Irina Tsikurishvili merges dance forms into fierce eloquence at Synetic Theater


Irina Tsikurishvili dances at Synetic Theater in Arlington, Virginia, on Tuesday, March 25, 2014. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
March 28

Irina Kvetenadze did not want to be a swan balancing on her toes in the back row.

She realized this at age 18, while having one of those familial chats that fathers and daughters remember for the rest of their lives. Today, we know Irina Kvetenadze as Irina Tsikurishvili, co-founder of the Arlington-based Synetic Theater. But that day 25 years ago in her home town of Tbilisi, Georgia, Irina had no idea that the Soviet Union would soon collapse, that she would marry young, move to America and found a movement theater company like few others on this side of the Atlantic, or even the Black Sea.

What she knew, that day with her father, was that dance wasn’t enough. She had just graduated from Georgia’s national ballet school and been promised a spot in the national folk-dance corps in about six months. But in her senior year, she’d taken pantomime classes and loved the emphasis on gestures and acting, not just dancing. The class had reminded her of a school trip years before to see Tbilisi’s pantomime theater troupe. She — and all the other teenage ballerinas — had a crush on the lead actor, a curly-haired guy named Paata Tsikurishvili.

“I had this decision to make,” she said. “When you graduate from my school, you are an artist of the ballet. But I really did not want to wait. Immediately, in my brain, I had the thought that I loved acting without words. And I said, ‘No, I’m going to go to pantomime theater.’ Maybe it was destiny. I remember, to this day, my father’s face. He was like, ‘What?’ ”

That day, she auditioned and was invited to join the student troupe.

In Georgia and across Eastern Europe, pantomime theater is different from the white-faced comedy associated with Marcel Marceau; it’s storytelling through movement and music, a narrative combination that Synetic has practically trademarked in D.C.

The day Paata met Irina, he said to her, “I heard a star came into the theater last night.” He took her arm, and they pantomimed a wedding on the spot. Four months later, they were married for real, much to the consternation of Irina’s father, who reminded her that she had always said she wasn’t getting married until she was 30 and then it would be to someone rich.

“I told my father he was rich in his heart,” she said.

If their courtship sounds romantic, being newlyweds in the post-Soviet era was not.

“It was, on the streets, like war, civil war,” Irina said. Paata and a group of friends were able to find work at a theater company in Germany, but he didn’t have enough money to support Irina and Vato, the newborn son she was left to raise.

In 1990, Irina’s parents had managed to use her father’s Olympic credentials as a gymnastics coach to immigrate to the United States. After five years, he was able to get Irina a visa to work near Washington as a choreographer. Paata, meanwhile, was still in Germany, where his prospects were starting to improve.

“He wanted to continue his back-and-forth life, and I said ‘No,’ ” Irina recalled. “I said, ‘If you want to have a family life, stay. If you want to have theater, then you can go.’ It was kind of an ultimatum. But he stayed.”

It would take another decade or so, but the Tsikurishvilis would eventually have a family and a theater.

In the early years, Paata and Irina might spend their days at a gym or school assembly and their nights performing at a Russian restaurant in Baltimore. In 1998, Irina’s father became an assistant gymnastics coach at Ohio State University, and he took Vato with him to Columbus. (The boy returned to finish high school in Potomac.)

In 2001, the Tsikurishvilis would have a daughter, Anna, and the following year, their theater company was born. At the District’s Church Street Theater, Paata and Irina starred as Hamlet and Ophelia in a wordless production they called “Hamlet . . . the Rest is Silence.”

That show is being reprised through April 6 in the former Crystal City movie theater that Synetic now calls home. In the interim 12 years, the company they founded and called Synetic — because it is a “synthesis” of the “kinetic” arts — has staged 10 silent Shakespeare plays. Synetic also adapted classic works of literature from Edgar Allan Poe to Cervantes, and Irina has starred in or choreographed nearly every show. In “Hamlet,” she’s playing the shrewd Queen Gertrude rather than the fragile Ophelia. In the opening tango, Irina holds her upper body erect and her elbows up and out. Her fingers, though, claw her partner’s shoulders. Reviewing the show for The Washington Post, critic Nelson Pressley called Irina’s performance “ever riveting.”

Synetic has many fans, yet there are people who find the company’s work alienating. Some say it isn’t Shakespeare if you don’t say the words, and some balletomanes say that the movement leans toward melodrama. Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, appreciates Irina more as an actor than a dancer: “She creates drama.”

He’s right, but Irina comes from a Georgian tradition that pumps out prodigies, including the great Bolshoi ballerina Nina Ananiashvili and Nikolai Tsiskaridze, recently tapped to become rector of the famed Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg.

She remembers the mid-1980s night when the Dance Theatre of Harlem came to Tbilisi. Wearing high heels and miniskirts, Irina and a friend crawled under the theater’s chairs and hid for eight hours until the performance began. She knew the dancers were going to perform works by George Balanchine.

“George Balanchine was from Georgia, you know,” Irina said, emphatically.

Today, the choreographer who interests her most is Boris Eifman, who runs St. Petersburg’s Eifman Ballet; the company she never misses at the Kennedy Center is Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; and a ballerina she reveres is Maya Plisetskaya.

“It’s so funny, because for me, Plisetskaya was always more of an actress to me than a dancer,” Irina said. “She did not have beautiful lines, but her arms are just giving you her soul, as a performer.”

Watching footage of Plisetskaya in her prime, you’ll see striking similarities between the famed ballerina and Irina. Both stalk the stage with a sense of defiance in even romantic roles. Both like crazy, unconventional lifts, but they can also milk small, atmospheric moments. For her 75th birthday, Plisetskaya performed a dance to “Ave Maria” using simple gestures, a still-supple back and two fans.

It looks lovely and amazing; it looks like something you could see at Synetic.

Irina struggled a bit to describe what it is she is looking for in Synetic performers. Ben Cunis, an artistic associate who has been working with her since 2006, says it’s a combination of flexibility and an ability to move with strong intent. Rehearsing with Irina when she’s choreographing is intense, he says.

When giving directions, she uses a mix of metaphorical instructions (“Move like trees in the wind”) and literal commands.

“Irina won’t say to us, ‘This is from ballet.’ Or, ‘This is from mime.’ Or, ‘This is from modern.’ She just draws from all of these traditions and puts them together,” Cunis said.

But she never goes to ballet class. At 42, leading workouts and performing eight shows a week is enough. But she does plan to do a little spectating. Anna, her daughter, is 12 and Irina thinks it’s time she saw her first “Giselle.” Like “Swan Lake,” it’s a ballet with a corps full of women in white. The Bolshoi will perform it at the Kennedy Center in May, and Irina can sit in the audience and watch, knowing she made the right decision.

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

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