And so my six month long journey is over… or at least at a stopping point until October. And I feel the need to summarize something about it. To look for a pattern in the ineffable. Without a doubt this journey was quite different in many regards to many trips I have taken over the years. It can’t be an accident that journeying to Europe has, over the years, often been the catalyst for great change in my life. I have been to Europe on nine different occasions. And three of those times have brought monumental alterations in my life’s direction. Europe certainly hasn’t been the only proving ground for me. And every visit hasn’t had the same kind of effect upon me. But this was indeed one of those demarcation points for me, beyond which I am forced into the next square on the chessboard. And that is quite clear.
For one thing this moment comes at a time when my life seemed at a crossroads. In 2015 my mother had passed on after having lived ten years in Alaska. This brought me to a point of questioning many things and of reaching out artistically into new zones, whether successfully or not remains to seen. Something seemed to be coming to an end by June of 2017. I felt I was looking out at the universe through a microscope instead of a telescope. And yet I couldn’t see that I was in the wrong or a terrible place. But I saw that I had to simply continue to walk on down the trail laid before me however uncertain. By early July I had been informed that my life in the Quonset Hut where I lived for over 20 years was over. The previous December I had been accepted for a three week residency at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières, France. And the only thing I knew for certain was that I had to get there. For a few minutes I thought about doing the practical and safe thing, to start looking for another place to rent and setting up a new situation for myself in Haines. But I realized two things instantly. One was that doing so would by necessity mean radical changes in my life in order to make the money to do that. And two, if I wanted to get anywhere playing it safe was definitely out of the question. And so I gambled on getting myself to France, closing my life in Haines down as soon as possible and putting everything into storage.
By October I had passed through one of the most tense periods of my life to find myself flying to France once again to try to do something with this ragged documentary that quite frankly I have been working on for far too long. By the middle of the second week in Charleville I was told potentially good news by the Institute. Very good news indeed, news that I had not been planning on. And thus many things occurred to me at once. I immediately knew that my decision had been the right one. If I had done the obviously ‘responsible’ thing and stayed home to organize my life anew I stood a good chance of dragging Gravity From Above out to the point of absurdity, and probably at the cost of my own sense of purpose. I also knew that this had happened far too early in this excursion, this exile, to be the deeper reason for the journey. This stroke of fortune had to be the hors d’oeuvre not the main course. I had planned on also visiting more puppet theatres and countries and then ending up for three months in Tbilisi, Georgia. And so maybe, I thought, something was awaiting me in Georgia.
Meanwhile as I moved on I can’t say that everything was simply a photo album of great moments of puppetry. That sense of muffled unease that had surfaced in June followed me around as well. I won’t belabor it or the specific reasons why here. But it was a serious concern that would pop up from time to time. And in a way I suppose I was also reflecting on my own mortality, and whether I had accomplished much at all in this strange life of mine. Sometimes it’s easy to see the cracked shards of endeavors to produce something of worth. I’m not one to be satisfied with cheap tokens of positive esteem. I am not looking to be validated by Facebook ‘Likes’. And so one of the places I most wanted to go was to the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. A place with over 8,000 desiccated corpses on display. I wanted to look into the face of death and to both accept it and to gather my courage for the next chapter of my life. This questioning was not about feeling self pity. It was about seeing clearly what it means to be human in this dark world. It was about finding new resolve in face of personal dead ends and failures.
And I was having excellent conversations along the way with Lori, Gilles, Julien and my dear friend Paulette in Paris, with Māra Uzuliņa, Estefania Urquijo, Yanna Kor, Coraline Charnet and Raphaèle Fleury in Charleville-Mézières with Nicolas and Jose Géal, Dmitri and Biserka in Brussels, Mary and Simon in Lyon, the Quays and Matty Ross in London, with Per Ole, Greg, even Ellis Potter showed up in Switzerland and L’Abri students like Jessica, Jim and Sophia. And so many more.
