A Journey Into European Puppetry

Georgian Dance

The Joke and the Joker

Silva & BG
With Silva Morasten (in black) Gela Kandelaki (next to me) and the rest of Budrugana Gagra.

First the joke. You might not see the humor in it. But I do.

I came to Georgia to work on a doll and puppet museum. But recently I have realized that it would be an impossibility. I don’t wish to elaborate. But let me compare it to an event that occurred several years back in Alaska.

I moved from New York City to Haines Alaska. In Manhattan I lived somewhat close to Chinatown. And so I availed myself of the many flavors of Chinese groceries and cuisine. On the other hand, Haines is probably one of the few towns in North America without a Chinese restaurant. One summer day I heard a rumor that a Chinese takeaway place had opened up in an RV park near the edge of town. So I expectantly drove over to sample the wares. Pitiful. That’s all I will say. And I wondered why? The chef was Chinese. He seemed to have woks and knew what to do. But soon I was told the reason. The RV Park owner had brought the chef to town, like an indentured servant. Then he prohibited him from using Chinese ingredients. The owner actually bought the ingredients himself for the Chinese chef. And you can see him lingering over a food supply catalogue on the phone withe the dealer. “Okay so fifteen number 10 cans of that sweet and sour stuff with red food dye. Oh and what’s the cheapest rice you have?” Ad nauseum… The place closed in another two weeks. The RV park is now a field used for storing pipes by the state road crew. And that’s that.

Read between the lines and you’ll figure out what happened to me here.

Rock heads

Sculpted Rock Head near the village of Sno in the Caucasus.

And the joke? It’s not on me. It’s with me. So yeah Gravity From Above is stalled. My work in museum Georgia has dried up. Far too much cash has flown the coop. But you know what? I’m in Georgia. And had I known half of what I know now I would certainly have stayed in Alaska. But I can’t help feeling that this ruse, played upon me by God no doubt, got me here.

Rock Wall Sno

The rock walls of Sno, where we spent a peaceful memorable night.

Recently my dear friend Silva Morasten and her boyfriend Honza stayed with me. Several things happened then to really renew my sense of purpose here in Georgia. Summer quite frankly had been tough. I expected it. But the heat drained me. (Next year time in the mountains. The museum work evaporated. Finances got wobbly. (I finally solved that by applying early for my retirement money. Which I still won’t get till the end of November.) Computers broke down. Etc. etc. But more than anything else a vague sense of failure hovered directly over my head.

On the good side I did get a temporary residence permit. Which isn’t going to last too long, but will look good next time I apply. And even if I don’t get another right away I can stay here if I cross the border once a year. So I’m not worried about getting chased out.

Gergeti

One of the Holiest places in Georgia: Gergeti in the High Caucasus Mountains.

But with my friends here we drove up into the mountains and I finally had a chance to really get out of the city. I discovered this singular little village called Sno made out dark moody and very sharp rock walls. I walked into the Caucasus briefly, enough to give me a sense of mystery and enticement. I drove through the lush vineyards of the Alazani valley. Silva had a chance to sing her gorgeously dark songs at a museum. (To hear her music follow this link.) I also took Silva to meet my friends at Budrugana Gagra. And seeing them again reminded me of what I love most about Georgia. Likewise a trip to watch Erisioni practice had the same effect. I also stopped in a couple of times to see Giorgi Apkhazava’s work on his little theatre. (I have a whole interview that I need to edit and upload here!) And Giorgi was quite kind to me. And these people were all a part of what energizes me about being in Georgia. And so having resigned the museum project today I feel lighter already.

And so I am laughing at my great fortune, a fortune not connected to the local currency.

This is one of my first videos on Georgian Crossroads (Watch it & Subscribe.)

And another thing, back in February, when I was informed about the actual ‘salary’ I would be receiving I immediately realized I needed to get something together to staunch the pecuniary wound. I also felt it should be something that would grow, not some stopgap measure. And so I started a couple more YouTube channels. One for my ideas – The Anadromist. The other for my observations about Georgia – Georgian Crossroads. It was a wise decision. For even though the income from them is a slowly increasing trickle, that trickle has allowed me to breathe easier. More importantly I have found a few people receptive to my curious investigations. And the truth is I have been sitting on far too many explorations that need to finally see the light of day.

Hey if you are here for the puppets you should watch this.

And so with all of this in mind, I recently found myself watching Todd Phillips’ new film Joker, with Joaquin Phoenix giving an astounding performance. And as I watched it I realized I was present for a moment in film history likened to Psycho or Star Wars. That is a complete game changer for the direction of cinema. Psycho opened American filmmaking up for what would eventually be the New Hollywood of the Seventies. Star Wars opened the door to the unfortunate blockbuster era that has enveloped us ever since. But Joker is something different. Joker, an extremely dark realistic vision based on the Batman villain. It has become a roaring success at a time when the hollowness of the mainstream world has become almost impossible to ignore. Also it wasn’t lost on me that the Joker is a clown, at a time when scary clowns have surfaced as a source of fear instead of fun. Which is quite ironic considering how devoted this age is to the teleological concept of Fun. I also saw the connections to Punch, the smiling psychotic hand puppet. And so I felt compelled to make a video on the subject. Not a review, but a search for the origins of this mythic imagery historically and presently. So I present that here for your consideration.

But there are other subjects I have dealt with on my new sites that might intrigue you as well. Particularly one series on Time and the other on How We Got Here.

And you should just watch this no matter what your motivations!

Anyway this has been a report on my activities here in Georgia. Deep gratitude to those who have helped out. And I hope to add more substance to these pages soon.

Byrne in Juta

On the dirt road behind the village of Juta.

Byrne Power

Tbilisi, Georgia

October 11th 2019

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Where am I?

Russian Church,jpg

This is what I see out of my window every evening.

What’s happened to the documentary Gravity From Above? What happened to Byrne? We haven’t heard much about puppets or Georgia since the beginning of the year.

I’m wondering the same questions. The truth is that I guess I’m recovering from the double shock of losing whatever funding I had hoped to get for the documentary and then finding the work that I was supposed to do in Georgia not only endlessly bogged down in bureaucracy but also paying me far less than a living wage for the work that I am doing causing me to lose money every month.

Or to put it another way reality has set in.

Night Show Dance

Night Show Dance Club Oriental – Creeping around an abandoned Soviet Era Mall.

Now to put a little more meat on the bone let me explain a bit. First of all I am quite hesitant to say much at all publicly. At this moment the details would be less than helpful. (Privately I can explain anything if interested.) And the situation has never been dire. But essentially I am only receiving about a third of what I need to live every month. Which is a drain on my personal economy, which can’t go on forever. Then there are expenses that I have to make to actually live here as opposed to being a transient. Things you need to buy simply to be a resident from frying pans to curtains. More catastrophically my computer has died twice on me. I now live in a strange twilight world of used MacBooks and external hard drives. (I’m waiting for a new hard drive to arrive through a tortuous path of mailing services.) And I have spent a fair sum just to keep myself running. And then there is the much larger question of how I will get my belongings shipped here. (Which had seemed quite possible when I left, but now more doubtful.)

The practical minded person would say something like this to themselves: “Well you’d better get back to Alaska where you can make money and forget about all of this. Admit you’ve been beat. It was an interesting dream, but it’s time to face the truth. Better get back while you still have the money to get there.” (I can hear the worried voice of my late mother here.)

Flower Girl Japaridze

A sad flower girl near my apartment by street artist L. Japaridze.

Yet I know I haven’t made a mistake. Every time I have made a radical change in my life, from California to New York City, or from New York to Alaska, I have gone through exactly these moments of wall-smashing reality. In New York it took me multiple beds and floors for 4 long months to find an apartment. And that was beyond my means. I ended up leaving it after a year. Not to mention having one of the worst fevers I’ve ever had in my life during that first Christmas time. Narrowly escaping being beaten to a pulp by a street gang. And essentially finding that most of the folks I met during that period receded as friends. And then again in Alaska. I arrived without the job that supposedly was waiting for me, a container load of my library and other junk which then immediately sucked up all of my money on overweight freight charges, and I was renting a house for more than I could afford, especially without a job or money. The radio station work did eventually kick in. So did comments from certain members of the community about the music I was introducing to the airwaves. And I discovered the rather petty and vicious nature of otherwise friendly Alaskans during public board meetings, which I had to take part in as a part of my radio duties. Within six months I had to move everything again because the house I was renting was being sold out from under me. In both New York City and Alaska I knew I should be there. And eventually they became two of the most important places in my life.

Theatre Ornament

Ornamentation in a decaying theatre.

Reginald in the Ruins

Taking Belgian photographer Reginald Van de Velde through architectural ruins.

So my thoughts now? What’s new? I expected the brick wall of reality. I look at these confrontations as the real test of my faith. If it’s worth it then it won’t be easy.

So I am very slowly learning kartuli, a language that has been very difficult to read and to pronounce. And I do not mean difficult to pronounce the way French and German are difficult to read or pronounce. We are talking a different order of experience here. And the besides the language there are the many cultural misunderstandings between the Georgian mentality and the Western European or American. The sense of time here is something I am still struggling to understand. It isn’t that it is loose as in many cultures, it’s erratic, inconsistent. Now slow, now fast. It has the irregular rhythms of its language.

But overall I haven’t felt let down, as much as puzzled. And hopeful. And cautious. Sometimes at home. Other times like an alien. Yet never in danger. I don’t feel that I’ll fall through the floor. It feels like there is a net somewhere below me. So apart from the drain on my economy and the moments of bewilderment, how are things really going?

Mariam & Elene

Mariam Kapanadze with friend and animator Elene Murjikneli.                                                  Working on Mariam’s short piece called The Abandoned Village.

Well I do feel at increasingly at home more than foreign. And I think what it comes down to is this… the conversations. Whenever I am feeling a little too distant from my own culture I end up having conversations that allow me to breathe in a way I normally can’t back in the USA. I find an openness to art and culture that is far more serious than I have found back in the states in a very long time. And that is why I am here.

Or I meet someone doing something creative that just takes my breath away. For instance seeing the animation that Mariam Kapanadze is working on for two years. Just to produce ten minutes of footage that hardly moves at all. Then she explains what she is trying to achieve and I am left speechless by the depth of it. (I’ve already interviewed her and will be sharing it very soon.) Or meeting Giorgi Apkhazava and the other members of the Tbilisi Chamber Theatre and realizing that they have the best perspective possible on why they are puppeteers. (Also coming soon!) Or the again being surprised at an intimate piano recital by the depth of music played by Eter Tskipurishvili. Words would fail me entirely here. And it is in moments like these and dozens more that I find myself more than feeling at home; it is something far more spiritual.

Eter Playing

Eter Tskipurishvili playing with profound emotion on June 1st at the Paliashvili Museum. (Photo by Roland Menteshashvili)

And it’s not that life here is in anyway convenient… for anyone. There is a sense of total chaos at times. I have been without electricity or water many times. I have lost the food in my freezer and then gotten sick on the food that wasn’t cold enough. I have found myself hunting endlessly for something as simple as thread or tape. The summer heat is not something I am looking forward to. Yet as I walk beneath endless grapevines on tree shaded lanes passing children who still play in the streets I find something human and humble here. And when I look around I see an intriguing future, both for the Georgians, and for myself.

Kakabadzeebis Street

Evening on lush Kakabadzeebis Street as I climb the ten floors worth of mountainside up the old streets to my aesthetically crumbling building.

And so that is where I am right now. I don’t need assurances that everything will work out. I just need to keep walking and see where this road goes and why I am here.

Well I’ve got three or four essays due to be written very soon. So no (!) I haven’t forgotten anything. I’m just looking around, catching my breath, taking stock, and uttering quiet words of gratitude.

And I haven’t forgotten about Gravity From Above, the documentary!

Thanks for your patience my friends.

Byrne Power

Tbilisi, Georgia

June 3rd 2019

 

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The Big Question Mark

abandonedhall

Walking through Sololaki district in Tbilisi I stopped in this open door for a minute.

I haven’t written for a while now. It isn’t that there is nothing to say. It’s that I’m not sure exactly where I am. I am certainly not where I thought I might find myself three months ago. I’ve been waiting for more resolution to give you all some account of my time in Tbilisi Georgia. But the resolutions are slower in coming than I imagined they would be. So I might as well report on what I can say. Which isn’t much.

walleyes

Some rather haunting and cryptic street art.

