Happy Birthday Nina Ananiashvili
a tribute – with personal memories – on her 50th birthday
The incomparable Nina Ananiashvili is a brilliant ballerina who has conquered the world with her dancing and charm – not just at the Bolshoi Theatre where she began her career, but also notably in America and Japan where she has appeared regularly over the years. Since putting me under her spell when I first saw her 34 years ago, she is the dancer whose career and life I have followed most closely and of whom I have written about most extensively in the international media over the years.
Today – Thursday, March 28th 2013 -Nina celebrates her 50th birthday – and, to everyone’s delight, she is still dancing. No, not like those who come in token tulle and heels to make a one-off appearance in a gala. In Nina’s case, it is with pristine technique, lyricism, suppleness, musicality, all topped off with her phenomenal turns – my, how she can spin! Her body is as slim and eloquent as ever, her Peter Pan features unlined and beautiful, and her stage presence remains full of charisma and joie de vivre. She has been hailed by the world’s greatest international companies, been partnered by legendary male dancers, and has worked with – and charmed – many of today’s great choreographers. (I was fortunate enough to accompany her to her rehearsals with Sir Kenneth MacMillan when she performed Prince of the Pagodas with The Royal Ballet, and saw how enchanted he was with her.) Nina remains one of the most admired and respected ballerinas of our time, performing regularly in single and full blown three act classical ballets. She has recently been guesting in Kiev where she danced La Bayadere with Denis Matvienko who, in return is going to Tbilisi to perform Swan Lake with her. Not just perfect for classical roles, Nina is also lithe and athletic in modern works, many created on her. As if all this dancing were not enough, she has for the past nine years been at the helm of the Georgian State Ballet as artistic director, steering and guiding it to the status it now possesses in today’s ballet world. Her forty years of dedication and devotion to her art have made her a treasured icon of Russian classical technique.
Off stage she is just as much a gem. Friendly, caring, concerned and loving, she makes everyone around her feel at ease and welcome. That is not to say that she is too gentle to be a good director. On the contrary, watching her in class and rehearsals in the studio at the Paliashvili Theatre in Tbilisi, she was quick to notice any lack of effort, wrong steps or lacklustre attitude. A quick sharp word muttered in the incomprehensible Georgian language, together with a comforting smile afterwards, dissolved the situation and the lesson was learned – but not forgotten. She is beloved by all her company, staff and public, Georgian and international alike.
Personal memories of this very special person have come flooding back on the eve of her 50th birthday. I first spotted Nina in 1979 in a class with her much-loved teacher, Nina Zolotova, at the Moscow Choreographic Institute when she was 16. She caught my attention immediately with her intensity, absorption and serious furrowed brow. Nothing distracted her from Mme Zolotova’s instruction, and her perseverance for perfection was remarkable. Nina also stood out because she was physically different from the other blond, high cheek-boned Russian girls. With her wide, bush-baby eyes, slightly darker complexion and rounded face, she was a beauty in the making. Her long thin limbs – both arms and legs – were coltish, seeming too lengthy for her body size, yet, contrary to their fragile appearance, enabled her to soar skywards effortlessly or stretch out with liquid grace in her port de bras. The next year I watched her graduation performance in the school’s production of Coppelia with her handsome fellow-student Andris Liepa, son of the famous Bolshoi dancer, Maris Liepa. They worked well together and made an exciting pair to watch – the contrast of the blond Russian-Latvian with the dark wide-eyed Georgian hit the right chord with audiences and they quickly became the talk of the Moscow ballet world.
They were sent forth to conquer medals in the 1981 Moscow International Ballet Competition, (again which I attended) where, in the junior division, Nina won Grand Prix and Andris gold. Accepted into the Bolshoi Ballet that year, Nina, who had started life as an ice skater and had, at the age of ten, become junior champion of Georgia, was initially assigned to the corps de ballet – but she was quickly plucked to do greater things. Her coach was none other than Raisa Struchkova, a naturally gregarious personality who had proved herself to be a technically fearless ballerina during her own illustrious career, and who now relived her stage performances in her animated coaching. She pulled the dramatic out of the somewhat shy and quiet Georgian girl, and Nina lapped up all of her technical corrections, refining and polishing her style brilliantly. Raisa became Nina’s ‘Russian mother’ and confidante, passionately caring for her exceptional young charge both technically and physically throughout Nina’s career with the Bolshoi Ballet. Under Raisa’s tutelage Nina blossomed and bloomed, and watching many of their rehearsals together over the years was pure pleasure. Later, her lyrical and ethereal qualities were refined and gilded by the coaching of the remarkable Marina Semyonova.
