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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Light and dark. Illumination and shadow. These are the most primal elements of visual experience. Everything we see reflects this. Even colors are essentially shadow shows with degrees on a spectrum of light and how they are reflected back to us by different materials. But black and white is the key. And black and white are the primary images in shadow puppetry. And the most basic of all entertaining shadows is silhouette of the hand. Hands and figures are the elemental tools. The shadows cast upon a wall by a light source creating rabbits or birds or perhaps just the shape and personality of the human hand itself. Thus making the hand the original puppet. And from that simplicity comes the complex artistry of Budrugana Gagra in Tbilisi, Georgia.
‘Budrugana’ is a Georgian word that means a carriage, particularly the kind of carriage that might open up in a small village in the Caucasus Mountains and produce a puppet show. ‘Gagra’ is the name of a town now cordoned off from Georgia in the breakaway region of Abkhazia. There was strife in the 1990s in Abkhazia. There was bloodshed. There were refugees. Hundreds of thousands. Most of them were Mingrelian Georgians (or Megrels, მეგრელები Megrelebi). And they were housed in strange places, like the huge old Soviet Intourist Hotel, now the considerably more swanky Radisson Blu not far from Rustaveli Square.
Budrugana had existed as a hand shadow puppet theatre in a previous incarnation without the word Gagra attached to it. Gela Kandelaki (whose name actually means candle holder in church) a film director, producer, and actor once, wrote and directed უბედურება (Ubedureba) a very realistic film based on a play by David Kldiashvili. Directing work was not steady under the Soviet system. (Tarkovsky only directed 7 films in his fights with the authorities.) And so in the early ’80s Kandelaki came upon the idea of bringing the old art of hand shadows, which was still performed in small villages up in the mountains by parents for their children, into a new form. He created a unique shadow puppet troupe. Kandelaki began working as a director with hand shadows in the 1980s, which was a time of cultural ferment in the loosening grip of the faltering Soviet system. Interestingly enough they practiced in the basement of the Karlo Sulakauri’s house/museum. (See the previous essay.) Budrugana officially came into being in 1991 at the International Festival of Manipulations in Paris. In 1992 they were designated a ‘state theatre’. In 1993 they flew all the way to the International Puppetry Festival in San Francisco.
Meanwhile the situation in Georgia became more unstable as the 1990s continued. Civil War, separatist movements, financial collapse, political uncertainty, electrical failures, along with the growing internal refugee crisis, created a difficult moment for the arts. But as the dust began to settle in the roller coaster of the Georgian ’00s it seemed appropriate to Gela to start the hand shadow theatre again. There were many available Megrelebi with creative talents who needed something to do. Several of the shadow puppeteers are Megrelebi. And so the name Gagra was added to Budrugana as a tribute to the formerly beautiful resort town that was ethnically cleansed of its many Georgian residents.
So Budrugana Gagra under Gela Kandelaki’s directorship has been making hand shadow art for many years in one way or another. When I first noticed their work in 2016 I was impressed by the dedication that the hand shadow puppeteers have to their work. The motions are balletic, which Gela attributes less to any direct influence of dance than to the essence of certain aspects of Georgia folk culture. The movements of the hands are incredibly precise. And they have to be in order to communicate the shapes of animals or the much more subtle waves of the ocean. Kandelaki, who does not perform the actual hand shapes himself, works out the forms with the owners of the hands. And different hands have different suggestions of presence and movement. And these shapes often correspond to the character of the puppeteers. Zuri, with big hands will often play larger or move immovable objects. Shorena and Mariam have the most pliant and supple arms and are used more for the grace and delicacy of there movements. Elene plays the duck in one story and she is more humorous.