Not long ago I thought I might get most of the money to finish up Gravity From Above. I then realized that I would have to downgrade what support I thought I had. Now I am wondering if I’ll get any help at all from the sources that seemed promising. If it sounds like I’m being vague I am. Let’s just say this the funding isn’t there… yet. And because I stumbled into some murky cultural waters that I didn’t understand let’s just say I don’t know if anything will come my way from that direction. But I am still hoping to hear something.

Then there is my life in Tbilisi. It’s not bad at all. But it is much slower commencing than I thought it would be. Again odd cultural issues play a role. Strangely many of the friends I have made are slow in getting back to me. If it was just one person I wouldn’t think too much about it. But it’s almost everyone. It probably didn’t help that I arrived in the holiday season again. And so had to mostly sit out a month waiting for it to end.

holdingitup

The decaying Art Nouveau ruins of Old Tbilisi.

I was looking forward to editing Gravity From Above. I had the time. Oodles of it! But I wait for returned emails, Facebook messages, etc. This is a cultural thing. In America we are trained to get back to others as soon as possible on the Internet. But in Georgia I get the feeling that emails aren’t seen as being quite real. Which is fine. I’ve been saying this for years. And if I were settled in more it wouldn’t bother me. I would have other ways of contacting people. But I don’t feel I know people well enough yet to just call them up or stop by. So I wait.

And that goes for my work as well. The museum project is there, down the road. Eventually. Though the architectural design part has been siphoned off. But that doesn’t bother me. If anything was going to be taken away that would be what I was expecting. And truthfully there is a lot more politics in all of this than I imagined. And by politics I don’t mean office politics. I mean the real beast. Government officials, state and city budgets etc. And that’s about all I can say about that.

artbooksforsale

Art books for sale from my favorite street vendor.

But I’m not without work. The plan is to have me teaching puppetry in English for students in the schools. And while I am planning that, I haven’t got the paperwork done yet, because I have to see what the legal prospects are for me as a resident. So again I wait. And hopefully this will be resolved relatively soon. But then again this is Georgia where I’m discovering that everything takes time. But when you finally get the signal then the question will be why isn’t it finished yet? (See the architectural issues above.)

beautyonthestreet

The street art in Tbilisi is endlessly fascinating

And then there is the question of money. So far I am coasting. But this can’t last. And I’m not really sure how I will fare in the future. Everything is up in the air. And how will the documentary, which is so close to being done, be finished?

And you know I’m not worried about all this. I figured that there is a reason I followed the breadcrumbs here. So meanwhile I explore the city. I’ve taken bus trips to nearby villages. I’ve hiked up the mountains near Tbilisi. I’ve explored more art and culture. I’ve discovered a couple of worthy bookstores previously unknown to me. I’ve gone looking for practical necessities.

tsknetihorse

Old horse in village seen on a bus ride. (Two hour round trip ¢17)

And I’ve discovered the many things that hardly exist here. Where is a lumber yard? Can I find black string for puppets? Food ingredients that are like gold: Bottles of vanilla??? Molasses. Malt vinegar. Decent peanut butter. Maple syrup. Cream of tarter, which is really weird since it’s a wine derivative and wine is everywhere here. Recognizable cuts of meat. Most Chinese ingredients. Any Mexican ingredients or spices. Let alone real salmon. Oh Alaska you spoiled me!

Stop and watch this for a little taste of joy!

But oddly I found some real pluses too. For instance I noticed that Georgia has about 20,000 people from India, mostly students at the state university. Thus I reasoned they must have Indian spice stores. I’ve found two! And one guy Vijay was a real help. But there are much fewer Chinese. Thus real Chinese food is much harder to find. And there is something that Georgians eat at the few ‘Chinese’ restaurants which has very little to do with China. But great news! Just down the street from me on Vazha-Pshavela Avenue they just opened a real Chinese restaurant since I’ve been here. And I’ve gotten in good with the owner, Shelia, from China by way of Vancouver. And she has two, count ’em, two Chinese cooks. Okay I survived 22 years in Haines Alaska without Chinese food. I think I’m going to be all right. (In New York City I used to go to Chinatown all the time.)

studentssinging

Students singing traditional songs at the Conservatoire.

I did spend a little time with friend and photographer (and my landlord) Mariam Sitchinava and her pixie daughter Sophie. I did visit my good friends at the hand shadow theatre Budrugana Gagra. And I was welcomed with open arms and kisses on my cheek from everyone, men and women. And I got to watch a complete show of their shadow version of Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion. And for the premier even the new president of the country, Salome Zurabishvili, was in attendance. I was quite proud to call these folks my friends. I will eventually write a more detailed review of this piece. As well as a report on the work on Mariam Kapanadze’s unusual animation project.

tornikemidair

Tornike flying at Erisioni.

And then I found myself back at Erisioni where I was greeted as a returning friend. Otar Bluashvili commented that I indeed returned in December just like I said I would. When I first stepped into the dance studio several of the young male dancers broke into applause. And later when I finally saw the women dancers again I was greeted tenderly with kisses and very warm smiles. And today I stopped in and was invited to their big show this Sunday at the Philharmonic Hall where I was offered a better lens for my camera. I took a few photos today and greeted several more friends.

doliplayers

The Doli Drum players including Kaxe & Shota

When I first arrived I felt even more disconnected than I did last year at the same time. With the financial questions hanging over my head, with Gravity From Above back in some sort of limbo, with friends yet to find me again, I was seriously wondering what I was doing here. The ground did not feel solid. I still have no idea how the practicalities of anything will work out. From getting a residence permit, to finding a permanent house to live in, to getting my container full of possessions, including my massive library, here, to getting Gravity From Above finished. These question fed my sense of dislocation.

And yet…

centraltbilisi

Looking down on Tbilisi from Mtatsminda.

Slowly I have been finding myself at home. I remember the day I walked up through Vake Park past the Soviet World War 2 Statue into the mountain, and then down the other side I felt at ease as I stopped at Parnassus Books, which also had books in English. More importantly there were two university students working there, Mariam and Ana. A wonderful conversation led to their offering to find someone to help me with Kartuli (the Georgian language). Within a week I had another university student Sandro helping me, for free! But it was on that walk, even before I got to the bookstore, that I thought to myself, how much I was feeling better about being there.

patrioticwarstatue

Soviet reminder of The Great Patriotic War (World War 2)

And there have been many other discoveries. But we’ll end our narrative here. What will tomorrow bring? I have no clue. None. Will I ever get enough money to finish up Gravity From Above? Will I find the wherewithal to get my stuff here? Will the Georgians let me stay? There are answers to these questions, but not yet. And so I am left with the big question mark. But you know a life without question marks really isn’t a very interesting life. So I accept that.

flyingdancers

Flying dancers at Erisioni

Oh and if anyone wants to help me get this bloody documentary finished….

There’ll be more to say, and soon, but for now I’ll just leave you all where I am. Wherever that is.

Byrne Power

Tbilisi, Georgia

31/1/2019

So if you wish to help out financially you can help me through PayPal. You can pass on a one time donation, or commit yourself to a small amount on a regular basis. Anything you choose to give will be helpful. And if you are one of those people who can help out in a more substantial way do consider it. I really am close to finishing Gravity From Above. But the amount needed is beyond me in this moment. So get in touch if you feel so moved. Click to donate. And thanks all of you for tagging along on this strange journey. CLICK ME!


Is That The Finish Line?

Italian Forest Pupi

Mythological Forest Pupi in Palermo in Sicily at the International Puppet Museum

Well I’ve been quiet for a little while, catching up with my writing and catching my breath between journeys to Europa. Mostly preparing to leave Alaska permanently. Being back here has been tinged with a kind of nostalgia already. I am doing things that I know I will probably never do again: Picking spruce tips for tea, harvesting devil’s club, drying morels, puffballs and boletes to rediscover in over a year when my container is finally sent to Georgia; Taking people on tours to float down the Chilkat River or to see bears on the Chilkoot; Meeting friends to discuss my plans; Stopping others to let them know that my farewell event will be coming up on September 8th at the ANB/ANS Hall. Plus remembering the things I won’t miss here. Everyplace has its curses. In New York City it was crime, rats , roaches, ultra hipness. Here in Haines it’s small minded pettiness, bovine tourists and other forms of myopia. But there is much goodness and many friends that I will indeed miss.

Little Prince and Snake

The Little Prince and Snake at the Marjanishvili Theatre in Tbilisi Georgia

Meanwhile on October 4th I leave for good. And there has been much to consider. Fortunately last summer’s insane moving crunch has left me in perfect position to move. Everything I own is in unit number 3 at S & W Storage. And I have gone through it all to remove things I won’t need in Tbilisi: lamps, waffle irons, heaters, microwave ovens, anything that simply plugs in and gets hot. Also I’ve put the finishing touches on my boxes and reorganized everything into the most efficient shape. And finally I’ve gone through the last of my mother’s things and mailed off the items connected more to my stepfather Mike’s family. And so my life here seems nearly completely closed down. Only a few final details left. They could be finished in a day. My storage unit is paid through October 2019.

Byrne Under Rustaveli

Looking into a mirror underneath the Rustaveli Theatre in Tbilisi

Then there are the more complicated problems associated with my departure. New passport? It arrived last week after being rejected once for too much shadow in my photo I assume, but they didn’t specify. Airline tickets to Paris? Yes. But I still need to buy my December tickets from Paris to Tbilisi. I’m waiting for my funds to resolve a bit first. Train tickets for the Western European portion of my journey? Yes. Though I have to wait until I get to Europe to buy my specific reservations. A rental in Prague for a week? Yes. Though I am reminded how much hotel prices have risen since my first visit to Prague in 2000. Letters to friends in Paris, Switzerland and Germany? Yes and they are waiting for me. My apartment for the first three months in Tbilisi? Yes. Same place. (Thanks Mariam.) Continuity is a good thing.

Underground Tbilisi

Underground passageway in Tbilisi

But there is much I am struggling to get done. I have been working a lot to try to get the money I need to survive until my European money kicks in, which won’t be until early 2019. So after all of this summer’s traveling expenses, which also includes new clothing, a daypack, medical check up, car repairs so that I can sell it in good shape before I leave, and many other sundry things I am hoping my funds will hold to get me through the valley. (You can help out below through PayPal.) And I am trying to get my little book of puppet plays ready to sell before I leave. There are so many other things that I had hoped to finish before I leave. Because once I get to Georgia everything will change. (Mail is terrible there, which is a major problem.)

Roman Lady Statue

Roman Lady at the Vatican (Not from classical Rome.)

And so what am I doing once I leave?

On October 4th I leave on Alaska Marine Lines’ ferry for Juneau. I’ll spend a night at the Best Western Hotel then ricochet from Juneau to Seattle to Portland to Reyjavik to Paris. Then I’ll spend a couple of weeks in Paris with the Carons decompressing from all of my summer finalities. I’ll then spend two weeks at L’Abri in Switzerland where I hope to give two lectures: one on rediscovering beauty; one on the meaning of texture. Then I have been granted a four week residency at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières France.

Pupi Dama

Signora delle marionette in Palermo.

At that point several things will happen: I will give a presentation on the state of this Gravity From Above documentary project. And then there is an important moment for both the life of the project and my own future. I don’t know how they will decide. (There have also been changes in the leadership since I was last there.) I will also interview more students for the project as well as do more research on the project especially for older imagery and cinematic images. All in all it looks to be a time to keep an eye on.

Toone Feet

Puppet Feet hanging above the audience at the Royal Theatre Toone in Brussels

Then at the beginning of December I will travel up to northern Germany to visit good friends and then slingshot over to Prague for my final Gravity From Above interviews and images. Then I will return to Paris to wrap things up to go to Tbilisi, Georgia on December 14th.

When I arrive in Georgia I will immediately go to work getting ready to edit Gravity From Above on professional equipment. I will also check in with Nini Sanadiradze at the The Union of Tbilisi Museums at start to prepare for a tojina conference in late January. And thus my new life begins.

Watch this to be mesmerized by the dancers at Erisioni that I saw last March.

And so is this the finish line for Gravity From Above? Maybe. Or close to it. The end is in sight though. I still have to get my translations done. I still need to get music composed and recorded. I’ll probably need a few shots that I forgot about. I will need to get the films and their rights. But that’s what I’ll be working on from October to January. And how much of what gets done depends on what the International Institute of Puppetry provides.

