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It's two steps forward, one step back

The Georgian State Dance Company is stellar, but it struggles with how to modernize its folk foundation.

September 22, 2007|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

How do you modernize a folk institution -- especially one as justly famed as the Georgian State Dance Company, one of the great showpiece ensembles of what used to be the Soviet Union?

The question had more than one answer Thursday at the Orange County Performing Artscenter, where the company appeared under the auspices of the Philharmonic Society. The first involved keeping the founders' original vision alive and immediate in the bodies of young dancers.

Mission accomplished: Iliko Sukhishvili and Nino Ramishvili created the company and its core repertory back in 1945, but the current 80-member troupe performs that repertory with such power and freshness that you believe it was choreographed just for them.

Georgian folk dances go back thousands of years and embrace many traditions. The founders adapted them in imposing and often solemn suites that juxtapose mass spectacle (nearly three dozen men identically dressed in red and black, all in a line during the opening "Partsa") with bursts of virtuosity executed in solos, duets, trios.

The contrast between hyperactivity and immobility in a single body is one of the troupe's specialties: men dancing in place, their feet pounding the floor with amazing speed and force while their hands remain frozen at their waists, gripping the hilts of their daggers.

Georgian men are renowned for dancing on their toes (not at the tips, but curled under) and this company has always featured bravura displays of that skill -- stabbing footwork, combinations of air turns and floor turns often carrying the dancers down to their knees and up again -- that are all still dazzling. And Georgian women glide so elegantly in their glittering floor-length robes that they seem scarcely to touch the floor at all.

In Act 1, the company focuses on ancient warrior and later court dances as restructured by the company's founders (now deceased) and lovingly preserved by their heirs: general director Nino Sukhishvili and artistic director and choreographer Iilya Sukhishvili Jr. The lighting is often crude, and the amplification makes the hardworking 10-piece band at the back of the stage sound harsh, but these problems loom much larger in Act 2 because the old suites still look glorious, their formality somehow deeply satisfying and their stunts state-of-the-art.

Act 2 emphasizes recently devised or adapted village dances and begins strongly, giving us vibrant women, men with an edge of wildness and choreography not always symmetrical any longer and sometimes downright earthy.

Instead of coming at you in waves, this choreography sweeps across the stage laterally -- spontaneous, unpredictable, traditional in origin yet new in attack. That was another answer to the question of how to modernize folklore: Look at it from a different perspective.

But the music soon begins to sound strange, too contemporary for its own good -- something like a Georgian bossa nova during a women's quartet emphasizing floating arms, for example. And the oversaturated lighting causes all the warm costume colors to bleed together and clot.

Worse, a sameness sets in choreographically -- too many new dances built around units of 12, too many smaller-scale reiterations of the structures and patterns prevalent in Act 1.

A promising series of duets shared by six couples -- loose, playful, so unassertive that the dancers might be performing solely for their own pleasure -- has no real ending. A shag-haired ensemble in red and black fails to make a distinctive group statement before the music accelerates yet again and the soloists take over. Only the sight of men whirling around the stage on their knees or doing double turns on their toes sustains the intensity.

Even the official finale is a bit drab, though the encore finale is an absolutely breathless, delirious pileup of every spectacular trick ever imagined in Eastern Europe or Central Asia. It flattens us, of course, but it offers no real clue about modernizing a folk institution. It simply evades the question.


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