Georgian ballet, the home of Balanchine, struggles to attract male dancers
Text and Photos by Zurab Balanchivadze
Georgia once gave the world two of its most famous male ballet dancers – George (Giorgi) Balanchine, considered the father of American ballet, and Vakhtang Chabukiani. But today there are few Georgian male dancers performing principal roles.
Nino Ananiashvili, 56, Georgia's most famous ballerina today, says the lack of strong male ballet dancers has been a problem for the past two decades.
Now the artistic director of ballet at the Tbilisi State Theater of Opera and Ballet, Ananiashvili is a world-renowned ballerina in her own right (she was once listed among the twelve greatest ballerinas of all time).
But today, she says, parents refuse to allow their sons to become ballet dancers. There is a fear, that transcends parents' level of education and social status, that "all make ballet dancers are gay," she says.
"Many times I have seen young boys overwhelmed by the ballet performances at our theater and it is these – very educated – parents who will not allow them to follow their new interests," Ananiashvili says.
At the very least, ballet dancing is seen as "not masculine" – a stereotype that baffles Ananiashvili. "I cannot understand how dancing with, and lifting up, so many beautiful ballerinas could be perceived as some kind of feminine act," she says.
Mariam Aleksidze, 41, the daughter of famous Georgian ballet dancer Giorgi Aleksidze and an artistic director and choreographer at Tbilisi Contemporary Ballet, believes that ballet should be well developed and prestigious in the country that produced three famous male dancers: like George Balanchine, Vakhtang Chabukiani and Giorgi Aleksidze. But she notes that the turmoil of the 1990s had a chilling effect on ballet and Georgian society as a whole.
"Starting from that period, values began to change in society, as well as the attitude -- not only towards ballet -- but towards other professions as well. As classical ballet requires intensive training starting in childhood, the decision has to somehow be made by the parents. And the cultural environment, mentality and the future perspective of ballet influences this decision,” she says, pointing out that enrolling boys in classic ballet schools is even problematic in many European countries.
Over the past 14 years, Ananiashvili has worked hard to rebuild the country's ballet culture after it collapsed in the 1990s.
She agrees that today the lack of male dancers on the stage is due to the fact that some years ago, parents stopped sending talented boys to the country's ballet school. Adding to the problem, however, is that without strong male role models to inspire boys from the stage, fewer young men are attending Vakhtang Chabukiani Tbilisi State Ballet School, the only ballet educational center in Georgia.
“If it’s about success, you can’t name any Georgian dancer who’s internationally famous other than ballet dancers. So considering ballet a non-successful profession is ridiculous," Ananiashvili says.
She was appointed in 2004 as the Artistic Director of Ballet at Tbilisi State Theatre of Opera and Ballet.
One principle focus of her work is the Vakhtang Chabukiani Tbilisi State Ballet School. Founded in 1996, it receives strong support from the Tbilisi State Opera. “My biggest dream for now is to establish a boarding school for ballet that would help students from the regions stay in Tbilisi and learn ballet intensively. I believe that this [boarding school] is necessary to attract and develop an understanding of ballet culture among young generations and especially in boys, who then will dance on the state opera and ballet,” Ananiashvili says.
There are currently 90 students at the school and the great majority of them are female.
Gender researcher Theo Khatiashvil notes that in patriarchal societies like Georgia, ballet pushes against the tendency to define certain occupations as masculine and feminine. “Ballet is associated with tenderness and grace, which is not considered masculine, unlike traditional, national dances which is usually perceived as a display of masculinity and braveness. That’s why there’s no deficit of male dancers in Georgian dancing ensembles. The same can be said about other sports, like boxing versus skating,” she says.
But Georgia's male dancers note ballet is just as physically tasking as contact sports.
“Traumas can be very frequent in our profession, especially for our joints. Almost everyone who has to dance leading roles has undergone surgery. It’s daily training, a daily readiness to do what you have to do, otherwise you lose,” says ballet dancer David Ananiashvili, 33.
Ananiashvili came to dance via a circuitous route. Both his parents worked at the Tbilisi Opera House. But his first love was track-and-field. From there he started ballroom dancing and, eventually, ended up taking ballet.
“My parents used to work here at the Opera, so I may say that I’m grown up here. And when the time came for me to be conscripted into the army, which is mandatory here -- and at that time the conditions in the military were horrible -- the only solution was to enter the school for choreography," he says.
"Then the law of recruitment changed. I was already approved to join the opera, so Ms Nino Ananiashvili helped me legally avoid mandatory military service."
Today he is the only Georgian principal male dancer at Tbilisi State Theatre of Opera and Ballet. All the other male dancers who perform lead roles are from abroad.
Giorgi Bestavashvili also came to ballet late in life.
Bestavashvili, 23, used to dance in a Georgian folk dance ensemble. He eventually left due to a personal conflict. But he continued to dance and, eventually, discovered ballet. “There was a video of Roberto Bolle performing in Swan Lake that I saw on Facebook and I liked it so much that I spent hours on YouTube watching him dance. That was the moment when I decided to switch to ballet,” he says.
His background as a dancer in a national ensemble ironically made it harder for him to study ballet, however. After years of folk dances, Bestavashvili had to work hard to reshape his muscles, so he began working with a private tutor.
Ballet first appeared in Georgia in 1850s, shortly after opera. It gained popularity and, nearly 100 years later, Georgian dancer Vakhtang Chabukiani changed the choreography so the male dancer roles were equal to those performed by the ballerina. The changes he made helped increase the number of male dancers.
Efforts to encourage parents to allow their boys to study ballet are having an effect, albeit a small one so far. Khatiashvili says the trend is hopeful. But she cautions that real change will only come once the root problem - society’s perception of gender roles - has been resolved. “Boys in ballet school means that the stereotype has been partially erased but it cannot be resolved by changes in only one sport,” she says.
For example, Melor Zhorzholiani, 18, was encouraged to learn ballet. “It’s because of my mom. My love of ballet is completely related to her. She would take me to ballet performances. The first ballet that I saw was Don Quixote in 2005. I remember my mom told me that I was completely transfixed the entire performance,” he says.
Other Georgian male dancers underscored the importance of support from family and friends to pursue a career in ballet.
“At first my friends and family couldn’t believe it and started to joke about it, but eventually they became very supportive of my decision [to become a ballet dancer]," Betavashvili says.
"In Georgia, 95 percent of the population doesn’t think this way but I was lucky. Without the support of my friends and my colleagues, it would have been impossible to become a professional ballet dancer,” he adds, noting that he often tells his friends and relatives to sign their children up for ballet class.
But despite the small uptick in Georgian boys studying at the school, there are not enough male soloists for the stage performances. As a result, foreign dancers are invited to perform. Male ballet dancers from many countries, including Brazil, Italy and Japan, have been invited to join the local troupe.
Foreign male dancers, however, stress that homophobic stereotypes remains a challenge for ballet elsewhere, as well.
William Pratt is from the UK. He has been a soloist for the Georgian ballet since 2009 and has a Georgian wife. The couple lives in Tbilisi. Previously he danced in the Royal New Zealand Ballet and he notes that ballet troupes around the world are faced with homophobic stereotypes about male dancers.
Angelos Antoiou, 20, from Greece, agrees, adding there are “some similar sentiments in my country as well.”
“The stereotype of ballet being a dance for homosexuals exists there, too. Also a lot of people believe that, if you are a dancer, a singer or a model, you don’t have a serious job or education,” he says. Ironically, Antoiou notes that Greek opera houses also invite foreign male soloists for their repertoire.