Forest Eve

Fairy Eve at the International Puppet Museum in Palermo

Oh! And then there is trying to get the thing seen!!!

And so maybe there is more left than I thought. But we are certainly closing in on something!

And dear readers, friends and puppeteers I still need your support. The challenge isn’t over.

But thank you so much for helping me get this far.

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

August 26th 2018

You can support Gravity From Above and help with my massive move from Alaska to Georgia through PayPal. Anything you do will be appreciated and used well. This is the time to help. Thanks. (Click here.)


Georgian Farewells

Kino House

The Kino House at Rustaveli Square.

And so it was finally a time for farewells in Tbilisi after three months in Georgia. I had made many new friends and reacquainted myself with several of the old. Yet there were a few missed folk. I did not spend time with Mariam Elieshvili, Nina Ananiashvili or the Sukhishvili Dance troupe of again for various reasons. But I did make several friends this time that I hope to take with me into the future. And it was time to say au revoir to some of them.

Strolling On Rustaveli

Friends Strolling Down Rustaveli Avenue.

On the day of my emotional farewells to Erisioni I had one more important meeting. My apartment had been rented to me by photographer Mariam Sitchinava and her husband Kote Khutsishvili. They had been excellent hosts all along. And early in my stay on Vazha-Pshavela Avenue Mariam had invited me to meet her at the Book Corner Cafe down by the Mtkvari River. Meeting us there was a friend of hers, Nino Vadachkoria. Mariam pointed out that Nino was a surgeon, then I discovered that she had been earning a further degree in neuroscience. At some point she turned to me when she realized that I knew something about music and asked if I knew about the music of Moondog, an outré question if ever there was one. Of course I knew his music, few other Americans would have. By the end of our conversation I discovered that Tarkovsky’s Stalker was her favorite film, as it was mine. And she pointedly asked me questions about what I thought life meant. Well that was enough to cement a friendship almost on the spot.

Nino 1

Nino Vadachkoria five seconds before asking another complex question.

We had had several other meaningful discussions over the course of my time in Tbilisi and this evening we would be meeting at a cafe that another friend, Tinatin, had introduced me to, Keto and Kote. And so we met for another of our impossibly full discussions. But this time our conversation was tinged with the knowledge that I would be leaving, as well as coming back one day in the near future. Instead of challenging me about my ideas, she asked more about my rather convoluted personal history. By the time we were finished she had given me a white woolen cap, white was for the village leader she said, obviously paying me a very high compliment. In the end after a walk down to the Rustaveli Metro, where I would be disappearing into the ground, she very clearly demonstrated deep emotion too. Yet another powerful farewell moment on this most memorable of days. Alaskans have many admirable qualities. But final gestures are not really in their arsenal. These parting moments were something I treasured in my heart, something I had been missing, nay needing. (We’ll see what the Alaskans do in September.)

With John Graham & Erisioni Choir

With John Graham, his mother Frederica, Jemal Chkuaseli, Otar Bluashvili, and the Erisioni choir.

But I wasn’t done. I had already said goodbye to John Graham, an American musicologist whose area of expertise was Georgian liturgical music. He sang in the choir at the Kashueti Church, his Georgian wife Eka was a musicologist as well with whom I got along quite well. After long discussions about Georgia, music, tourism, the Orthodox Church and life in general I found I had made a good friend. He was no longer romantic about Georgia, yet very clearly was quite committed to the country. I met him at a cafe shortly before I left where we had a good final talk. He was glad that I would be moving back and had much practical advice for me to ponder. We would see each other again.

Tinatin Gurchiani

Tinatin Gurchiani meeting me at the Keto and Kote restaurant.

One person that I had tried to connect with throughout my stay and finally did was filmmaker and now good friend Tinatin Gurchiani. I met her at Keto and Kote, which it turned out had once been in her family. It had to be sold off during the turbulent Nineties. But she still retained a fondness for this beautiful older Georgian building, like one of Elene Akhvlediani’s paintings. We sat in a latticed indoor terrace. Tinatin had been my benefactor last time back in 2016, making arrangements for me, introducing me to people, generally treating me with good will and hospitality. This time I had made my way largely without any help from her. We met as old friends, discussing our various film projects. I explained that I had been attracted to Georgia more and more as a possible place to live. (I hadn’t yet been offered the puppet and doll museum job yet.) And she was encouraging of the idea in a wise sort of way. Knowing that it would happen if it should. We parted as very good friends. I felt her to be a sort of guiding soul. It’s hard to explain.

I had already said my farewells to Nini Sanadiradze, the Director of the Union of Tbilisi Museums, while I had been performing a few tasks designed to help me return as permanent resident in late 2018 early 2019. I had also said farewells to Ana Sanaia, who had also been so helpful and almost directly led to my being offered the tojinebi museum job. (See this essay.)

On my final day I had several more people to see. Mariam and Kote picked me up at the apartment and drove me over to the Marjanishvili area. We spoke on the way about my stay there. They had been glad to have me and from my perspective had been most excellent hosts. We met up during my stay a few times. They personally helped when the door to my apartment got jammed. And I was also invited over to their place for my first supra. I believe I acquitted myself fairly well. Kote’s father even paid me what I took to be a very high compliment, that I had toasted like a Georgian. I said fond farewells and then took my belongings over to Tsinamdzghvrishvili Street to stay one last night at Tamuna’s house.

Gela Sitting

Gela Kandelaki at Budrugana Gagra.

I then made my way over to the basements of the Rustaveli Theatre to say my farewells to Budrugana Gagra. I had already told them that I would indeed be not only returning but coming back to live. And so when it came time to bid adieu to my creative home away from home, which Gela Kandelaki had been sharp to point out was really my home since I no longer had a place in Alaska, I watched several practice sessions with the troupe, marveling that these strangely balletic shadow puppeteers had been not only my friends for my entire three months this time, but most of them had been here in 2016. Gela had asked me to call him bidza, uncle, Gela. And he called me “my boy” chemi bichi” since he was older than I my some measure. And this was quite an honor. I waited for Gela to come in, and when he did I said my farewells, this time receiving much warmth and wishes for a quick return as he took me by the arm. The rest all gave me kisses on the cheek or sometimes hugs. And again I was touched by the genuineness of the emotions and gladness that I was indeed returning to stay.

Vlad Documents

Vladimir Lozinski documenting an abandoned movie theatre.

I had yet one more appointment on my last day in Tbilisi. I waited until the early evening to drop in on Vladimir Lozinski, an Australian with a French diplomat wife, who had done news media freelance work for ABC, NBC, CBS, and the BBC among others. He was a great font of information about the area and I don’t mean tourist information, I mean the kind of scuttlebutt often swept under the rugs. And so he had given me a sense of reality about the world I was considering to make my home. He’s the kind of guy with endless stories, wide and usually fair perspectives, lots of strange encounters. As I stepped into his flat to share a cup of tea I nearly stepped on a skinned brown bearskin, complete with head and teeth. He apologized. “What can you do when you are given such a gift by Chechens?” Not offend them. That’s for sure. We discussed the practicalities of my return to Georgia. As usual he was filled with wry comments and even a few warnings. When I asked if he thought I should move here he heartily concurred. He thought it was probably an excellent thing for me all round. We said warm farewells. I had made yet another good friend that had an eye on things that could be very useful in many a moment.

Selling Purses

A purse seller on Marjanishvili Street.

I finally returned to Tamar’s Guesthouse, my original point of entrance back in 2016. I said a kind farewell to Tamuna early in the morning and her son Shako drove me to the airport for my 4:50am flight. Shako was also quite glad that I was returning and he gave me a warm parting hug as well.

And so my three months sojourn in Tbilisi was over. And my life would never be the same. But I wasn’t done in Europe yet. I still had to get to Paris, depart for Seattle and arrive to what in Alaska. So come back for the final chapter of this adventure soon!

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

6/11/2018

 

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A Short Trip And A Farewell: Erisioni Part 2

~ IMG_0151I had been watching Erisioni practice their singing and dancing for nearly two months, taking photos, shooting video, when Otari Bluashvili, the company manager, invited me to travel with them on a short tour into the nearby rolling mountains to watch them perform a partial show at a retreat center called Bioli. This would be a chance to see them in full costume, which thus far I had not had a chance to witness. The date, March 24th, the last weekend of my three month sojourn in Georgia, it would be a good final event to end my stay in Tbilisi.

I arrived in the early afternoon at the Erisioni studios on Rustaveli Avenue. Dancers, singers and musicians were milling around. There was good natured vibe to the milling crowd. But not everyone was there. Several dancers were not needed because the performance area was not that large and the show only half as long. A car had arrived and the performers were taking the traditional Georgian garments and carefully placing them in it, especially the women’s dresses. As I looked around I noted Irakli the dancer and Irakli the garmoni (Georgian accordion) player, Toko and Lasha, a couple of the very high voiced tenors, the dancers Nina, Gvantsa, Neolina and Mari were there. Also present was Levan the male choreographer, Eka the women’s choreographer, Shermandi the choirmaster, Otar the manager and Jemal the Chief Conductor, who was really the head of the organization, whom I remembered from the original Georgian Legend DVD, where I first learned of Erisioni.

Eventually a massive white modern bus pulled up and we entered, all forty or so folks. Several dancers and musicians had to stay back since it was a small show, otherwise the number would be over fifty. I sat near the front and looked back on the troupe, took a few photos and we drove up into the rolling mountains south of Tbilisi to Bioli a ‘Medical Wellness Resort’. The mood on the bus was like a high school field trip. They hadn’t done a show for a while so it was a chance to get out into the world again. The journey covered about 15 kilometers and took about a half an hour, all up hill, as we ascended from Tbilisi’s 450 to 760 meters (1,500-,2,500 ft) to Bioli’s 1,200 meters (3,930 ft). At last the sign for Bioli emerged along the road and we drove down their dirt road to a rather futurist looking set of structures.

The Erisioni folk seemed to know where they were going so I tagged along. The women were give a large golf cart vehicle to travel in. I entered the domed main building. Evidently tonight’s performance was to be punctuation for a business awards ceremony of some sort that I never did fully comprehend. But I wasn’t there for the proceedings, except as it pertained to the Erisioni troupe. Before changing into their costumes they practiced briefly in order to ascertain their ability to move. The performance space was actually small considering the expansiveness of the dances. Sophiko Khachidze and Tornike Gelashvili danced gracefully in their street clothes. Others moved around them. It was tight but it would work.

I then followed the performers into the back dressing rooms, which of course were far too small for so many people. But no one was complaining. Every dancer, singer and musician had traditional clothes. This was the first time I had actually seen them wearing them. The clothes were expensive and needed to be protected from excessive wear. So rehearsals were always done in their black dance garments. But now for the first time I was seeing the Georgian finery I had seen in videos and photos. Most of the men wore variations on the chokha, the distinctive coat with cartridge sleeves lined across the front. These now mostly carried ornamental cylinders. Male dancers however usually had several various regional costumes to change into during the course of the evening. The women’s dresses were even more elaborate, often featuring regal caps and flowing veils. They too changed during the evening to represent the regions of Georgia. All in all quite the sartorial spectacle. ~ IMG_0262

Another interesting aspect was the makeup applied by the women to emphasize their eyes, heavy eyelashes and strong cosmetics. This of course was to communicate across the distance from stage to audience under hot lights. And when they did this they became almost unrecognizable transforming into ikons of Georgian culture, as did the men in their way, shaggy wool hats, swords, special boots for jumping on their toes, etc. Fascinating to observe. Before the performance we ate some lobiani, a flat bread filled with beans, a light snack for energy but certainly not a full meal. But soon it was time.

They went through a couple of songs then paused for presentations and awards. This continued through out the evening. Their were several professional photographers and videographers there. I left them to capture video of the show. They were much more aggressive than I. And besides I was interested in something else. I care more about the personalities and their process to become these incredible dancers and singers. And so I turned my camera mostly on the backstage between numbers, the quick changes the tired bodies and the characters of many people who were, even without language becoming friends. All the time I couldn’t help but feel honored to be with them as one of the crew, not merely as this guy from the outside, from another country.~ IMG_0473

When the entertainment was over I looked down the undulating hills to lights of Tbilisi glowing from a distance. We drove back in the dark, Somewhere in the back a few singers were singing a song together. And everything was good.