And then there was art. I saw the artwork of Italy for the first time Palermo and Rome. I noticed the statues everywhere. I was particularly sensitive to the meaning of beauty in the museums I passed through. In Brussels, in Paris, in London, and in Rome. Tarkovsky had been right. “The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” And so did so much of what I saw, the elaborate effort put into so much art. To see a Bernini or Michelangelo statue is to weep over the loss of beauty in contemporary art today. To realize how much work has been put into expressing that which is always just beyond our grasp is to look back at our cheap broken fragments today, the big eyed cute fanart kitsch, the postmodern ugly uselessness, with a sense of utter loss. And yet to see the wonder of the paintings and sculptures of the past is to marvel, to truly dream, to hope in something that we could achieve were we not running away from meaning at every turn in this virtual age. I found myself stopped by Michelangelo’s Pieta, tears came to my eyes as I beheld the holy sense of comfort exuding from his depiction of Mary, young face, old hands, holding her dead son. It spoke to me of everything missing in life. Of sacrifice beyond our comprehension. Of tenderness, a tenderness I’ve certainly never known, that must exist somewhere.
And of course there were puppets… And puppets to me seemed to speak of humility in this tawdry shallow world of geeky images and toy electronic music. As I watched the politically correct failure of the most recent Star Wars film I contrasted the massive budget and expert special effects with the hand shadow ballets I saw in Georgia at Budrugana Gagra. The one was an overpriced over-hyped film franchise with plenty of agenda, yet without a soul. The other could literally be made for free. And yet the dedication of the low paid performers to the perfection of their movements spoke of deeply spiritual longings in the deepest sense of the word. Everything missing from our shiny, noisy screens.
Guignol, Woltje, Gnafron, Orlando, Punch and clowns (!) seem to follow me around. As did much more mysterious creatures, like those found in the films of the Brothers Quay. And somehow there was a continuity between the puppets found in the Palermo and Brussels and Tbilisi museums, the statues in Italy, France and England, the skeletons and corpses of Italy. And the textures (another big theme) found in exhibitions about Christian Dior and Balenciaga, the dresses in the V & A and the many traditional costumes of Georgia. Artistically everything seemed of a piece.
And yet none of this was what I suspected might happen.
And the first few weeks in Tbilisi Georgia were good yet curiously uneventful. It was the holiday season that lasted until the eastern New Year celebration around mid-January. A few connections were made but particularly around January 1st I seriously began to wonder what I was doing there. But then there was a shift which I can date to a conversation on January 3rd which began to change my perceptions of what I was doing in Georgia. It wasn’t a big revelation, just a subtle recognition that there were people I could really talk to. Later after the second New Year everything began to open up again. And more conversations opened up more doors. There was the art I was discovering in museums. There was my time with Budrugana Gagra, the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre, the National Folklore School, the Marjanishvili Theatre, and especially my time with Erisioni that convinced me beyond a doubt of the artistic inclinations of the Georgians, which was important for me. And it was in conversations with Nini Sanadiradze, Ana Sanaia, Salome Berikashvili, John Graham, Eka Diasamidze Graham, Vladimir Lozinski, Elene Murjikneli, Gela Kandelaki, Tinatin Gurchiani, Natia Vibliani, Mariam Sitchinava, Koté Khutsishvili, Nata Zumbadze, Otar Bluashvili, Daro Sulakauri, Giorgi Kancheli, and especially Nino Vadachkoria, that I realized that I had the potential of having true friends in this country as well as the infrastructure of a community to help me navigate my way through this new landscape. I was nearly convinced of moving there when Nini Sanadiradze offered me the job of helping to design and create the puppet and doll museum from scratch.
And that was it. That was the real point of this journey in the end. I had often thought I might end up in Europe for the last chapter of my life. Yet I had no idea it would be a place like Georgia, which I had no real idea even existed before 2012. But now I will be returning there to set up a new life. I made sure I explored some darker corners of the town before I left. That I had a clear eyed idea of the place. (And I recently explored this theme here.) But now this small country in the middle of the world was to become my home. Talk about a dizzying beautiful experience. And the farewells were warm and meaningful. And more importantly I felt I was coming to a place where my gifts would mesh with the environment. Unlike New York, which always felt too embattled. Unlike Alaska, where most of my talents lay under wraps. Now I would be coming back to Europe to finish my documentary and then to stay. And that’s an incredibly large event in one’s life. This wasn’t going to be a temporary experiment. This would be me shedding my last skin to see what kind of creature this life has made of me. We will have to see.