And there are essentially two styles that Budrugana Gagra works with. One is a more accessible comic style with hands making ravens, spiders, giraffes, elephants, ducks and above all bears. And the other is much more abstract and ethereal and often is set to the music of Bach. Most recently they have been working on a multi-part series of abstract vignettes to Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion. It will in the end have more than 15 sections and be performed to a recording, complete with orchestra and voices. Yet the way the work is unfolding it is by no means a literal transforming of the Gospel material into directly symbolic forms. There are no hand shadows making crosses for instance. And yet…
One thing has occurred to me as I have watched several performances. Even in the animal based images there is something going on beyond the obvious. In the piece ‘Isn’t This A Lovely Day?’ a hand shadow bear lip-syncs the words of Louis Armstrong from a live performance. (Sadly Louis Armstrong is probably better remembered in Georgia than in America. A live puppet film from back in the Soviet Era, called the Dreams of the Kojori Forest, also features a puppet of dear Louis.) Other animals play musical instruments. Another hand bear becomes the great Jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. The Louis bear falls in love with the Ella bear and then loses her. In the end he dies. And the sad processional music of a New Orleans jazz funeral creates a moment of sorrow and tension. An angel takes him to heaven. But the joyful jazz marching music of the return journey from the cemetery brings him back in a resurrected form. It is not a simple nor ironic comedy. The Louis Armstrong bear is not a silly cartoon character of the great jazz musician. The disappearance of the Ella bear is a moment of genuine loss. (Louis and Ella never had any sort of romantic relationship in real life.) The death is truly sad. The resurrection genuinely joyful.
I asked Gela about the spiritual content of his work. The Saint Matthew’s Passion, though abstract, is loaded with suggestions of pilgrimage, prayer, deep beauty amidst struggle. He confessed in my interview with him that though he also said he was not always the most Christian man, something does come indeed through… I think he was being modest. His work has a depth that is quite hard to ignore. And the more I have spent time watching his unique shadow theatre the more I am inspired to push the boundaries of what can be said and felt through this medium. Especially in the realm of shadows and light.
Budrugana Gagra has in many ways been like a creative home for me here. I feel that I can drop in at any time. And even if the puppeteers present don’t speak English very well I always feel welcomed and accepted. Gela, who is in his late 70s, looks at me as ‘young’ visitor. At one point he told me told call him Bidza Gela, Uncle Gela. An honor indeed. Gela actually stopped me at one point when I mentioned that it my home away from home. He said “No! It’s just your home.” I had told him of what had happened in Alaska. (Click this to read that.) I replied “Then it’s my Georgian home.” He laughed and agreed with that. I will continue to visit my friends at Budrugana Gagra. They play about once a month in the ‘small room’ at the Rustaveli Theatre. If you ever come to Tbilisi, and I highly recommend that you do, then you must seek them out. (Links below.) And then you will understand the beauty and meaning of shadows and light.
20 / 3 2018
And here is Budrugana Gagra’s website. Go visit them!
And you can read about my first visit with Budrugana Gagra here.
PS. If you wish to contribute to Gravity From Above and our current journey then please feel free to give through PayPal. It is easy and safe. Several supporters have done so already. And their gifts have been truly timely beneficial. This kind of exploration is in no way a luxurious adventure. So yes do feel free to give.
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.
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.
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.
Okay. Let’s start writing about Georgia again. Sakartvelo. საქართველო. I arrived here a couple of weeks back on the 22nd of December just a couple of days before Western Christmas. And I checked into the same guesthouse I’d stayed in during my 2016 stay. Mostly for continuity, to say hello to Tamuna and Shako and young Mariam again. I would within five days change to my long term apartment. But for now it felt good to have the same map coordinates and to have some familiar faces to start my sojourn of more than three months.
After arriving in Tbilisi at 6:30 in the morning I slept in till noon, and being this was Georgia I did not feel like I had slept in too late, eventually I went out to find the lari (Georgian money) I needed. Connect to the Georgia phone system and buy a metro card.