In two days on Monday I went into the Erisioni studios on Rustaveli Avenue to say farewell. I wasn’t sure if I would film or not. But I did. There were Turks there who wanted to see them for a tour. So I had a chance to watch the full performance one more time. This may have been the best show I had seen yet. And I was much more able to follow their movements with my camera. Although I am still kicking myself, because although I was able to follow the sword dance perfectly, and thought the footage would be my best. I then looked at the camera, I had forgotten to press record. I shook it off and captured the finale. (Which can be seen here.)

At the end, before everyone left, I asked Otari to allow me to say farewell to the troupe. He spoke and more than fifty pairs of eyes looked at me. And I realized how meaningful this experience had been and how in so many ways I had become close to these musicians, singers and dancers who put so much into their art. I tried to speak but choked up. And they loved that! They burst into applause. I tried to speak again and it proved quite difficult. And again they cheered and clapped loudly. Otar at one moment leaned over to me and said “They think you are one of us.” It was because I had shown deeper emotion. Finally I told them how much it meant to spend time with them and that I was actually going to be moving to Tbilisi within a year. And they applauded rhythmically for some time. I was overcome with joy. Byrne and Lika C1

Before leaving I managed to get a few photos of all of us together. And then as they left I received many kisses on the cheeks and not only from the girls. I had gone past being a stranger and was warmly embraced in a farewell gesture that I have never experienced before. I felt privileged to spend time with this incredible collection of musical artists. When they put on their costumes they became mythic representations of their culture. But you know I think I prefer watching them in rehearsals because then I see Tornike Akhalaia spinning like a top and landing on his knees and springing back, Lika Tsipuria practicing her delicate turns over and over and Lika Chikhelidze dancing like a swan, Shota Gongadze effortlessly cool as he struts out to dance and play the drum, the male singers shaking the walls with the force of their sound, choreographer Levan Kublashvili suddenly breaking into a dance just because the music strikes him. I am impressed to see them practice because I see the humans behind the mythic symbols of Georgia and I am amazed to be counted as a friend.~ IMG_9179

But I was hardly finished with my farewells to my friends in Georgia. I will finish this story next time.

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

5/22/2018


Bravery and Grace: Erisioni Part 1

 

Shota's Dance†

Shota steps into the dance! (All photos © 2018 Byrne Power)

I had found the location of Erisioni, the traditional Georgian music and dance troupe as I was walking down Rustaveli Avenue (see this story). I stopped and read the word on the side of a wall where I had a vague idea that they were located. I knew just enough of the Georgian alphabet to slowly read the script. It looked like this: ერისიონი. The official office was closed but I knew that this was the place. And I knew to return someday closer to noon. So at the beginning of February I came back. I readied myself to be misunderstood and to misunderstand as I tried to get passed the language barrier. I entered the darkly lit building and carefully stepped up the paint cracked stairs where I could hear music joyful filling the building. Accordions (called garmoni in Georgian and tuned in a natural state) were releasing the expressive melodies to the pounding of the doli, a handheld Georgian tom-tom drum. Instructors were calling out to dancers from behind an old door in the ornate cavernous building. (For a look inside another section of this incredible structure read this.)

Neolina Gesture†

Neolina practicing a move.

I had been told that the offices were on the 3rd floor by a girl speaking broken English in my first trip. And so I continued on up the aging stairs. One problem, if this was a European reckoning of the floors then the ground floor was the not the first floor. But suddenly I was at the third floor in America and the second floor in Europe. And the stairs ascended no further. And so I stopped at the top. Incredible male voices rang out from behind one massive door. Then there was another old door opposite. I cautiously entered. I said Gamarjoba (Hello, but literally Victory!), then tried to let the woman at the desk know that I spoke English. She then allowed me to enter the heavy dark wood door behind her. And I was greeted in halting English to Jemal Chkuaseli, the venerable Chief Conductor and head of Erisioni, a man I remember seeing on the Erisioni ‘Georgian Legend’ DVD, which had been recorded in 2002. He was pleased to meet me and shake my hand. Soon I was joined by another man Otari Bluashvili, the General Manager of Erisioni, and the man who really handled the day to day affairs of the troupe. Otar spoke English well. And so I explained that while I was currently working on a documentary about puppetry in Europe I had an idea about eventually doing a documentary about Georgian music and dance. They were pleased to hear it. And they graciously gave me open access to the practices and rehearsals.

Sergo Tip Toes†

Sergo on point!

Dancer's Pose†

Sophiko preparing to move.

High Leap†

Beqa violating gravity.

They immediately walked me across the hall to where 15 or more men were just beginning a second practice session for the day. The men greeted me and then Jemal conducted them in an ancient hymn, a song so profound that I could feel the hairs on my arm raise. Eventually they sang more songs affiliated with the actual show. Jemal let his son the actual choir leader Shermandi Chkuaseli resume his duties. The strength of their voices overwhelmed the emptiness of the large room. It was a sound that physically effected my body as well as my essential being. No performance on a stage could be as powerful. There were no microphones here. Just an oceanic swell of vocal vibrations. It was an excellent introduction to a few of the people who would inhabit my world for the following two months. The next day I would beyond that door hiding the musicians and dancers.

Descending from the Sky†

Gvantsa and another dancer landing before a few visitors at Erisioni.

I arrived to meet Otar. I told him that I would not be trying to photograph or film the practice yet. I just wanted to take it in without putting something between myself and the experience. I am appalled when I find people at a concert or some other unique event and they are present yet hidden behind devices to capture poor video of something that they will look at only briefly and then never again. One is only present in reality once. And this is a principle I try to follow as often as possible, even when visiting puppet theatres. Even when I am recording it I try to watch the real show more than the my little screen. Or else what is the point?

Three Accordeonists†

On the garmonebi (accordions).

Vako Daring Do†

Vako with a Sword

Thus I was invited through the door where I would spend many hours in the subsequent two months. The dancers were stretching and and leaping, twirling and jumping in preparation for the rehearsal. Musicians were playing short bursts of well known tunes. They were about to run through a complete hour long version of the show. And I was sitting directly in front of the center of the hall. The nearest dancer would land a less than a meter away. A few other people were also watching this with me. Otar was sitting next me to explain a few things. Soon it was showtime.

 

The performance was like an explosion of dynamic rhythm and melodious charging sounds. It was a ritual I would watch many times. And eventually I was able to understand the order and rhythm of most of the dances. Though occasionally they would switch one dance for another that I hadn’t seen yet. An official live concert would run to more than an hour and a half. All of the performers would be in traditional dress. The men in chokhas, the women in the many complicated styles of regal dresses with headdress and scarves. But here they were dancing in their black practice clothing.

Lines of men and women swarmed the stage. Shota the dancing drummer came out. Male voices filled every cornice of the grand hall. Three garmoni played a bold tune as drums and a bass guitar hit a driving beat. Suddenly there were sharp turns of melodic structure, fragments of harmonic dissonance. The male voices sang songs like yodels, songs that seemed to emerge directly from the earth, Songs like locomotives building steam as they careened down the tracks. Eventually there were numbers that featured the women, who seemed to float across the studio, men who stamped and jumped and spun. One man seemed to be able to turn like a spinning top all the while jumping on his toes. Another young wiry dancer named Tornike seemed to spin off into the air and land on his knees then coil up again from his knees and back down again like a slinky toy. The men danced with a ferocity and daring that had obviously been developed in years of warfare as Georgia has been the endless target of invaders for millennia. Meanwhile the women seemed to be on another plane altogether, which fairly sums up my observations of Georgian culture. The women were grace and beauty incarnate. And one interesting point in all of this. Though the men and women dance together in this show, they rarely, if ever touch. And that again says something rather instructive about Georgian culture.

Lika Drum†

Lika and a Doli

I would come back over and over again. I would watch individual dances repeated and repeated. I would hear the songs the shook the room. One singer Ilia had a voice that could shatter glass. Eventually Shota the drummer came up to me and asked for a photo. So did Tornike. And in fact most of the singers became curious about what I was doing. Nina spoke more English and was able to talk with me a little eventually more and more dancers and musicians approached me. And when I made an online album of about 200 photos I became everyone’s friend. Eventually Otar would ask me to come along on the bus with them for a small version of the full dress performance. But I’ll save that story for another time.

Choirmaster Sings†

Shermandi and the Choir

Meanwhile I’ll say this, if this had been my whole experience with Erisioni I would have considered myself extremely fortunate. Yet there was indeed more to come!

დიდი მადლობა ერისიონის ყველა ჩემს მეგობარს.

Byrne Power

Paris, France

1 / 4 /2018

Meanwhile deep thanks to those who have contributed to this journey along the way. It would sound like a cliché to say I couldn’t have done it without you, but it’s the absolute truth! Anyone wishing to help out too can easily using the PayPal link below. Thanks, Byrne

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Empty Museums and Cultural Marginalia

Abandoned Movie Theatre

Abandoned Movie Theatre on Rustaveli Avenue

One of the things I’m attempting to do while in Georgia is to explore the culture to understand where the music, the dance and the puppetry comes from. In order to do this I find myself haunting some fairly out of the way locales. And that means finding museums that are not only ‘off the beaten path’ but almost abandoned. It’s weird to find yourself being the only person in a museum for over an hour. And these are ‘national museums’ and certainly listed as such. And yet when I arrive it seems that the main job of the friendly museum staff is to care for the treasures that they are sitting on. I’m also imagining that in the summer they get a bit more traffic than I’ve seen so far. And I hope they are getting school field trips and other purposeful visits as well. And yet as I open these cabinets of curiosities I am frankly entranced by what I find. And when I pay a few lari more I can get a personal guide to walk me through the collection and explain everything to me in the most knowledgeable ways.

Tamar Folk Painting

A folk painting of Queen Tamar at the Museum of Applied Arts

The Quay Brothers once told me that it wasn’t simply that they were attracted to puppets, rather it was the discarded things found at the fringes of art and society, the cultural marginalia, that inspired them. And I seriously understand this. To say you’ve been to Europe and that you’ve seen the Mona Lisa means almost nothing. Especially when you’ve entered the Louvre along with thousands of other visitors only to stare for a few moments at the small painting ensconced behind bulletproof glass and surrounded by endless quantities of tourists taking videos and selfies of the experience rather than actually seeing the thing itself. I get the same feeling when someone tells me they love films, then go on to list popular fantasy and science fiction films that quite literally 90% of earth’s population has seen. It all becomes part of what Walker Percy describes as a preformed symbol complex, making it nearly impossible for the average person to actually see the Grand Canyon or the Colosseum, even while standing before them. Thus those who really are able to grasp meaning from art or culture are not those who will wait for hours at the most recent super show at the Met, rather it is those who can stop and gaze at the patterns of embroidery on a regional costume. Those able to see through the musty scratches of an old silent film. Or those willing to find arcane treasures in forgotten museums.

Strange Tiled Cones

Strange Tiled Cones found on a random walk.

In some sense every museum in Tbilisi, Georgia, is already obscure by the standards of present day art and relic consumption. How many Americans could tell you who Niko Pirosmani is? And he is the most important artist from Georgia. Not to mention Lado Gudiashvili or Davit Kakabadze? Few indeed. But then again how many of my fellow citizens could even name a living artist? So even the most prestigious galleries and museums in Georgia are, by definition, marginal outside of Georgia. But I will save a discussion of the art for another essay and will only incidentally mention it here. (For more on Georgian art and culture follow this link.) (And since I have already written about my encounter with the Stalin museum elsewhere I leave aside that visit here.)

Georgian Parasol

Parasol and tea cups.

So let’s dive off the edge!

One of the most consistent features of these strange little Georgian museums is the fact that they are rarely advertised or even well advertised, even on the buildings they inhabit. Consider the most recent museum I discovered: The State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Musical Instruments. Sounds pretty interesting no? Especially if music interests you. So I walk up a street out of the way off the main tourist route. I’m looking for a sign. I see a little sign. So I turn towards the sign. Nothing. I walk a little into a passageway. What would you expect if you were looking for a museum? Not what I found. I basically entered a backyard, descended steps, and did not feel at all that I was about to enter anything resembling a museum. (See photo below.)

Georgian Music Museum

The Music of Folk Songs and Instruments: Absolutely invisible from the street.