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.
And sometimes you just have to make observations apropos of nothing. Travel does that to you. You see things that puzzle and intrigue you, amaze and amuse you. And so in no particular order here are a few dispatches from the road.
First of all there’s that moment when you enter a new country with a language you don’t understand. And that happened this time in Italy. I decided to break my tradition of avoiding it (for reasons of humility) and get myself down to Sicily, which I’ll write about soon. But here’s the confusing part. So I take a train from Switzerland to Italy. (I was really expecting the tunnel through the Alps to be longer.) I get out at Milan, which was just going to be a train transfer on my way to Genoa (Genova), where they still are quite proud of Cristoforo Colombo. I see that I have arrived early enough to jump on an early train so I don’t have to wait at the Milan train station for two hours. So far so good. An hour ride deposits me at Genova Centrale. I have a map, or rather a Google page, that is suppose to guide me. I get out of the station carrying my backpack load. And I start walking the direction I think I should be going. But it doesn’t feel right. I walk a bit further and nothing is resolving. Then I realize I should have gone another direction. So I go back to station and try another road, which doesn’t feel right either because its straight up hill. And supposedly I’m near the Mediterranean. At this point I just wanted a real map made out of paper. Finally I give up and go back to the white taxis I saw near the station. I use my few words of Italian and then find out my short ride is going to cost me 15 euros. Almost $20. And this is for a ride about five minutes. But the taxi driver indicates it’s ‘standard’. And so we take off. And then I get a shock. I was completely turned around. I was walking the absolutely wrong direction. And so I became grateful for my expensive little ride.
Another thing worth discussing here is sickness. Let’s just face it. If you aren’t on a slick two week package tour you are going to eventually get some foreign illness you’ve never had before. In 2012 I received two different strains of the local cold. In 2016 I had gastroenteritis so bad I was bleeding. And if I didn’t know what it was I would have been very worried. And this year I received a whopping fever. And here’s the point of all of this. In each of these cases the culprit seemed to be the Paris Metro. And specifically holding the metal poles, the perfect conductor of germs and bacteria. And I always forget to bring hand sanitizer. I also get the feeling the Europeans aren’t nearly as germophobic as we Americans are. So there’s not much to do but get sick.
And when you are sick travel changes immensely. New foods that might have seemed interesting to try now seem unappetizing. The customs of the locals seem all wrong. Does no one ever cover their face when they sneeze or cough? And they never have the kinds of things you want when you have a cold. But that’s okay there really isn’t anything you can do but rest, drink liquids and build up your body’s immunities.
On the subject of food I’ve been pushing it further this time. Of course there is French food, which I love. And yet I always have to get used to the fact I’ll be on a largely bready diet while in la francophonie. But also there are so many wonderful things that I can scarcely contain my desire to try as much as possible. There is a guy who sells cheese at the Sunday market in Les Häye les Roses where I stay while in Paris. And I am sure that this man alone knows more about cheese than everyone in the state of Alaska put together. And I have eaten cheeses that are so good I just want to cry.
And I have tried new things mate. In Brussels the central Carrefour had kangaroo meat! And since I actually had cooking facilities for once. I decided to give a try. Not bad actually. Tastes a bit like beef, without the heavy fatty feel and it had a bit of a tang to it. I didn’t get to the zebra meet sitting next to it though. But I cook up a little horse in Switzerland.
Also in Belgium I finally had Belgian frites, the original French fries. And here’s what I have to say. Astounding! They are thicker, with an amazing crust. And a wonderful flavor which I’m told comes from frying them twice in beef fat!?! Which is about as healthy as injecting pure cholesterol. But oh my! It was worth it. They actually had a big health issue over this. But the traditional frites makers argued that this is the tradition. And they won. And God bless them. Just don’t eat les frites too often.