In the Moscow International Ballet Competition of 1985 Nina and Andris danced together again, this time in the tougher senior division, resulting in Nina taking the Gold Medal – it was Irek Mukhamedov who won the Grand Prix. Rather than show off an expected flashy duet, the couple chose the gentle pas de deux from Raymonda, and there were gasps of appreciation and delight when the music started, showing Andris, in sparkling white costume and flowing cape, his arms wrapped around Nina in her gorgeous ice blue, diamante-studded tutu. All the babushkas cooed with approval and tears flowed from my neighbour, who I discovered afterwards was Andris’ mother, the actress Margarita Zhigunova, who became a firm friend from then onwards. The duo picked up the Grand Prix at the International Competition at Jackson, Mississippi a year later, enchanting the American public. In 1985, I was assigned by the BBC to be researcher on a documentary about the Bolshoi Ballet, its history and its dancers which was shown when the company came to London the following summer for their hotly anticipated tour – the first to the UK in 12 years. Andris and Nina, seen as the Bolshoi’s future, featured fully throughout and they won a multitude of British fans and friends when the company came on tour to Dublin, Covent Garden, Manchester and Birmingham, and finally, the Big Top in Battersea Park in 1986.
Digressing to a personal memory for a moment: I had the good fortune to work with the Bolshoi company for the full six weeks of their tour and during their stay, took Nina to see one of Raisa’s friends in Ely, catching the train early one Sunday morning. Her interest in the beautiful cathedral and the lifestyle outside of London showed her fascination of a world away from the stage and dark trappings of a studio. Indeed most of the company dancers spent valuable spare time in museums and galleries. Another very hot Sunday she and her friend Ilze Liepa (Andris’ sister) came down to my home in Surrey for the day. I still catch my breath when I think that they might not have made it – I wrote down specific instructions of how to take the train from Waterloo but hadn’t realized that in typical British fashion, only the front four coaches would be leaving – and here they were sitting happily in the last of the back four. Some kind fellow passenger quickly guided them at the last moment – they had no English between them at that time – and I picked up two giggling girls at my local station. Ilze changed into her bathing costume thinking that my ‘pond’ was for swimming – alas, only bath-sized for goldfish and frogs – and the two played around outside like kids, doing arabesques on the lawn, then flopping on the couches in the heat. Back in London, we’d go off for walks around the capital whenever Nina and her friends were free to visit the shops and buy goods not obtainable in the Soviet Union.
Nina’s own apartment when she first joined the company was close to the Bolshoi Theatre but was very small. Her dear granny had come up from Georgia to be with her, to chaperone her and keep her company. But there was only one room and when Nina had guests, Granny would sit on her couch/bed at one end, watching the TV while we would sit on Nina’s bed/couch just a few yards away. However it was ‘home’ and we had some wonderful times in that little apartment. One evening after a triumphant performance of Swan Lake, Nina’s future husband, Gregory Vashadze, a Georgian lawyer and diplomat (and recently the Georgian Foreign Minister under Mikael Sakhashvili), invited the New York Times’ renowned critic, Anna Kisselgoff, to come back to the flat for supper. Nina grabbed me, her eyes wide with concern. ‘What can I give her?’ she questioned. Soon, the beautiful Swan Queen and I were in her bare, minuscule Soviet kitchen cooking chicken and fried potatoes for her guests – her stove looking like it had come out of the industrial era. All this after three and a half long hours on stage as an ethereal swan!
Nina has a wonderfully supportive family in Tbilisi. Sadly her mother died a few years ago, but her father Vakhtang, whose eyes twinkle like hers, spends his time archiving his daughter’s career. There, in the family’s home, is a study filled with an incredible collection of everything she has done. Nina has two older brothers and arranged for one of them, Gogi, to come and stay with me one summer when he was on business in Europe. As a geologist he knew what every old building was made of, and put me to shame on our sightseeing trip around London, with his precise knowledge of dates of our British history. On his last day, a young friend popped by to ask me if I could give her any contacts in Moscow where she was going to be a student. Gogi joined us and said he would introduce her to friends and acquaintances – she ended up by marrying his and Nina’s cousin!
The last time Nina was in the UK was at the Edinburgh Festival in August 2008 when she brought the State Ballet of Georgia to perform Giselle and a triple bill programme. I took the train up to meet her and to see both programmes, never imagining the scenario that was to happen: Russia declared war on Georgia over South Ossetia. There was bombing near the capital Tbilisi, and airports were closed. The anxious dancers were horrified at what they saw on the TV coverage, especially not understanding much English. They feared for their families and wondered how they were to get home. Nina became an official spokesperson for Georgia, denouncing the attack, and her face peered out from the front pages of the Scottish newspapers and on local news broadcasts. She was very worried for her company and we had long talks about what she should do. Her own plans after the tour were to meet her husband and little daughter for a holiday in Italy, but how were they to get out? Fortunately a solution was finally found for her family and for everyone in the company to return safely. At the final performance of the tour, Nina came out of the wings to take a bow waving a huge Georgian flag, and naturally received cheers from the audience.
It is this natural outgoing, exuberant manner that has made her so loved and kept her young. However, her success with its devoted following has come through her serious and constant attention to the daily task of perfecting her technique. She will be the first to decide when she should stop dancing. But what she is still producing on stage and the joy she has given and still gives to so many, will hopefully enable her continue for a long while yet. She is truly a precious jewel in the crown of Russian classical ballet – and a very special friend.
A very happy birthday to you, dear Nina.