I enter the building to find what I always find in these odd museums. Police guards. Who seem to be on the most boring duty imaginable. No one else. Nothing that immediately suggests museum. Just police. It was the same at the silk museum, and at the various small art museums. They must be there for a reason! But they usually look at you as if to insinuate ‘What are doing here?’ When I say something like ‘Museum?’ they point further back into…. what? I never know. I don’t know which way to turn. I am obviously the only person there who isn’t being paid something by the state. But then this is where the interesting stuff starts to happen. I find a closed door with people behind it. I motion at them. I hate to disturb them. Then they look at me as if to say ‘Did you want something?’ I say ‘Gamarjoba’ (‘Hello’ but literally Victory!). And ask if they speak English. Then offer to pay the entry fee. Which sometimes leaves them scrambling for something resembling change. Am I the first person today? And it’s an hour and a half until closing time! The fee is usually about 3 to 5 lari; less than two dollars. This time they asked if I wanted a guide. And this time I said Yes! And so they asked for 5 lari more. And so at the State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Musical Instruments my guide was a friendly and knowledgeable woman named Eka.

Georgian Musical Instruments

Eka pointing out the various Georgian instruments.

She started to walk me through the exhibits explaining to me the various instruments, how old they are, where they are from, and what they do. And then she is pleasantly surprised to discover that I am not your average tourist. But then again what on earth would the ‘average’ visitor to this museum be like? Nevertheless it is clear that I already know more about Georgian music than 99.9999% of all non-Georgians. So she gives me even better information than I was expecting. And then she stops and plays an old 78 rpm record of the song Tsintskaro on an ancient wind-up Victrola. Later she starts the mechanism of a street barrel organ, opening it to show the barrel and pin as it plays. Eka even sits to play an ancient Georgian church melody on an antique wheezy German foot pump church organ. Now that is five lari well spent!

Eka Plays Organ

Private concert by my guide Eka.

I also managed to locate the Georgian State Museum of Folk and Applied Art in the old town. Again I enter it takes fifteen minutes to make change for 20 lari. They did let me start looking at the museum as they were sent into a spiral of questions amongst themselves. (Am I the day’s only visitor again?) But soon I find myself drifting through Georgian carpets, traditional costumes, intricate parasols, and beautiful porcelain tea cups. And they were featuring a special exhibit of primitive paintings by random Georgians of Shota Rustaveli and Queen Tamar from the Golden Age of Georgia’s Medieval Period. Fascinating stuff. (Click on the photos to open up the images.)

National Silk Museum

Inside the Silk Museum

By far one of the most unusual experiences I had was at The State Silk Museum. First of all read that title again: The State Silk Museum. What could that be? Are they showing silk fabric? Well yes. But you see Georgia was a major stop on the Silk Road. And like Lyon, Tbilisi was a silk manufacturing town. And so not only was this a demonstration of fabric… It was also a display of silkworms! And all things sericulture. This is the kind of place Guillermo del Toro could only dream of. The lights were off in the cold museum and they turned one on and told me how to turn the rest of them on. Half of this museum was dedicated to silk cocoons, silk caterpillars in glass, and strange devices for silk harvesting, all in dark wood and aging glass cases from the museums opening over 125 years ago. And there was a whole room dedicated to mulberry shrubs, the silkworm diet. And did you know that silk quality depends on the mulberry quality? I didn’t. But my faithful guide Mariam did. She knew more obscure facts about silk than I could possibly ask. But somehow we ended up talking about music. It is Georgia after all. And not only is she conversant sericulture but she is a musicologist as well. And as our conversation veered from Jimi Hendrix, to Bach, to John Cage, to Bernard Herrmann she kept up eagerly with all of the twists and turns. I can’t even begin to tell you how many discussions about music I’ve had here. Worth all five lari I spent on the day!

Oh and speaking of obscurities, while visiting the musical troupe Erisioni (Be patient for that one!) I met a former BBC, NBC, etc cameraman, documentarian, an Australian of Ukrainian heritage named Vladimir Lozinski, who would later fill me on the turbulent politics of Georgia’s post-Soviet history. He had heard that there was a locked door in the building Erisioni rehearsed in. So he managed to get the room opened up while I was there. And we entered. This was genuinely a surprise. The vast chamber had been a movie theatre prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. Ornate designs were encrusted on the walls. But in the 90’s the Georgian Civil War, raging on the streets of Rustaveli Avenue below us, had destroyed it. The floor was dirt and debris. But the walls remained magnificent. We were allowed to take all the photos we wanted. And I could only hope that someday this along with many other structures would be restored… And not removed by the powers that be to build some hideous postmodern monstrosity.

Vladimir and Ramas

Vladimir Lozinski documenting the Abandoned Movie Theatre

And of course the most mysterious museums of all were the ones I most want to see. The puppet museums! A few days ago I sought for the illusive Tbilisi Puppet Museum, which supposedly was not too far from the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre. I didn’t find it. Today my friend Elene Murjikneli from Budrugana Gagra explained why. One day it was simply emptied out. Then the building was torn down. And now in its place stands sterile contemporary architecture housing a hotel. And what happened to the puppets? No one knows. The puppeteers didn’t know. Were they stolen? Hidden? Buried? Sold?

And finally there is the most mysterious museum of all which I discussed in my first visit to Tbilisi in 2016. The Animation Puppet Museum. Does anyone know that Georgia used to make puppet films in the Soviet Era? All I ever found was a corroding sign on the door. But!!! Now I have good news. The daughter of one of the animators has contacted me. And will open the doors of the museum soon… Just for me.

Speaking of the marginal and magical: Really I don’t need anyone else to come find me here. I’m fine. I’m happy with empty museums in this mysterious place.

Tbilisi Doorway

Who knows where the next doorway will lead?

But do come back soon to read my next adventure.

Byrne Power

Tbilisi, Georgia

16 / 2/ 2018

………………
PS. The way things are going I’m pretty sure I’ll be counting my tetri (Georgian cents) in March. The financial losses I took at the beginning of my journey are starting to become apparent. If you are appreciating this reportage from the other side of the world then you can be a part of it by using  my PayPal account to contribute. It’s safe and easy to do and anything would be helpful. Thanks! Byrne
Here's the link: DONATE TO GRAVITY FROM ABOVE.

A Theatrical Day on Rustaveli Avenue

Rustaveli Horse

An old prop from the Rustaveli Theatre

I stopped in to visit my friends at the hand shadow puppet troupe Budrugana Gagra, of whom I have written about in the past and will do so again before I leave Tbilisi. It was a day when various things had conspired to make life somewhat quiet for them. But I had been told by Elene Murjikneli that I could have a tour of the building that they were in and that was the prestigious Rustaveli National Theatre. So she took me over to the elevator from the basement in a newer connecting building and we began our tour. I had already had a glimpse of the theatre when I went to watch Budrugana Gagra perform in what was called the ‘small room’. The ‘small room’ was an ornate space holding over 280 people and was larger than the Chilkat Center for the Arts back in my hometown of Haines, Alaska. But compared to the main auditorium of the Rustaveli Theatre which held 800, it was, I suppose, small.

The Rustaveli Theatre was original built in 1887. With a couple of additions since then. Besides the main hall and the small stage there was also a black box stage as well as an experimental theatre. And the place is labyrinthine and elaborately decorated. Elene first took us up five flights and then we took another elevator to a floor below the roof. We walked through a window and suddenly were standing in a gutter outside overlooking the city. Not the place for folks with vertigo. It was lightly sprinkling and the metal at out feet was wet, yet it was an unforgettable view. Tbilisi spread out beyond us, including modern buildings, older rustic structures, Soviet era apartment blocks, and the current president’s house about a block away. She almost took me all the way to the highest part of the roof but the slipperiness of the sheet metal made that a dodgy proposition. We did climb into another strange rooftop room with a curious round hole in it before descending into more chambers.

We stepped onto the stage of the theatre which was set up for performances, and then I had a chance to see the main hall. Wandering around any theatre is always a treat, because the mind begins to wander dreaming up possibilities for events to be staged. We walked through another oversized hall that was grace with theatrical props and memorabilia. Before long we came to the front of the building, where the Rustaveli Avenue traffic could be seen through thick doors of wood and glass. We then descended…

Underneath the front entrance there had once been a cafe sponsored by the Artists’ Society that had founded the theatre. It had been a serious artistic and literary hangout in the early 20th Century up until the period of Georgian Independence ended in 1921 (See Georgian Lessons #7). Artist like Lado Gudiashvili and Davit Kakabadze had painted the walls. The Soviets in their passion to cleanse any trace of the bourgeoisie had painted over their frescoes. Yet traces of that older heritage could be discovered. Elene took be through a dark passage. She told me to look at the walls. Suddenly I saw the walls were covered by a painting from door to door from ceiling to floor. I took a few flash photos to capture the experience.

We then walked into a darkened area that was filled with passages and and heavy stone pillars. And Elene said that there were even more chambers below that were locked away from us. She said there was one theatre worker who knew all of the hidden secrets of the Rustaveli. And I was thoroughly captivated by the subterranean dark. But eventually it was time to thank Elene and to move on back out to Rustaveli Avenue.

As I was walking down the street I stopped at a sign in Georgian script. My comprehension of the Georgian alphabet now is now nearly complete. I read the word slowly to myself… ე რ ი ს ი ო ნ ი. Erisioni! I had found the home of the musical singing and dance troupe Erisioni. I had originally seen their DVD, Georgian Legend, which contained beautiful songs and astounding dances. I had been looking for them. And I knew they were somewhere in the area. I had walked by this old building dozens of times. There was no Latin script. But I had indeed found them. I walked inside of the dimly lit austere building. If the guys at the door were guards of some sort they didn’t seem to notice me. But then again I learned a while ago here always walk passed the various guards like you know what you are doing. Evidently school classes were on for singing and dancing. Students were coming in. I walked up the old cracking stairs in the darkened chamber and feeling a bit lost I eventually stopped a girl who looked friendly too ask her she spoke English. Not well, but well enough to tell me where the office was and that they weren’t there now. And so I would come back. (And I did but that’s an entirely different story but here’s a little preview.)

Click this and WATCH IT!

After a pleasant chat with Tamar over at Prospero’s Books, the English language bookstore, I eventually made my way over to see the Romeo and Juliet ballet by Prokofiev over at the Paliashvili Opera and Ballet State Theatre. This was now the third ballet I’d seen here after the Nutcracker in January and the Firebird in 2016. Ii was feeling like my ballet home, since the prices were both very affordable for me and of high quality. I was quite familiar with Sergei Prokofiev’s music and had long counted it as a favorite classical work. I had a perfect seat for viewing the show until a couple of women plowed through a row of folks in front of me at about the third dance. One woman of not inconsiderable size plumped down directly in front of me sitting high in her seat and sporting frizzy hair in what was practically an afro. And so I had to squirm around to see past her to the dancing, rather than sitting high in my own seat and blocking the view of the folks behind me. (But since this is Georgia, they would have suffered in silence.) Fortunately the chairs next to me never were filled and after the intermission I changed seats. And just in time for the dancing of the second half was quite stirring with the death of Tybalt and the weeping over his body hitting unexpected notes of emotion within. The finale of the ballet was also quite moving. And as the actors took their bows I noticed that Artistic Director and Prima Ballerina Nina Ananiashvili come out to present some of the bouquets.

I had quite an excellent conversation with Nina Ananiashvili back in 2016 and so I found her after the show and we made arrangements to meet again in the near future. And I left that evening walking up Rustaveli having had an excellent day of exploration, conversations, connections and ballet. I felt like I had finally reconnected with the Tbilisi I had left in 2016 and even surpassed that moment.

Romeo and Juliet Bow

Taking a Bow

Ballerina Takes Bow

Juliet, Nutsa Chekurashvili

Come again for more. And trust me there is much more. Including my first supra, my visit to the Communist past (read that over at The Anadromous Life) and too many other things to possibly catch up on. Thanks for following along with me.

Byrne Power

Tbilisi, Georgia

4/2/2018

PS. Thanks to those who have given through PayPal. If you wish to help out, it would be helpful to say the least, feel free to make a contribution through PayPal today. Thanks.

Click this link


How Far Can One Go?

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.

T.S. Eliot

Wolf & Puppets Streble

Beware the Wolf! And other puppets from Danial Streble’s Guignol Un Gone de Lyon

The season changes. The unknown beckons. It’s been a short time since I wrote to delineate the developments in our Gravity From Above documentary and the coming major journey. And there have been several good reasons for that.