And does everyone have annoying music on their phones in Italy? And do they ever use their earbuds? Why do I need to hear the pointless video you are watching on the bus? (Gripe number 326.) And no one seems to care. And then there is the ubiquitous presence of terrible electronic dance music, especially the excrescence know as nightcore, which involves taking old pop songs and adding new music to a vocal track sped up to chipmunk speed. This just strikes me as the most anti-musical notion I’ve ever heard.
Meanwhile back in Charleville-Mézières I forgot to mention my time spent in the Museum of the Ardennes. I had been there before, but the second time was just as enlightening. And I was able to get better photos this time. And I had a chance to watch the marionette clock work from the inside!
Speaking of museums? Yeah, I went to one of the greatest museums on earth, the Vatican Museum. I’ll save my thoughts about the contents for later. But let me get a couple more gripes off my chest about tourists. Two things drove me crazy this time round. It’s happened before but this time I’ve got to say something. Are we done with smartphones yet? These things are really polluting reality. You enter the Sistine Chapel, which clearly is marked No Photos. Guards are saying ‘NO PHOTO’ over and over. And still people can’t stop. Someone really needs to invent a phone jammer. And smartphone selfies? I have no end to my disquiet over those who can only experience something by putting themselves in front it. Once in a while. Okay. It proves you were there. All the time? It proves you weren’t. Period.
Next: Tour groups following people with flags. Does this mean you do not have to pay attention to anything at all? A whole group just stops and blocks walking traffic. No one can get around them. They look at no one. And in a place like the Vatican? (I’ve heard that that the Tokyo trains are less crowded.) My advice when you travel: Do not take a tour group anywhere that is already crowded. Period. To take a tour group when you are the only ones in the building? Exceptionally great idea. But a tour group (or thirty) with five thousand others swarming you. Stay home. Or come alone. You are just in the way.
And finally there are just the inexplicable things. In Brussels early in the morning, around 6, twice I heard this strange mysterious piping. 5 or 6 notes. High shrill. Discordant. Played at irregular intervals out in the near distance. It was not a bird. It sounded like a piccolo, even higher. But it wasn’t. It reminded me of the mad piping of the blind idiot god in H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories… and that’s something I’m not about to discuss here.
Instead let me end this praising Sicilian, more specifically Palermo, Palermitan, street food and a mention of two items in particular, stigghiola (grilled sheep or goat guts) and pane ca meusa (a spleen sandwich). Wow! I’m just impressed. I’d say one of the top three reasons to get down to Sicily is the food. (There is something for everyone.) End of essay. Go!
But we’ll discuss Palermo and Sicily next time. Stick around for that one. It’s about life and death. And that’s no metaphor.
From Rome, the Eternal City
PS. A reminder we’ve had many hefty unforeseen expenses since the beginning of our trip, including a crashed hard drive and now broken glass on my laptop screen. Though I had excellent news about my film financing from the International Institute of Puppetry, none of that funding will affect me at all for at least a year. So if you are wondering if I need anything or if you can help out? The answer is yes. You can put some coins in my PayPal account. And I can assure you anything would be practical and useful.
(Note: If you are reading these journals mostly for puppets you can probably skip this one.)
And, almost as if crossing the border into Switzerland had curative powers, my fever and any lingering symptoms seemed to vanish as I entered the land of clocks and chocolate. But there was one thing very different this time. As I emerged from the SNCF train from France into the station, I was corralled through a customs check point past soldiers with automatic weapons. And while they didn’t check passports, they certainly symbolized a change coming to the Schengen Group of countries with its open borders. And frankly I will be happy to see the whole Schengen concept go. The three month limitation for staying in all of Europe has been a hassle since it began. I much preferred the old separate countries, separate borders approach. But that’s getting a bit political for these essays and is based more on personal experience than any ideology.
Nevertheless I was back in Switzerland, not for puppets, but rather to check in with my friends at L’Abri, a study center in a small village called Huémoz. L’Abri Fellowship is a Christian place engaged in trying to understand the times and to provide honest answers to honest questions. They tend to shy away from the kind of Christian propaganda that infests too much of the Church as well as everywhere else these days. They downplay the use of tech devices and focus instead upon study and practical work. It is in a small measure a way for me to gauge the temperature of the times by meeting the students who happen to be staying for various durations in the course of a three month term. I went there back in 1978 and if you want to know why I treat things the way I do in puppetry, music, history in general, L’Abri probably takes the biggest credit.
