A Journey Into European Puppetry

Nino Sukhishvili

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


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.


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