Georgian Puppets at the Marjanishvili Theatre
Kote Marjanishvili was a famous Georgian theatre director from both the late Imperial period through the early Revolutionary Era in Georgia, Russia and the Soviet Union. I was visiting a theatre named after him on the eastern bank of the Mtkvari River in Tbilisi on the appropriately named Kote Marjanishvili Street. I was there to see Nino Namitcheishvili, a name I’m still wrestling with. Tinatin Gurchiani had come through again finding the theatre’s puppet mistress who was glad to invite me up to her office in the stately building.
- With Nino Namitcheishvili at the Marjanishvilli Theatre
Nino was a friendly curly black haired woman, a bit quirky (as puppeteers often are) and dedicated to her craft. As I set up my camera for an interview I couldn’t help noticing the bird in a cage behind her next to a couple of similarly sized puppets. Somehow it seemed fitting. Once you start seeing things through the eyes of puppetry everything begins to have connections with the art. On the wall was a piece of colorful fabric that had once been used for the backdrop of a puppet show. Behind me rested a community of puppets that all looked like they had been prepared for a barbecue, with skewers sticking out of their backs, as they laid face down a table.
Puppets and Bird
We spoke about her connection to puppetry.We spoke about her connection to puppetry. She had discovered it almost by accident as many others had having already embarked upon a theatrical career. But had been enchanted by world of puppets. We spoke of Georgian theatre, Obraztsov, rod puppets, and the Georgian reaction to puppet performances.
- Backdrop for a puppet show
After the interview she showed me the puppets individually all of which had somewhat blank faces yet with plenty of features to make them possible to be read in many different ways during a performance. There were many parts of a Georgian village present. Men, women, a priest. And obviously these were not hastily made creatures. Georgia was indeed connected to the traditions of Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet world in terms of puppetry. One of my prized possessions gathered on my scrounges through Georgian used bookstores was a large photographic book in Russian on the great puppeteer Sergei Obraztsov. And clearly his effect had been felt from Poland to Georgia. As I thanked Nino and prepared to leave she told be that she could get me into the theatre’s play the next evening, which was to be my last day in Georgia. And the play was being done without words, so how fortunate for me. And so why not? The day was already busy but why not make it a day to remember.
Puppet Shish-kabobs ready for action
My last day in Tbilisi was indeed full. At ten in the morning I met Tinatin Gurchiani for breakfast. Our words drifted from subject to subject as she checked in on my progress in an almost proprietorial and concerned way. She apologized for not connecting me with the busy puppeteer Rezo Gabriadze. And it pleased her to know that she had been of service to me. And I felt honored to have had made another good Georgian friend. She spoke of her current documentary project. Her earlier film, The Machine That Makes Everything Disappear, had had as its theme the dreams and confusions of youth. Her new documentary focused on the longings and reflections of the aged. I told her more of Alaska and my observations on Georgia. Eventually it was time to go. We bid farewell as though old friends. (And I didn’t remember to take even one photo of Tinatin!)
- Orthodox Puppet Priest
I then moved over a few blocks to the Sukhishvili dance troupe where I had my interview with Nino Sukhishvili and had my second chance to watch the dancers practice. (See my last entry.) A bit later in the afternoon after my last Georgian meal I arrived at Budrugana Gagra to say farewell. Again another fond farewell by Gela Kandelaki, with ‘Medium Elene’ translating for me. After he left I stayed a little later to show Elene some of my other creative work. And then it was time to go to the theatre.