Yet things change over time. And L’Abri has gone through several phases over the years. The 80s were not an especial highlight. The 90s were an excellent period. The 00s were interesting as well. On my last visit in 2016 I was a little worried that L’Abri would not be able to stem the tides of politically correct oversensitivity and the increasing juvenilization of practically everything. My visit this time left me feeling much better about the state of the institute. And the students. And so much depends upon the mix of students who come. Last time I was here there were possibly too many students coming from a similar mindset. And in order for L’Abri to work there really has to be a mix. The politically correct need to rub shoulders with the homeschool students who need to meet some Europeans who need to be a bit shocked by a few wild card students. And that’s what I found this time. Though there could have been a few less Americans and couple more men and it would have been perfect. But there’s no telling who’s going to come. And age-wise it was a good mix. Students as young as 18 mixing with twentysomethings and a few in their 30s and even a couple of men in their 60s passed through. One in particular, Clint, was looking for the L’Abri he wanted to visit in the 70s. I helped him interpret the present state of affairs.
One thing I was wondering about, given my thoughts about Geekdom, was how much pop culture fantasy and science fiction would dominate the conversations. These subjects certainly had been present last time. Shortly before I came a guest lecturer had given a talk comparing Voldemort to the Islamic State terrorists. And when it was finished the students general attitude seemed to be “What was the point?” And that gave me a hint of hope. Maybe, just maybe, these students are beginning to see that the insanities left to right of the tragi-farce of contemporary life can’t be easily bottled into trendy fantasy references.
And so I arrived with a little bottle of historical question marks in the form of a lecture with aural and visual examples of Blackface Minstrel music, the most taboo subject in American music history, just to see if the easily offended mood had increased or decreased since my last visit. And also to make the point that American musical style was defined by both it’s black and white elements, with other cultures adding a little spice here and there to the Anglo-Celtic/Western African stew. I didn’t pull any punches. I don’t think either the doctrinaire on either left nor right would be happy with my explanations. But the whole point was this: history is always, unfailingly, much more messy than our ideologies. And in the midst of racism, flattery, opportunity, stereotyping, confusion and entertainment one of the greatest bodies of musical heritage was born. Like it or lump it. (What does that mean?)
But it was in discussions with the students that things came alive for me. Jessica, dealing with the unraveling of her life, had come to try to put things together and find a new direction. She became a friend through several honest conversations. Connor, who left shortly after I arrived, nevertheless impressed me with the sincerity and depth of his questions. Soo Min from South Korea, also pondering new possibilities, was quite curious about making films. Olivia seemed to just enjoy being there having come from a stable family, fishing in Alaska during the summer, not dealing with anything in particular. She decided to stay to be a helper (low paid worker/student). When I asked why? (Usually students want to keep working of their issues longer as was the case with Jessica.) She simply said “I want to help out.” In a ‘Big Five’ personality test I’m imagining she’d score fairly low on trait neuroticism. Then there was the wild card of the term, a current helper named Jim, a psychedelic ranger investigating shamanism and lysergic experiences while also holding, somehow, onto his faith. We ended up having a talk one evening that I wished I’d recorded. An honest guy seeking, maybe finding too much, but a truly memorable soul all the same. I mustn’t forget Kristy who came to my attention when she discussed regretting a tattoo she had gotten. And had another of a tree that in discussion revealed a deep artistic outlook. And then there was Ashley, almost archetypically blonde Southern Californian girl, and uniquely talented in her challenging paintings. And then there was Tiffany with her head shorn like a penitent and her outlook sober and penetrating, not given to playing the kinds of games she’d played a few years ago that had brought her house of cards tumbling down. And lastly I’ll mention Sophia, who had come to spend time with her sister Clara, as well as ask a few questions of her own. During a walk our words ranged across a depth of subjects as this 25 year old was revealed to have purposely tested herself by coming to Europe, spending a year in Iraq, and basically wrestling with maturity. And that was a theme I saw over and over this time. That juvenile spirit of the times was finding an answer for a few who weren’t content to live in this overly protective world we have worn as mask. And that gave me hope. (My apologies to all of the students I didn’t mention… but you were part of this too!)