First of all last I wrote it was mid-fundraiser. And I haven’t wanted to keep writing after going through the endlessly necessary and annoying task of pleading for donations. It was time to give you all a break. Now on the sidebar here I have written to thank everyone, as I have through Facebook, for helping us to achieve our modest goal for this trip. In a nutshell, we received enough money through Indiegogo to let you know that we took home about $3,700 after they took their cut. Besides that we received more money through a live fundraiser in Haines and another $1,100 through donations on my PayPal account through this site here. (Hint. Hint.) bringing us over $5,000 for this site. The PayPal contributions here are actually more beneficial since they only take 3% away versus Indiegogo’s 8.5%. So if you choose to add to our funds as we travel then please feel free to do so. I can say this with absolute conviction we are traveling on the cheap here and will be counting our pennies, cents, centimes and tetri.

LP Library Boxes 1

Boxing my Wall of Sound. My vinyl LP collection.

The second reason for the delay is that I have also been packing my entire life into boxes and taking them over to a nearby storage facility. And this will involve as many as five hundred boxes. Acquaintances will often commiserate and tell me how they know that moving takes a while. They mean well. I usually don’t disabuse them of the difference between what I mean when I say moving as opposed to what they mean. I will simply say this: When I moved up to Alaska 20 years ago my library weighed over 10,000 lbs (over 4500 kgs). That is most likely on a different order than what most people mean by the minor difficulties in moving. It takes two months simply packing everyday.

E-Ticket_BYRNE_POWER_1

One half of my cheap Icelandair ticket from Juneau to Paris.

Thirdly… Oh yeah, I’ve been planning for what is now a six month journey into Europe. And that requires plenty of planning all by itself. I’ve been writing back and forth to puppeteers and friends. I’ve been trying to stay with people as much as possible and trying to reduce my costs as much as possible. I’ve been wrangling with Polish airlines and hotel booking sites and the inevitable mistakes that arise in undertaking such an intense endeavor. And since I am effectively in a form of exile during this time I must fill up my entire schedule. Returning for a month for Christmas and New Year isn’t an option. So there have been plane and ferry tickets, several hotel rooms, an apartment in Georgia for three months, and train reservations to make all requiring serious expenditures and much forethought. There are calendars to fill, itineraries to write, schedules to consult, maps to study, researches to follow, guide books to read. How do I travel from the train to the hotel? From the hotel to the puppet theatre? A journey this vast takes serious thought and time to construct. Especially if I want to have a meaningful trip and not just a series of random encounters. (Sometime soon I’m going to write about my traveling philosophy and how I really do manage to have such meaningful experiences.)

Sicilian Marionette

The Antique World of Sicilian Marionettes beckons me to Palermo, Italy.

And now the good news… With the funds raised recently through my crowdfunding campaign I can now add Italy to my itinerary for the first time ever. (By the way without friends acquaintances and former supporters I would have made almost zilch from interested parties with whom I have had no previous contacts. Please prove me wrong! I have in the past been the recipient of a few very generous strangers’ largess. But not this time.) And I am very excited to finally get down to Italy. I will be going to Sicily to see the Sicilian marionettes in Palermo as well as a great puppet museum. And I will be going to Rome for the first time ever to see a puppet theatre with figures based on the commedia dell’arte. These two styles are some of the most foundational in European puppetry and I am privileged to finally witness them.

Palermo Catacombs

And then there’s This in Palermo. A time to reflect on my mortality and the meaning of human images in decay. But I’m sure I’m going to write much more about this in late November.

I will also get to spend more time in Brussels with the Toone and Peruchet marionette theatres. And this time I will be lodged with Toone. So I’m really looking forward to that. I will be able to visit Pascal Pruvost and Guignol again in Paris. And spend time with a new troupe in Lyon with my dear friend Paulette Caron. Plus I’ll be staying with her folks in the Paris area which will help save funds and allow me to dive more deeply into French culture. Plus there is the three week sojourn in Charleville at the International Puppetry Institute, which is what kicked this whole journey into gear in the first place. I’ll see the Quays again in December. Stay at L’Abri in Switzerland for a couple of weeks in November where I’ll give a couple lectures. And then there is the huge three month chunk of time in Georgia, which I know will produce cultural experiences that I can’t even begin to measure; puppetry, music and dance. And there will be much more. There will undoubtedly be more puppetry experiences, particularly in France. And there will be surprises. There will of course also be illnesses, stomach problems, sore feet, strange scenarios, missed connections, frustrations, misunderstandings and the usual headaches of real travel. These things come. You just bite the bullet and accept it.

Mariam Dance 10 Graphic

Mariam P. one of the dancers at Sukhishvili in Tbilisi, Georgia in 2016.

But I can’t wait. Except for around two hundred more boxes to pack, some furniture to sell, serious cleaning up to do, a work season to finish up and too many last minute tasks to mention, except for that I’m ready! 

I’ll be writing much more regularly now. So stick around and travel with me. And thanks to all those who have helped me with this journey… And those who will help in the months to come.

Byrne Power
Haines, Alaska
9/13/2017

 


A Different Approach To Fundraising

And so we come to another one of those moments where real life and reel life collide into a fine kettle of fish. So let’s get a few things out of the way. First of all one way or another I will be back in Europe come fall. I will be at the International Puppetry Institute in Charleville-Mézières for a three week residency, where I will be officially presenting my work on the documentary. And I am now trying to see how much of this project I can wrap up. But it’s not going to be easy and it’ll take all of the good will I can find.

Let’s get this announcement out of the way. I’m raising money again. This time I’m going through Indiegogo. And I’m trying a different method of approach. I think the all or nothing mode was too much stress for me. So I thought that I would see if I could try it, if not actually casually, then more so than in the past. Those who know me and have followed me for a while know that I’d pretty much sworn off crowdfunding for the foreseeable future.

ESNAM Tired Puppet

It would be easy to feel like this, but I know I’ve got your support. Right?

So what has changed? Or rather what has happened?

Well as I mentioned the real and reel have coincided. Back on the home home front the Quonset Hut where I have contently lived for twenty years is being sold. And I know I shouldn’t even seriously think of buying it, for a host of reasons that would be outside the purview of this website to explain. I was getting a very good deal and this abode served myself and our community here in Haines, Alaska, very well. But, given the size of my library and price of my rent, I seriously doubt I will find something to match my needs right away. So I have come to another conclusion. I’ve decided I should put my huge library of books, records and films into storage for a while and I go knock on doors to get this and other projects finished.

Hut 7 2017

The Quonset Hut: My home for the last 20 years.

I’m looking into spending a more time in Europe than I was originally planning. I need to find the resources that elude me way up here in Alaska. I’m not thinking of moving, but I am for a while open to new possibilities.

So the Indiegogo Gravity From Above campaign is live now. I’ve purposely kept the amount low at a $3,500 goal, not that I don’t actually need $25,000 to $50,000 to get the documentary finished. But once I crest that goal I should be able to stay on Indiegogo’s InDemand radar for quite a while longer to continue bringing in funds. And if I can get the lower goal met soon then I might get noticed by the folks looking for investments. We’ll see. I’ve decided to do this with a no worry approach, especially since I’m on the keep whatever I raise ‘Flexible’ program.

Matilda Lost

What you missed at my Fundraiser Birthday Feast!

I also just had a 60th Birthday Feast (2 years late), because two years ago it was impossible for me to even consider it. I had a huge 25lb. (11.33 kg.) pork leg that turned out quite tastily and 60 people joined in. Bringing food and playing games. It was also a farewell to the Quonset Hut and a fundraiser as well. $290 in cash came in, which did not go into Indiegogo, since I’m NOT doing the all-or-nothing version, thus saving me the ten percent fees. (It also makes it easier to accept cash from the good folks in Haines. But the point is this. By the many means necessary I will be going back to Europe and trying to get Gravity From Above finished if I can. Maybe begin more serious research on Georgian music and dance. Following whatever trail I need to to find the money to get this done or a Producer who will understand this project.

      This Gravity From Above trailer is the best demonstration of this documentary project.

So I’m asking for your help once again. Whether a few dollars or something more extravagant everything adds up. Check out my new maybe final (that’s up to you) Gravity From Above fundraiser. And especially check out the perks. (I’ll explain more about them soon, as well as give you a short history of the project up till now.)

Three Motions Stacks

Three Motions (Three Puppet Plays that I wrote) One of my perks! Go check it out.

Links abound on this page. Follow one and let’s get this done together! If I can get close to $10,000 I can probably finish up all of Europe footage.

Thanks for the subscriptions and the support. My life is obviously at turning point. Will you help turn the wheel with me?

Byrne Power
Haines, Alaska
7/24/2017

And just in case you didn’t see all of the links to my Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. Here’s the link…

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/gravity-from-above-documentary-european-puppetry/x/17029105#/

 


Puppets, Theatre and Farewells

Sister Puppets

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.

Nino Namitcheishvili
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.

Puppet Office

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.

Background Marjanishvili
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 Pile

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!)

Priest Puppet
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.

Marjanishvili 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.

ICTHYS Tbilisi

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.

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

6/27/2016

And when you have the time go back and read all of my Georgia adventures…


Leaping and Dancing in Georgia

Graceful Lead

Dancers at Sukhishvili, the Georgian National Ballet

I walked up to the Sukhishvili dance studios off of Agmashenebeli Avenue. I had no introduction on this one, didn’t know anyone, did not make email contact and was coming in blind. And so I sidled by a few working men milling around near a bus emblazoned with Sukhishvili dancers before I entered the building. There were security guards. I tried to communicate. No English spoken here. One of the working men I had passed saw that I was trying to communicate. His English wasn’t good, but he understood that I was trying to meet someone at the studio. He motioned me to wait. Eventually a man he knew walked by and he grabbed hold of him to talk with me. His name was Tomaz and he did speak English. I explained that I was here to begin research on a documentary film on Georgian music and dance. He was pleased and explained that he was a liaison for the troupe. And that he would talk to someone about the possibility of watching the rehearsals and talking to Nino Sukhishvili, the granddaughter of the founders Iliko Sukhishvili and Nino Ramishvili. He disappeared briefly, where upon the friendly idler resumed his concern for me and after realizing that I was from Alaska was suitably curious. (Except in Los Angeles, being from Alaska is always a great conversation starter.) Tomaz returned to tell me that “Sadly Nino won’t be here until 12:00.”

Dress Lamp

In the Sukhishvili room of memories.

I came back later but she still wasn’t there. Tomaz took me into a room that was filled with Sukhishvili memorabilia; posters, costumes, etc. We talked and I explained to him the nature of my documentary idea. And he went off to check to see if Nino was back yet. And I waited and waited and waited. And was finally regretfully told by Tomas to return the next Tuesday. And he gave me a book on Sukhishvili, which fortunately was split into Georgian and English, to study up on the company before meeting Nino next week. (Books on Georgian music and dance are notably scarce in English.)

Dancers & Musicians

Dancers at rest, Musicians continue to play.

Tuesday came and I arrived dutifully at the appointed time. Still no Nino. But that wasn’t a problem. I left to visit the mournful one room national museum of the last dwelling of the tragic 19th Century Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani. Upon my return I breezed past the security guards only to sit and wait on a rubbery couch. I’ve discovered that often the security guards in various art institutions only keep away people who have no idea where they are. If you simply walk through the gates like you work there they won’t even look at you. Tomaz eventually showed up again and apologetically said that she still wasn’t there yet. I had a certain idea about Georgian culture by this point, so I wasn’t at all surprised or put off. He then took me into a small office that was soon occupied by an affable older dancer named Zaza, who reminded me slightly of Igor Stravinsky.

Movement of the Hands

A Dancer practicing her hand gestures

But it was worth every moment. Sukhishvili is the dance troupe started back in the 1940s after the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union. I was familiar with their story and artistry as the main inspiration of Iliko Sukhishvili and his wife Nino Ramishvili to create a dance ensemble which took the essence Georgian folk dance traditions, while making a classical art out of it. Videos in my research had shown me men spinning and whirling; leaping high into the air and landing on their knees and toes. (!) The Sukhishvili women, meanwhile, spent much of the time on the balls of their feet, legs often hidden by gorgeous traditional dresses, creating the illusion of floating through time. They too could spin and swirl, dresses sweeping long in delayed ripples. As I sat there waiting for word I watched dancers walk by the windows of the room. I would see women the likes of which I’d never encountered before in my life, graceful with striking features and long dark hair. Men would swagger by on their way to practice. I heard the sounds of folk musicians off in another room. I desperately wanted to get to get in that room to watch the rehearsals. But I politely stayed in the trophy room and bided my time.

