicken recipe maybe by using Quorn instead. October 15, 2017 at 6:08am Reply

    • Victoria: I hope that you can try it and experiment. It’s such a vividly flavored cuisine. October 16, 2017 at 11:48am Reply

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