As Nina Ananiashvili, in a flame-red catsuit and toe shoes to match, slithered across the stage like an elegant, loopy vixen in “Dreams About Japan” at Lisner Auditorium on Sunday night, she seemed light-years away from when we last saw her in Washington. Then, in 2009, she was a majestic star, one of the great classical ballerinas of the age, performing her last “Swan Lake” at the Kennedy Center with American Ballet Theatre.
Now, she is the artistic director of the State Ballet of Georgia, based in her native Tbilisi. The international ballet icon began rebuilding the beleaguered company in 2004 at the request of Georgia’s new president.
We saw three faces of Ananiashvili in Sunday’s program: the behind-the-scenes boss, stepping out of the picture entirely for a piece that showcased six of her young Georgian dancers; the star, still majestic at 48 and long past the age when most ballerinas retire; and the ultra-professional artist, who can captivate the audience when it is her time to do so and can also melt unobtrusively into the ensemble. And who loses not one ounce of magnetism even while scooting along the floor like a hybrid of Martha Graham and a refugee from “The Hot Mikado.”
That unforgettable moment occurred in the hallucinatory “Dreams About Japan,” the final work on the program of four pieces. Three of them, including “Dreams,” were created by Alexei Ratmansky, the hottest choreographer in ballet. The fourth was “The Dying Swan,” the undying gala solo that Ananiashvili performed with great feeling — but, wisely, not too much melodrama. That was no doubt due to the sensitive staging by the late Raisa Struchkova, Ananiashvili’s longtime coach at the Bolshoi Ballet. All the focus was on the melting undulations of the ballerina’s arms and shoulders, and if the glamour of this honest-to-goodness diva moment seemed a bit incongruous at humble Lisner, that only made Ananiashvili’s rendition more moving.
Her stamp was evident throughout the evening. The dancers she has mentored are an appealing group who display an evident musicality and an easy naturalness. And the ballets they performed all came to be through Ananiashvili’s visionary relationship with Ratmansky, whom she encouraged to choreograph years ago when both were at the Bolshoi.
“Dreams,” from 1998, offers up what ballet dancers fantasizing about Kabuki — through an opium haze, perhaps — would look like. Live drummers and chanting contributed a driving energy, but the dancing itself had a wonderfully crazed, barely contained combustibility. It was a romp, a slumber party in tattered kimonos, with a bit of Nijinsky’s “Rite of Spring” mixed in. (There is much stomping, and a sacrificial victim near the end.)
“Charms of Mannerisms,” which Ratmansky created in 1997 at Ananiashvili’s urging and is one of his first ballets, is in a similarly jocular vein. Crafted in a clear, open yet deliberately small-scale style, with touches of folk dance, it recalled early romantic French works such as “La Fille Mal Gardee.” There was not a moment of empty showmanship in it: In keeping with the score by Francois Couperin, the emphasis was on flirtatious charm, as a group of bumbling innocents tripped over their attempts at sophistication, but their good natures smoothed over any ills.
“Bizet Variations” was the most recent piece, created for the Georgian ballet in 2008; the piano score (performed live) brought Chopin to mind, and the gentle interactions among the three couples were deeply romantic. A whirl of little dramas, courtships and intrigues came to life within minutes.
As enchanting as the evening was, with its humble star, winsome ensemble, live music and the great variety in its choreography, it bears remembering that this is a ballet company unlike most others. It has been revived, at least in part, to put forward a more refined image of Georgia, one to counteract the conflict and crisis that have defined much of the nation’s history.
Ananiashvili and her company are practicing diplomacy through dance — a great and hopeful gift. A round of bravos for the organizers who made this tour possible, and may these remarkable dancers, and their exceptionally generous director, return soon.