It’s a timeless tale of love, betrayal, and retribution: An innocent young woman falls in love with a man who is secretly engaged to another. When the heroine learns of his deceit, she dies of a broken heart, but rather than tormenting him, her spirit ultimately grants him forgiveness. Originally choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot in 1841 and later restaged by Marius Petipa, Giselle is considered among the greatest Romantic ballets, requiring great technical skill of the lead dancer as well as deep emotional sensitivity. Among the prima ballerinas who have played the title role are Anna Pavlova, Alicia Markova, and Margot Fonteyn. Following in their delicate footsteps is Nina Ananiashvili.
Born in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, Ananiashvili began her career as a competitive ice skater before becoming an internationally recognized figure in the ballet world. Today, she is a principal dancer for New York’s American Ballet Theatre and for Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet. In 2004, she became the artistic director of the State Ballet of Georgia, and last year returned to the stage after a two-year break. On Tuesday, February 19, Ananiashvili leads the company in its Santa Barbara debut as well as starring in the role of Giselle. She spoke to me on the phone from Tbilisi, Georgia, last week.
What’s special about dancing Giselle? Because we are a classical ballet company and a state theater, we are not like a modern dance company. We have a classical school, and it is important to have classical works like Giselle and Swan Lake in the repertory. These classical ballets train dancers very well. If you know Petipa’s ballets you can dance many things. They’re always difficult. I think they are great ballets.
Is it a challenge to be working as artistic director and dancing the principal role as well? Yes, I think it is doubly difficult. Just today I was saying, “Dancers, I am nervous about myself because it is my first time dancing with you, and I am also nervous about you because I want you to dance well, so please help me out.” It takes two times more energy and two times more nerves.
How would you say your dancing has developed throughout the years? When I heard, when I was young, that you can dance better when you become older, I didn’t understand. But you know, because your mind is different, you look differently at everything. You do it with your head, not just with your body. This is a very important difference. In the beginning, the teacher teaches you everything. As I’ve grown older, I have learned to put myself into things more, find something new to add. This makes the work more interesting for the public.
Do you think great dancing requires training as an actor? If not, how does a dancer learn the theatrical skills necessary to be captivating and convincing on a stage? That’s a good question. Just today I was talking about this. Of course sometimes modern ballet with no emotion is ok. But when there are stories involved, you need to have internal feelings about what you’re doing and why you are doing it. So when you do not have the schooling, you either need to be very talented or you need to learn it. Now, in the ballet school at the State Ballet of Georgia, I am teaching drama acting specifically. I teach them to move and talk together. I have tried this for the past two years, and it has gone fantastically well. Now I know that if they do not become ballerinas, they can become actors, because they are loosened up, more beautiful. They’re thinking differently about ballet now; it’s not just steps and movement. And it’s not just pantomime.
What do you think makes a great dancer? Lots of things. You can’t say one thing. It’s not enough to have physical beauty. Of course that’s very important in ballet. But at the same time, you need to be a very artistic person. Also, you need to love this job. You need all your life to have patience. The job is very tough, very difficult. Things don’t always go smoothly. You need to be able to wait; you need to sometimes dance with pain. All your life you need to work, work, work, work nonstop. If you ever decide you’re good enough, you really decline. It’s not easy.
What advice do you have for young dancers? I think we do this for people, because life has become so computerized, we have forgotten how to talk to one other. We do this for the future, for our kids. Ballet brings back human love and human life – we need to have contact with each other during these crazy times. If you see good theater, good art, you don’t want go out and kill people, you know? If you get inspired, you want to tell other people, to share it. Once, a postman told me he used to love opera the most, but then he saw me dancing on television, and he began to really like ballet. That is why I do this job-to make people happy. There are times after a performance when fans will come to me and say that they feel lucky in their lifetime to have seen me dance. This is wonderful. It reminds me that as a dancer, you really don’t live for nothing. You live for something.
Nina Ananiashvili will perform Giselle with the State Ballet of Georgia on Tuesday, February 19, at 8 p.m. at the Arlington Theatre. For tickets, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu. A public masterclass with members of the company will be held on Monday, February 18, at 7:30 p.m. For more information, call 966-6950.