The next evening I found myself wandering past the Kachueti Church on Rustaveli Avenue. I heard sounds coming from a loudspeaker outside the church, so stepped down into it. An evening service in progress was full of people standing before the altar. (The Georgian Orthodox stand, believing that sitting before God, unless one has a physical condition, pain, age, etc. is a bit disrespectful. Sitting denotes rest. One stands before God.) They were dressed mostly in street clothes. The words of the scripture were being read in a definite musical key. The language was, of course, Georgian, and at specific moments with reference to Christ or the Trinity many Georgians would cross themselves. At one point there was a gesture of touching the ground, which puzzled and touched me simultaneously. Candles of the congregants, very thin tapers, were also being lit during the service. I was standing behind a large column. After the reading stopped I heard voices arising from a group of seven or eight men, who were dressed in gray robes standing before the opposite column from the one I was near. They sang an excruciatingly beautiful hymn in multipart harmony. As I absorbed it I was struck by the need for such beauty in my own country where it seemed that so much of our society had been rendered empty by our pop cults and cuteness fetishes. And just as they stopped singing and my heart was ready to enter a moment of rest, suddenly from directly in front of me on the other side of the column I was standing behind, another male choir began to answer them with an antiphonal song in an alternative key. And this just gripped me. I could scarcely take it in. Nothing in my life had ever sounded so evocative of the mystery of God’s world. And then the other group sang again! And then were answered again! In contrasting swirling harmonies. And finally the voices all came together before returning to their antiphonal chanting one last time. And all of the Georgians around me took this as normal.
As I continued my wandering down Rustaveli Avenue towards Liberty Square (or is it Freedom Square?) I came upon something I had not noticed before. In the place of the empty lot that had been there back in April 2016 the Galleria Tbilisi had just recently opened. And I stared at it with an open mouth at the gaudiness of the new mall. I walked into it to experience the strange deja vu these glossy beasts always elucidate and the vertiginous sinking feeling I had as I rode the escalators up six floors to the food court and then finally the movie theatres on the top floor. The place was illuminated pretty much in the standard Christmasy manner. And Santa Claus had children on his lap beneath the Levi’s and Calvin Klein stores. I suppose it had to happen. I walked outside where a Georgian boy was playing a drum and singing for a few lari. It was the perfect metonym of the country being caught between two worlds and two Christmases. The multitudes near him entered the mall as multitudes do all over the world, like Mister Toad from the Wind and the Willows, eyes bulging, caught by the shiny newness of the thing. I couldn’t blame them. They just want what they think everybody else has. They just don’t understand the trade they will make to get it. And that in the end you don’t get very much.
Western Christmas came, which didn’t feel particularly like Christmas to me, since Shoba, Georgian Orthodox Christmas, doesn’t come until January 7th. But on December 25th I did meet up with Sophie Zhvania a friend and translator from my last Georgian visit. And we had an excellent conversation at Fabrika, which proved to be hipster central for Tbilisi, and she helped me gain a bit more needed realism about her country. She was glad to be leaving for Berlin for the New Year. But she will be back soon, and we have film work to discuss.
Eventually I said nakhvamdis to Tamuna’s family and met up with Mariam and Kote, also friends from last year. I would be staying in their Airbnb apartment in the Saburtalo district for my next three months. They carefully explained to me the way the apartment worked. Mariam had artistically decorated the large room. We would be seeing each other again soon. And now I felt I could begin to settle into Tbilisi.
I began to look around my neighborhood to see what was available. I soon discovered many things including dried persimmons, tarragon soda, cheeses made with wine and honey, the delicious smoked scrumbia fish and much more. I often found myself saying “I have no category for this.” Tarragon soda was like that. Sometimes I see faces on the metro that are like that. And I have talked to people who are like that. (But we’ll save these encounters for another time.)
New Year’s Eve was upon us. Unfortunately I had picked up an annoying but noticeable sniffle. And since this was my third such attack since I first landed in Europe I decided to play it safe and stay home for New Year’s Eve. A thoughtful mood descended upon me as I reflected back on the year. But I decided I would fulfill my usual tradition of eating and drinking something new after the stroke of midnight. This wasn’t hard to do. I had the purple wine infused cheese and a three dollar (in US dollars) bottle of Georgian ‘champagne’. Quite sweet. I imagined that what would happen was when midnight came was that somewhere off in the distance I would see fireworks. With some sort of echo on the street. I had been seeing firework sales everywhere. Well for one thing you couldn’t tell when it was midnight whatsoever. An increasing roar had been developing throughout the evening. With one hour to go I looked outside to seeing the city erupting in fireworks everywhere you looked. I was completely thunderstruck by this. And as the clock approached the New Year I just heard it getting louder, I even thought I heard rounds of ammunition being fired. And so I recorded my envelopment for posterity. The next morning was the quietest I’d ever seen Tbilisi. Busy Vazha Pshavela Avenue beneath my sixth floor apartment was dormant until well past noon, only interrupted by the occasional firecracker explosion.