The Set of Begalut at the Marjanishvili Theatre
The Marjanishvili Theatre was a classic Soviet style building similar to what I seen in Poland and the Czech Republic: gray, columns, stately. I was seated in a spare seat. And watched the play, which had been based on the same Sholom Aleichem source material as Fiddler On The Roof. It was called Begalut (In Exile) and developed fragments from Shalom Aleichem’s and Georgian writer Guram Batiashvili’s novels. At first it seemed like a comedy. But by the end after a brutal pogrom it indeed proved to be utterly tragic. Told in a somewhat abstract wordless style the play ends very differently than Fiddler On The Roof, which has notes of hope in a voyage to America, with the final image of a grandmother holding the last surviving baby in her arms among the dead villagers. It wasn’t a stretch to feel that the Russian villains in the piece had a special meaning in Georgia of today, a country with fresh memories of the Five Day War in 2008. I left the theatre walking back home along Marjanishvili Street with many, many thoughts of my time in Tbilisi. Returning to the city was foremost on my mind. It had been stimulating for me in the best possible way. Not as a touristic frantic search for experiences. But in the way seeing new possibilities, sparking new ideas, even challenging my American notions of order.
(The following 25 minute video is my reflection on my time in Tbilisi. Enjoy it at your leisure.)
I was awoken early at four in the morning. Shako purposely came home to say goodbye to me. I had said fond farewells for my host Tamar to Shako’s girlfriend Aneta and especially to my Georgian teacher, the seven year old Mariam. The silent man, whose name I never did get, though I know he is Tamar’s husband but not Shako’s father, drove me through the dark nighttime streets again. This time the music was slightly louder. I looked out at Tbilisi thinking about all that had happened since I arrived. There is much I haven’t even mentioned: Meeting photographer Mariam Sitchinava and her husband Kote, time spent in museums, meeting American expat Steve Johnson and his wife Tamara who own Prospero’s Books, many serious food experiences, time spent scavenging Georgian music on the Dry Bridge flea market and art bazaar and so much more. Finally my silent driver drove me up to the Tbilisi Airport, I took my luggage, now bursting with Georgian artifacts in a new travel bag purchased at the endless Georgian bazaar by the train station, and said to my driver “Didi madloba.” which means ‘big thanks’, whereupon he suddenly smiled for the first time and responded something in Georgian I didn’t understand. And that made the trip complete.
Tbilisi Awaits My Return
It was time to get back to Paris to finish up this journey. I had puppeteers waiting for me and memories to share.
And when you have the time go back and read all of my Georgia adventures…
Duck meets Bear on a Deserted Island at Budrugana Gagra
The next day I kept an appointment with filmmaker Tinatin Gurchiani, who directed the documentary The Machine That Makes Everything Disappear. The film asks questions of and sometimes follows various Georgians, mostly below the age of 30. She poetically unfolds their dreams and aspirations living in the Georgia of the moment, along the way hitting notes of the comic and the despairing, the tragic and the hopeful. I consider this documentary essential viewing before a journey to present day Georgia. It does not give the tourism gloss but is made by someone who is not blind to the reality of her country. Tinatin met me at Rezo Gabriadze’s Cafe, located next to the best marionette theatre in Georgia. We were to meet someone who would let us know the possibilities of interviewing the highly respected Gabriadze, whose greatest puppet show was entitled The Battle of Stalingrad. (I need to see that!)
Having forgotten to take a photo of Tinatin Gurchiani this will have to do. Look for it.
Tinatin came up carrying her recently birthed baby, Maryam, like a suitcase in a baby basket. (There will be more Maryams to come. The country is full of them; as well as Elenes, I would meet three at once below, Sophos, Ninos, Annas, Ketivans,Tinatins and Tamars among other names.) I volunteered to help carry the precious human luggage and we sat at the cafe, where I proceeded to try a mixture of hot wine and tea. I had contacted Tinatin a couple of years back after being impressed with her documentary. She’d said if you ever need help trying to contact Rezo or others let her know when you come. And so I did. And I was glad I did too.
The crooked clock tower of Rezo Gabriadze’s marionette theatre.
Tinatin, my second contact in Tbilisi, proved to be able to get me into places I had only imagined. By the time the day was over she had meetings arranged for me with Gela Kandelaki and the Budrugana Gagra hand shadow puppet theatre as well as a meeting at the ballet that might conceivably allow me to meet Nina Ananiashvili, who was the director of the State Ballet of Georgia. But alas Rezo would have to wait, seeing as they were on a small tour. But there was a good chance of seeing him before I left.