Finally a word about my older friends, workers and helpers, former workers: Jasmine, Cindy, Richard and Karen, Gian and Prisca, Greg and Lisby, Per-Ole and Amelia, Becky and Rodman, Dave and Anna (who are moving in December). Coming back to Swiss L’Abri always has a touch of a return home to me. Not that it has ever been my home. Yet many important people and ideas stem from this place for me. This has been my 8th visit since my time as a student back in 20th Century. Each time, while different, has been a taste of something larger in my life. It is the place I circle, returning in different moods, experiencing a slightly different place each time. Enlarging history, L’Abri’s and my own along the way.
My stay ended fittingly with a grand Thanksgiving dinner, a former student having donated three turkeys in memory of someone donating a Thanksgiving turkey during his stay. This brought everyone together in a swirl of talking and laughing and sharing. Pies were made. Amelia’s parents from the states had come to help with the festivities. And everything was underscored by fond memories and meaningful friendships.
An old friend I hadn’t seen in several years dropped in to give a lecture. Ellis Potter, former Buddhist monk, then Christian convert back in the 70s, during the central moment of L’Abri’s influence, now pastor in Basel, nevertheless always retaining a certain je ne sais quoi from his Zen monastery days. He speaks in unusual measured rhythms that can veer from calm seriousness, to fart references, to deep emotion within the span of a few minutes and somehow it all seems of a piece. (He critiqued Christian filmgoers as being ‘shits and nipples counters’. Rather than attend to the meaning of work, they tended to count curse words and body parts.) He spoke about and played parts of Zbigniew Preisner’s Requiem For My Friend, which had been composed following the death of Krzystof Kieslowski in mid-90s. Ellis accomplished the difficult feat of bring the beauty of that music into the room, as well as reminding us all of the much more elusive meaning of beauty in this sad world. And that is the kind of thing that L’Abri does on its best days.
From a train leaving Palermo in Sicily on my 12 hour journey to Rome
PS. A reminder we’ve had many hefty unforeseen expenses since the beginning of our trip, including a crashed hard drive. Though I had excellent news about my film financing from the International Institute of Puppetry, none of that funding will affect me at all for at least a year. So if you are wondering if I need anything or if you can help out? The answer is yes. You can put some coins in my PayPal account. And I can assure you anything would be practical and useful. Thanks Byrne
Also you can click on either of these to titles to read about my other stops at L’Abri:
So I took the Ouibus to Lyon. Buses are the cheapest way to travel in France, though I much prefer the train. But in the interest of economy I booked with an official SNCF spin off called Ouibus (Yes-Bus). Entering or leaving a big French city like Paris or Lyon is a start stop affair that continues for several kilometers before or after the actual city. Don’t plan on getting anything done during this period. And I do mean simple things like using the bus’ toilet. I nearly cracked my skull open as we entered Lyon on the highway to the beginnings of the start stop scenario. But I was greeted by the friendly face of Paulette Caron who would be my host for five days in a small apartment not too far from the old town and the Guignol theatre where Paulette performs.
Now interestingly the fact that Paulette lives in Lyon now and performs with Compagnie Coulisses at the Théâtre Le Guignol De Lyon is indirectly related to our last visit to Lyon and the help she gave me as a translator for my interviews for Gravity From Above. So now that she is performing for a small contemporary troupe of guignolistes in Lyon has something to do with our friendship, which goes back to my 2012 journey.
But before what I could see what she was doing I was asked to help document a more traditional Guignol show by a related troupe, who works out of the same théâtre, Compagnie MA (pronounced like the name Emma). And so the second day I was there I went down to the theatre to take photos and shoot footage backstage as the show was happening. Which involved moving like a dancer to stay out of the way. But they trusted me to do it so I did. Now as the show continued I noticed something different. The middle school aged kids in the audience weren’t reacting the way French kids normally do. No shouting, no talking back to Guignol. Only one outbreak of laughter. To me the show seemed ridiculously funny at times. And yet…
But it turns out that they were German students on a field trip to understand French culture. And the only time they laughed was when one of the puppets said ‘Ja wohl!’ once. Nevertheless they were very appreciative at the end and eagerly went backstage, a Lyon Guignol tradition, to look at the puppets.