Working on Costumes

Working on the costumes

Eventually I was released from my waiting by the arrival of Nino Sukhishvili herself. I had missed half of the practice. Obviously the woman in charge she was nevertheless pleasant and while she didn’t have time for an interview that day she invited me to return on Thursday, my last day in Georgia, for an interview and to continue to watch more rehearsals. And then she took me with her upstairs to the actual dance studio to watch the dancers practice.

Athletic Dancers

The Men dancing like athletes.

It had indeed been well worth the wait. As I entered the room men, maybe thirty in number, danced intently to a live band of folk musicians in the corner, augmented with a few modern instruments. The scent of the room was strong with male and female sweat. I sat on a couch directly in front of the wall of mirrors the dancers used for observing their own movements. I pulled out my camera and immediately started filming and taking stills. I instantly realized that it was like wildlife photography, like trying to capture birds in flight. I had a lot to learn. And the light coming in from the wall of windows behind them was too strong. I wasn’t sure exactly where I could go yet. And then the group of men lurch amass towards me, coming close enough that I could reach out and touch them if I so chose. And these men did not look like the idea of a male dancer in ballet. And their dances were not graceful. The men stomped and jumped, pranced and capered, in a way that reminded me how many of these dances were connected war and contests of strength and finesse. And all the while I was pinching myself that I was even present in this room to watch them. And then it was the women’s turn.

In Georgian folk dancing there is a clear distinction between the way the women dance and the men. And I’m glad there is. The women don’t leap into orbit and land on their knees. They dance with delicate steps slight elevated on the balls of their feet, which I can guarantee you is not easy. They have perfected the art of floating, of weightlessness, especially in their traditional costumes. They also skip and spin and swirl in utterly winsome beauty. And as I sat there watching, torn between photography and being caught up by their movements I noted the character in their faces, often strong noses and chins, nothing anemic here, but a pride of carriage and heritage that could not be duplicated. Entrancing. And there I was trying, really failing to truly capture what I was seeing. But fortunately I was allowed to come back again to try one more time before my departure from this unique land.

Davit Flying

The Dancer Davit leaping up to meet me on the balcony.

Thursday came and I arrived on time, around noon, and was again assigned a spot to wait near the front entrance. Dancers walked by, a few seemed to recognize me. Again the practice started without me as I could hear music drifting through the corridors. But Nino eventually came and I was given an excellent interview. She pointed out several things that made sense of some of the things I had been seeing in Georgia. Sukhishvili had had an effect of collating and revivifying the dance traditions from the different regions of Georgia. She theorized that the nation’s folk dances of might have withered on the vine due to Soviet modernization, if Sukhishvili hadn’t codified the dances back in the 40s. She also gave me an interesting statistic, that fully one third of the students in Georgia took dance classes from Sukhishvili, Rustavi, Erisioni or other organizations.

Nino Sukhishvili

Nino Sukhishvili explaining Georgian dance to me.

And that helped me to understand the comprehension among the young ballet goers that I had seen earlier. Nino did emphasize that Sukhishvili style wasn’t exactly traditional. The dances had almost been turned into a separate classical form running parallel with the French/Russian traditions of ballet. And in fact Sukhishvili style had purposely blended elements of folk, classical ballet and even some modern elements. This was particularly true in their Ramishvili style, which had met a bit more resistance since it added even more modern elements all the while based on traditional styles. Dancer Tatia Ukleba seemed to be the embodiment of this newer movement with her close cropped hair and ethereal and elongated body lines. But what occurred to me as we spoke was that dance was certainly alive in Georgia in a way that it was in few corners of Europe or the technological world.

Silhouettes

Dancers in silhouette against the windows

Finally! I was allowed to get back to watch the dancers again. (Ah surfeit of opportunities!) This time I felt freer to find new angles to film from, including on a balcony straight above the dancers. And again I had missed a good portion of the rehearsal. But I started noticing individual dancers more; Mariam Pridonishvili, Tamar Khurtsilava, Mariami Matiashvili, Bachana Chanturia, Davit Chanishvili among them. But being in that room full of fifty or more dancers was like learning to see for the first time. I still didn’t really know what I was looking at. Dance master David Ughrekhelidze would often correct dancers for reasons I could only guess at. Soon it was time to leave. And I knew I would have to come back to get more photos and footage. But I felt completely honored to have been allowed to watch such a talented company of dancers.

Next time I get back to the puppets at the Marjanishvili Theatre. I hope you come back to follow the last stages of this journey.

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

5/18/16


Halfway Around the World for a Song

Note: Where are the puppets? See the note on Firebird Assoluta.
……………………………….
Mariam window

Mariam Elieshvili  April 10th, 2016

Later the second week of my sojourn in Tbilisi I met up again with singer Mariam Elieshvili. This time I was treated by Mariam and her mother Ia to a Georgian meal of khachapuri, a covered sour cheese pizza without the sauce, and khinkali, a dumpling filled with meat, cheese, mushrooms or other stuffings, along with a goodly portion of savory juice. I shared a bit about my Alaskan life, complete with photos from Haines featuring bears, moose, mountains and puppets. In turn we discussed Georgian music and how Mariam had at the tender age of 18 already become something of a national celebrity with her own national folk music show. (For a sample follow this link.) Mariam also told me that she had arranged a meeting for the following Sunday with the band Chveneburebi, a word that translates into ‘our people’.

Mari & Ia

Mariam and her mother Ia.

When Sunday, April 10th, came I spent the morning visiting the Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) Cathedral to hear music and to experience a Georgian Orthodox service. After a trek up a street passed more entropically weathered structures I found myself at the largest church in all of the Caucasus. I was familiar with many aspects of Orthodox Christianity but had never attended a church before. And when I did I experienced many new emotions. This is not the place to unfurl my thoughts in much detail but the music was indeed quite special as a quintet of girls punctuated the liturgy with a deeply beautiful polyphony. And as I watched the congregants come and go during the service I suddenly realized the reason why Georgia seemed to be organized on such different principles of social life compared to anything I had seen before. The difference between Eastern and Western Christianity was now tangible to me.

Sameba

Inside Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) Cathedral. The small cluster of women in the upper left corner are singing polyphonic Georgian Orthodox chants.

Later that day I met up with Mariam and Ia again at Marjanishvili Square. We took the metro to the old Griboedov Theatre building. It was on the border of a recent demolition site where a new edifice would soon be occupying the hollowed out lot. After clearing security we traveled to the top floor and a found ourselves in an old recording studio with the members of the male folk singing group Chveneburebi. Again here were men you wouldn’t have noted if you’d seen them on the street or on a construction site. They strummed on the panduri, a three stringed instrument with plastic or gut strings, and it’s slightly larger bass relative, the chonguri, as well accompanying themselves with frame drum and accordion. And they waited for me to let me hear their lively version of Georgian folk music.

Musical Enjoyment

Jege with Drum and Giorgi on Accordion

Again moving quickly, musicians are always ready before the camera is, I was introduced by Mariam to Giorgi Gobejishvili, Jege Sakhokia and the other members of the group. They practiced a few tunes as I figured out the best set up in the cramped studio space. When Chveneburebi perform they usually dress up in traditional costumes with a show that includes singing, instrumental music and even a bit of dancing. Finally everything seemed in order. Mariam and Ia sat back in the corner as I tried to adjust the sound. And then they began to sing.

This music was quite different from what I had experienced at Giorgi Ushikishvili’s National Folklore School. And I was fast coming to realize that styles in Georgian depend greatly on where the music originates from. There isn’t one Georgian style. There are many styles depending on which part of the country it originates from. Compared to the mysterious style I’d heard earlier Chveneburebi played a stronger earthier style. (No doubt they knew many of the other songs as well.) They asked me what I wanted to hear. And I regretted not being familiar enough with Georgian songs yet to name many. But I did manage to remember Rachuli! They sang with a strong collective voice that then diverged into repetitious patterns that were sped up by hand claps and a strong shouts. Obviously many of these songs had been work songs. Not only that they also knew the yodeling technique unique to Georgia as well. Sometimes they would put their hands on each others arms and move in circles. I could only imagine this music in its element back in the mountains.

And one thing I have come to realize over time is that Georgians not only have a strong sense of melody, a powerful propulsion of rhythm and a deeply moving harmonies, but perhaps above all they possess an unerring dynamic structure to most of the music they perform. They know when to add new elements to the song that they excel in above all. Chveneburebi was no exception. Neither was Mariam Elieshvili. When Mariam performed her classic song Chven Exla Erturts, she effortlessly modulates up a key halfway through the song. I think the idea of a simple verse chorus verse chorus pattern without dynamic escalation would never occur to the Georgians. When America had a folk revival in the 1950s and 60s most performers simply played the songs. Much American pop music merely follows the song with instrumental breaks. Nice arrangements, yes. But I have heard recordings of Georgian music that simply left me gasping for joy at the development of the tunes.

Eventually Mariam joined Chveneburebi for a quieter more introspective song and then I got her to sing three songs by herself: Lale, that starts as a haunting slow plaintiff song, Chven Exla Erturts, which she had composed around a poem with the help of her school mates and had already been adopted as a classic Georgian tune played by many others, and Shenma Survilma Damlia, another deep folk song. (The first two of which I did ask for specifically.) I had wanted to film her simply singing, without all of the jitteriness of the usual home video or cellphone video. Or without the backdrop of a Georgian television stage.

Mariam Elieshvili’s type of music is certainly folk music by American standards, but it is a newer form of folk music by Georgia’s much stricter standards. Whereas Georgian folk music is seen as having no author, simply being passed on. What Mariam does can include those older songs, which she certainly knows, but it can include more recently written songs and tunes in Georgian style. This music is often passed on through YouTube videos, especially since Georgia’s music industry has a great deal of difficulty in policing its recordings. I view it as a highly healthy musical development, as opposed to merely imitating American or Western European styles. The shared videos are themselves a form of folk sharing in the digital age.

And in a way hearing Mariam sing in person had been one of the goals of this whole journey. I had originally discovered her YouTube videos back in early 2012. In the first video I discovered she was sitting in an unpretentious room with her brother Sandro. She sang and he was playing a panduri while singing harmony. The song was called Ayvavebula. I had looked and thought okay here are a couple of kids singing, she was 13 or 14 then, her brother younger, but as soon as she opened her mouth I knew I was in a different musical universe. And that led me to make hundreds more discoveries in Georgian music. And so sitting here now listening to her sing in my presence, especially considering the success she has had since then, was a profoundly privileged moment. I thought how I had bridged the vast gulf between my virtual introduction to a singer and a land almost exactly halfway around the world to the reality of hearing such a pure voice sing in my own presence in a small studio in Tbilisi Georgia. I could rest easy after that.

Mariam Big Laugh

Mariam after a song.

And not only that I had made a new friend in Mariam, or should I say several friends. I bid the men of Chveneburebi adieu. And I said very fond farewells to Mariam and Ia. I knew I would meet them again someday.

(And I’m waiting for Mariam to finally finish recording her album so that I can invite her to America!)

Next we enter the world of Georgian folk dance when we visit Sukhishvili.

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

5/22/2016


What is Georgian Folk Music?

Note: Where are the puppets? See the note on Firebird Assoluta.
Giorgi & Crew

Giorgi Ushikishvili (3rd from left) and a men’s choir practicing.

Another appointment Tinatin Gurchiani had made for me was to stop by the National Folklore School to visit with Giorgi Ushikishvili. What I didn’t know at the time was that Giorgi had had a nationally televised program on folk music back in the Saakashvili administration. (I also discovered along the way that many projects seemed to come and go with governments.) And Giorgi really was the national guardian of the deep well of Georgian folk music.National Folklore School

Not too far from the Tamar Guesthouse I strolled along the busy streets near Marjanishvili Square until I arrived at an older building along Jansughi Kakhidze Street. I was told to enter where I heard the sound of singing. And indeed as I approached I could hear a group of young boys forcefully chanting out a Georgian song. I opened the doors to enter a fairly undistinguished room, and unremarkable school rooms, with several girls waiting in one place and a closed door with the boys behind it. I stood by the door happily imbibing the glorious sounds while keeping my eyes open for someone who might be Giorgi or introduce me to him. After about ten minutes a women approached me and suggested that I wait in an office. She didn’t speak English really, but I found myself sitting. I kept mangling the name Giorgi Ushikishvili as I pointed to a clock. Eventually someone walked through the door, it was Giorgi’s sister Nino. She did speak English and told me that Giorgi had been held up at a previous engagement in another city. She suggested that I come back on Friday evening when the men would be rehearsing, implying that the boys singing were nothing special. I thanked her and explained that listening to the boys practice would really be interesting to for me. She told me to wait as she stepped out of the room for a moment. I stared at Georgian Orthodox ikons on the walls. Nino stepped back in and said I had permission to watch the boys rehearse.

