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