On the 4th of January I went to the Nutcracker at the Paliashvili Opera House on Rustaveli Avenue. It was the first time I had ever seen it performed as a ballet live. I was thoroughly enthralled. The afternoon audience was at least one third children. And it was clear that the Christmas season was still continuing strong here as I walked up the brilliantly lit Rustaveli on my way back home.
Finally came Shoba, and I found myself unprepared for the way that Christmas is celebrated here. Christmas Eve was not the still time it is even in New York City (the only quiet moment in that city). Not much seemed to be closed on Christmas Day in Tbilisi. And yet there was indeed a huge event taking place. In a feat of civil planning all of busy Rustaveli Avenue was shut down for the Alilo Procession. (Alilo means hallelujah.) Near Rustaveli Square hundreds of people prepared for this religious parade. Orthodox priests mingled with children in white robes. Real buffaloes and donkeys pulled carts. And puppet camels and elephants, even a giraffe (?) pulled up the rear. (Finally puppets!) Some people wore traditional Georgia costumes. Some held Georgia flags. The procession began around 14:00 (2pm).
Unlike any parade I’ve ever seen, you could walk completely around this procession as it went, which I suppose is quite Georgian. At first it didn’t seem like such a big deal to me. But eventually it was clear by the time we hit the halfway point to Liberty Square that thousands upon thousands of people were on the street. And this was very much an Orthodox event. Priests controlled the movement of the crowds. Thankfully the whole thing did not end with or even include a Santa Claus figure.
And so the introductory slice of my Georgian journey had come to an end. Now I’ve emphasized the new and unusual things as I saw them. And you might be tempted to see Georgia as some magical dreamscape through my description. But fear not. I am not in anyway blinded to the realities of Georgia in the 21st Century. The Tbilisi Galleria was one thing. It was like the mothership had landed bringing with it the big thing. Even the Alilo Procession was somewhat diminished by cars with loudspeakers above them playing almost Disneyfied versions of an Alilo song. (But also traditional Georgia songs.) And I had read descriptions of this parade including singing from the streets. The amplification stopped anything like that from occurring. And this is Georgia. And of course there is the poverty, the lack of anything like recycling, the endless smoking, and one could go on. And my own state of mind was not one unbroken stream of wonder and discovery. Although often something would come along just when I needed it. Whether finding problems with my bank back home, concerns about how far my dollars would stretch , unresolved issues in my life, and illness, why it was in many ways just like being home.
But truthfully I’m in the best place I could be right now. Led here by more than circumstance. And I already have made contacts amongst the puppeteers. And I have had excellent conversations and met new people. I look forward to my submergence in this surprising culture. I have had other experiences that will eventually probably work their way to the surface. But since I will be here until the end of March my reporting back will be different than at the other stops on this Gravity From Above journey. I will allow some stories to develop over time. So you might not hear from me quite as regularly, then without warning there will be an avalanche of ideas and observations. So this is a good time to catch up on my older essays. More will come. And feel free to write your thoughts as well.
(Update from January 14th: Evidently I wrote this too soon. Last night there was a second Julian New Year’s Eve blow out. Not nearly as crazy as the first. But far more fireworks than most of us see all year! Happy second New Year!)
And just a reminder. There really are needs I don’t want to elaborate on. But any contributions to this journey at this point would be deeply appreciated. Someone recently gave $25. That’s more than two days of living for me. So use that PayPal link right here and below. It’s simple and efficient and I get more of your gifts than through any crowdfunder. Thanks for all of the support in so many ways thus far! I hope I’m doing you well.
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.”
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.