Choirboys

A boys choir practicing

And so I finally stepped behind that beckoning door filled with voices and nodded at the boys. They stopped somewhat self-consciously for moment until the choir master snapped them back into focus. I movedt to the back of the cramped space and sat. Then they began to sing. And when they did it the last thing on my mind was the dullness of so many youth group choirs. One boy belted out a refrain the boys echoed back with a chorus, call and response. The toe-headed boy sang out again and again. The other boys answered back and back again. Soon they were clapping in double time and the pace picked up and the song began to change. And the melody was strong, but the harmony was unpredictable to me. And it seemed to reach into some deep place of courage and joy. I eventually got out a camera to try to take a few still shots as the songs flew out of their mouths. When asked who wanted the lead on the next song several boys would shoot up their hands up. It was an honor for them. Eventually a couple of older teenage boys dropped in and immediately added bass notes to the boys ensemble. At one point they formed a ring, put their arms on each other shoulders, and began a series of steps with a song. I can’t even begin to describe this.

Volunterring to Sing

Volunteering to sing the lead part.

I left that evening to dutifully return on Friday evening.

On Friday, as I was walking down the street, I saw a woman begging who had been there several times before. I decided to drop a couple of coins in her can. Behind me I heard a young voice. “That was very kind of you.” I turned to see a boy about 12 years old walking next to me. I said “You speak English well.” He thanked me and offered me a small grape-sized fresh fruit that was very sour. I accepted and he said “I know you.” he said, “You were at my class.” He was one of the young singers. And so we walked down the street talking together until we arrived at the door to the school again.

Waiting to Sing

Waiting for the next boys’ choir rehearsal

This time I met the stocky Ushikishvili: an earnest man, very serious about folk music. Nino came in again to translate. Georgian folk music by his reckoning was that music that had been passed down without an author. I remembered that there were discussions about this sort of thing back in the early Sixties in America, most of which faded from public consciousness after Bob Dylan plugged in his electric guitar. But Georgia had a good reason to be strict in its definition of folk music, it still had a living folk culture. In fact that was one of the things that so attracted me to the music here. Unlike the USA or Canada, Western, Central and even most of Eastern Europe, where folk music is like some relic kept in a back closet or brought out for the tourists and on special occasions, in Georgia the natural music of the Georgians was still alive. I pointed out the music of Mariam Elieshvili, or the many YouTube videos that seemed to give evidence of the continued folk traditions Giorgi firmly said “No. That’s not folk music.” It was as far as he was concerned pretty much pop music. But I countered it is still firmly based in Georgian folk traditions. I mentioned that my own thought about what was folk had more to do with regions. He listened, but I certainly didn’t convince him. He looked visibly pained when I mentioned the effect of technology upon music. And yet when I asked him if folk music in Georgia was still healthy he quickly said yes.

Giorgi Ushikishvili

Giorgi Ushikishvili

His school was proof of that. He took me into a humble classroom filled with chairs. Standing there were men of such character that if you walked by them in the street you’d merely think of them as fairly typical Georgians. They seemed to range from about 60 down to their early 20s. He introduced me. They were glad to meet me. I set up my equipment and tried to work as quickly as I could to get ready. They arranged themselves in a semicircle. Giorgi took the lead vocal. There was a moment of silence. And then they began to sing.

The sound that washed over me connected me back to something ancient, the real depths of time, not some Renaissance Fair reconstruction. This was a living memory of the past embodied in contemporary souls. Giorgi told me later that some of the songs could easily be 2000 years old, given the subject matter. I’d never stood in the presence of such songs being sung. I was utterly haunted. No wonder Giorgi held such intensely strong convictions.

And to make his point he gave me a serious stack of CDs of various vocal groups and a book of Georgian Orthodox church music to aid in my beginning to understand this music. Even now as I write I can only say that as I begin to listen and explore this musical world I feel I am walking across a gem field.

Next time we meet the folk ensemble Chveneburebi.

And more puppets will be coming up…

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

5/8/2016


Firebird Assoluta

(Note: The next few essays on Gravity From Above will deal with the music and dance of Georgia. This does not represent a widening of the documentary, but our interest in those things that still connect us to reality as puppets do. The music and dance of Georgia does this in ways our own more alienated music no longer can. I am working on an idea for a new documentary. Those reading GFA primarily for puppets  I beg your indulgence and encourage you to follow us to the end of our journey.)
Firebird 3

Nino Samadashvili as the Firebird at the Paliashvili Opera and Ballet State Theatre in Tbilisi

Tinatin Gurchiani drove me over to the security entrance at the back of the Tbilisi Paliashvilil Opera and Ballet State Theatre. She parked her car as most Georgians do, half on the sidewalk half off ,and left me the car to see if she could arrange a meeting with Nina Ananiashvili, the artistic director of the Georgia State Ballet company and one of the most celebrated dancers in the world. Tinatin did not know her, and did not seem to have any specific connections at the ballet, yet this was Georgia where the improbable might indeed occur. After about five minutes she returned. “There will be a press conference for the Firebird tomorrow afternoon at 2:30. Enter at the front.” Tinatin handed me a piece of paper with a name and phone number on it. “Ask for Tamar and she will let you into the press conference. You might be able to talk to Nina Ananiashvili then. After that you can watch the dress rehearsal and take photos.” I was impressed. Suddenly I was being allowed to get into a ballet rehearsal and perhaps get to meet a Prima Ballerina Assoluta. I would indeed be there.

Ballerina Statue

Bronze Ballerina Statue in front of the Opera House

The next day I showed up a bit before 2:30 and found myself being escorted to the press conference by a blond haired woman who not Tamar. It was somewhat as you would imagine. Various Georgian media outlets were there to get the story about the recreation of Mikhail Fokine’s original version of the Firebird. Andris Liepa had directed it and Nina Ananiashvili had a big hand in the proceedings. They were there along with the conductor David Kintsurashvili and the two main principle dancers, Nino Samadashvili and Philip Fedulov. They soon came out. Nina was slightly taller than I imagined and had far longer legs. But of course that only makes sense. She is a ballerina to say the least of it. Smiles and Georgian words flowed and a touch of Russian. They were explaining that it was indeed an attempt at historical illumination. Cameras and video rolled. I took just a couple of photos, feeling like a fish out of its element. I was fascinated just to be a part of these doings. Soon the conference broke up. Nina and Andris were available for televised inserts. And the next thing I knew, after finding the Tamar I was meant to find, I was being introduced to Nina herself. I explained very casually that I was in Tbilisi working on a puppet documentary, but that my next project was on the music and dance of Georgia. She offered a five minute interview in a quieter room right then. But I held out for a longer possible interview on another day, besides I really wanted to see the dress rehearsal. She agreed and told me to arrange it with Tamar before Tuesday, when the troupe would be traveling to Italy and Spain with the Firebird.

Nina Press Conference
Left to Right: Philip Fedulov, Andris Liepa, David Kintsurashvili, Nina Ananiashvili

I then looked for the entrance to the recently renovated interior of the theatre. The stage sets glowed like the interior of a glacier as I stepped through a curtain down into the largely empty hall dazed as I was. I had seen dancers before when I lived in New York City but this was my first official moment at the ballet. I was dazzled by the site. Dancers were stretching, doing pirouettes, leaping across the stage as the orchestra tuned in the cacophony that leads to the beauty of a performance. I found a spot to sit fairly close to the front and immediately fumbled with my camera equipment to pass myself off as a qualified observer. Stravinsky’s primeval strains slowly swelled out from the orchestra pit. And I was still trying, often failing, to figure out the proper settings for the camera. I have often said that I can shoot interviews, but performance? That is a skill I haven’t yet mastered. And so this was a complete challenge for me. Nevertheless I did manage to find a few images that might give someone a small idea of what I had seen. The red Firebird figure danced in bright spotlight, while the background shimmered in deep blues and violets. I purposely didn’t try to follow the dramaturgy. Before I knew that I would be here on this day I had already bought tickets for the Sunday afternoon performance.

Balconies

Inside the recently restored Paliashvili Opera and Ballet Theatre.

Sunday came and I entered the ornate hall surprised to find that not only was I attending the ballet that day but that with an olive green tie on my black button up shirt that I was actually overdressed. I looked around for one more man in a tie and did not find him. What I did notice, however is that the sold out opera house had an audience that was somewhere between one third to two fifths filled with children under 15, a large percentage of them young girls. Now this was a scene I couldn’t really imagine being replicated too often in America. Especially given American ballet prices! And what really surprised me, and which I understood more completely later when I was informed that that fully one third of all Georgian students had serious folk dance classes (we aren’t talking square dances here), was that the children really watched the ballet with some comprehension. They quieted down as the ballet started, though still occasionally whispering to each other when the ballerinas made a particularly beautiful movement. There were two teenage girls sitting next to me, who were wise enough not to applaud after every movement and were held silently, raptly, by the dancing. I could tell they were watching, not only as spectators, but as possible participants as well. And not only those girls! At the end of the ballet the audience erupted in applause and when favorite dancers came out to take their bows the young children cheered their favorites. And it was quite a sound. It was indeed the sound of children who knew what dancing was supposed to look like, who knew the difference between a good step and a great one.

Dancing Before Demons

Imprisoned maidens dancing before the demons in The Firebird.

The program itself featured three Fokine choreographed recreations, which added to my own idea of early 20th Century dance history. Besides The Firebird they also performed Chopiniana and Le Spectre De La Rose. But of course it was The Firebird that everyone came to see. And now I could relax and take in the story and dancing. And I was indeed fully captivated: The staging, the sets, the dancing and music fit together consummately. The fearful demonic creature Kashchei darkly realized. The white maidens shimmered. The nobles at the end conjured up a Caucasian fairytale. And the red Firebird flew hypnotically. And all to the majestic score by Stravinsky.

Koshchoi Firebird

The demonic creature Kashchei. Has anyone made the Firebird into a puppet show?

As wondrous as the experience was it made me doubt slightly that I would ever get to talk to Nina Ananiashvili the next day. But on Monday morning I dutifully called Tamar who told me I could visit the theatre to see Nina at 5PM. I did not know how it would all play out, but I was dutifully at the gates of the theatre at the appointed time. I approached the guards. They knew nothing, nor spoke a word of English. I puzzled my next move. I need not have fretted though. At a couple of minutes after five a girl came out and escorted me passed security and up several flights in an elevator and within a few minutes I was greeted by a busy, but welcoming Nina Ananiashvili. Obviously with the troupe leaving the next day things had been hectic. I asked if I could film the interview. She sighed and said she wasn’t ready to filmed, but she had no problem with an audio interview. And so I sat back in her office in the dying daylight and discussed ballet, traditional dance and music, the Georgian custom of the supra, the effect of technology and modernity and its wastefulness upon Georgia and it’s culture. It turned into another defining moment of the trip. She was particularly glad that I pointed out the children at the ballet, since she had worked hard to expose the local kids to real ballet, not some simplified children’s ballet, but the real thing. She was also acutely sensitive to the need to preserve the depth of Georgian music and dance.

Firebird Men & Women

As Stravinsky’s music gloriously ascends the maidens are freed at the end of the Firebird.

I had come to Georgia to ponder the meaning of music and dance in our human ecological needs, and not the recordings of these things, but the continuing of deep traditions. Through Nina I realized where the traditions of music and dance really flourished. And that was in the supras. The supra is an extended meal that features much food, toasting, poetic utterances, music and even dance. It is in this humble institution that heart of Georgian folk tradition lay. She told me that the supra is the place of Georgia spiritual and psychological therapy, the place of laughter and tears and mostly of friendship. And by ‘friendship’ I was beginning to understand that Georgians meant something much richer than we Americans, even the best of friends, meant by the word. Had I been to supra yet? Nina asked. No I hadn’t. She then asked how long I was staying in Tbilisi. Till April 15th, I replied. We won’t be back yet, she said shaking here head. Next time you come! She offered. What could I say? I will have to come back! Oh understatement.

Ballet Rehearses Bowing

Even bows must be rehearsed

Next time we visit the National Folklore School.

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

5/2/2016