With Gela and Sophie at Budrugana Gagra’s studio.
That Thursday I found myself waiting around the back of the Rustaveli Theatre for someone to meet me. A friendly girl with long dark brown hair named Elene (pronounced like Elena) came out to greet me and take me into the Budrugana Rehearsal space. It was a darkened medium sized room with a partially lighted screen in the back of the room. As soon as I came in the lights came on. I then met long black haired Sophie, who would be my official translator. (I’d better stop mentioning long hair, since Georgia is a sea of girls with long straight dark and black hair.) I was also introduced to another Elene who had very curly dark hair. (How else am I going to keep the Elenes recognizable?) They eventually introduced me to a shorter haired Elene, who provided tea, cookies and shadows. I asked how they identified so many girls with the same name. They said that the first Elene was the smallest. Curly haired Elene was the middle and short haired Elene was the biggest. But then I said “Wait a minute short haired Elene was not taller than ‘small’ Elene. Then they pointed out that they meant youngest to oldest. There were several other players as well, more women and men.
Actor, Director and Creator of Budrugana Gagra Gela Kandelaki.
And finally there was Gela Kandelaki himself, he reminded one of a large elder Pooh bear. He warmly grasped my handed and welcomed me to see them practice. He was garrulous and was off and explaining many things before I could get my camera out for the interview. I suggested watching some of the rehearsal before the interview so that I could get an idea of what exactly was this art of hand shadows. An excellent idea.
The lights were dimmed and the partial screen glowed in a raised rectangle. It was explained to me that I was about to watch Bach’s Second Violin Sonata done as shadow theatre. And if you are at all sensitive to Baroque music you probably just went as blank as I did wondering what on earth you were about to see.
Hands in Bach’s 2nd Violin Sonata
Hands. An abstract play of hands following along to Bach’s music. Abstract and yet completely human, a dialogue of motions with the second most expressive part of the human body. And it was utterly fascinating, inspiring thoughts I didn’t know I had. And that was followed by a fantasy featuring Louis Armstrong as a bear made of fingers. And Louis falls in love with another finger creation of jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. And then the Louis-bear loses her. (They never were an item in real life.) All done to live recordings of Louis and Ella, Benny Goodman and others. Again totally inspired. That was followed by a sample from an older piece again featuring a bear, Gela loved the fact that I was from Alaska, trying to swim off an island, and somehow it involved the four seasons. The more I watched the more I thought of new applications for this unusual technique. And I came back the next day to watch them rehearse an abstract hand shadow version of parts of Saint Matthew’s Passion. (!!!!)
I believe the Louis Armstrong bear is the one on the left. There is also a piano playing spider. Clarinet playing bird. And that’s a giraffe… and the other bear it must be Ella Fitzgerald.
Absorbing stuff! And unlike anything I’d ever seen before. With Sophie’s help I interviewed Gela for my Gravity From Above project. When I asked Gela if there was a connection between dance and the balletic hand motions I was viewing, he not only said yes but went on to elaborate not only that connection, but that between Georgian music, poetry and art. And told me that he was also involved with animation as well. Curly haired Elene was eager to show me examples of her rough animation style, preferred over slick commercial work. Brown straight haired Elene was also an animator besides being a hand puppeteer and a help at with translating between myself and Gela one day.
Paata shows what it’s like behind the screen.
I visited them several more times before I left and on the last day I showed Gela and curly haired Elene samples of my rough cut for Arca, a strange little film I directed a while ago that is still not edited together yet. They found it mysterious in a very good way. Before finally leaving Gela grasped my hands and spoke a Georgian blessing on my endeavors. I left knowing that I had made friends that I must visit them again someday.
Gela Kandelaki’s Budrugana Gagra, featuring three Elenes and other hand shadow puppeteers.
Meanwhile I had a rendezvous with Prima Ballerina Nina Ananiashvili. But more on that next time.
Come back again soon.
(And go back and read what you’ve missed!)
London, Heathrow Airport