Then I was allowed to watch Compagnie Coulisses practice their show Monsieur Choufleuri, an Offenbach Operetta farce done with both live actors and and opera singers. The opera singers weren’t their for the rehearsals. There is a pecking order here and puppeteers aren’t on top. But the puppets were mirroring the opera singers and so could practice without them. I would watch a full show the next day.
While I was staying at Paulette’s apartment I soon discovered it was like waiting at a bus stop with people getting off and on visiting often. I stayed in the living room on a couch that opened up and I claim about a meter’s worth of space for myself. The view from that room was antique cliff face and ancient stairs going to who knows where. The view from toilette was one of the nest I’ve ever had. Though predictably the actual mechanics of throne was as funky as I’ve ever encountered in France. My theory, the French care about food on the way in but don’t make a big deal about it on the way out. We Americans are just the opposite.
While there I spent more time enjoying the company Paulette’s friend Simon. Then there was Alexandre-David, who’s occupation remains a mystery. Then came the girl they kept calling Mary, but who was clearly Marie. She came as I was sitting alone writing in the living room. I heard the door opened. And I knew that she was due to arrive. Paulette said that I would like her. And indeed I did, from nearly the first moment when I emerged from the living room we started a conversation by turns and funny and meaningful, which is decidedly not finished. Then there were the people at the theatre, Paulette and Simon’s family members. And one things struck me again was how physical the French were. Than touching each other and talking was as natural as breathing. And it was curious to me that while there was the presence of the usual technological suspects, at least among these people you rarely saw it interfere with real life. (And if you are one of those folks who say things like “But what is real life?” you probably don’t have one.)
I finally got to watch the entire Monsieur Choufleuri complete with opera singers. I wasn’t exactly sure how I would take the light operetta. But surprisingly I was thoroughly engaged. And somehow transported back to the 19th Century when this was a real night’s entertainment for the bourgeois. The music was far catchier than I had expected it to be. Offenbach is known mostly for the Can-Can in Gaiety Parisienne. And so except for one problem it was an immensely enjoyable evening.
And that one thing was this: Somewhere, most likely back on Paris Metro on a stainless steel pole that I was forced to hold for far too long, I had contracted a bug. It’s first manifestation was as a very occasional dry cough. But by the night of Monsieur Choufleuri, it had become a full blown fever. So weak was I by the time the play was over that I simply begged out of the post show gathering and walked home. I trudged up the stairs. My joints ached. My head throbbed. I was bone tired. And when I arrived near the top of the dark twisty stairway I discovered that the key was not not under the mat. But I was too drained to walk back. To sick to even concentrate on typing Paulette a message on my dumbphone. And so I sat there for 15 minutes before Alexandre-David and a friend arrived to let me in. I would have stayed there hours if needed.
The night was feverish and then sweaty. But curiously the next morning Marie, who knew that I was ill, chose to kiss me on the cheeks rather than worry about contracting the grippe. And I thought the French are so entwined with each other that no wonder so many died in the Black Death. Seriously though I was moved by that.
I spent the day exhausted and slept. I didn’t eat anything until around 6pm and the it was just a couple of eggs. I did trudge off in the morning briefly because I needed to go the bank and also get plenty of liquids. And cold peach tea was the thing my body was most grateful for. Looking back I think it had something to do with the loss of electrolytes in my system. But whatever it was, nothing has ever tasted as good as cold bottled peach tea did.
Eventually it was time to leave. I enjoyed my stay in Lyon. And as always it was deeply meaningful to spend time with my good friend Paulette Caron again. And to make new friends through her. Even with a fever. (Sadly the photos I took of these new friends were accidentally erased.)
I felt well enough to travel to Switzerland and so I left early in the morning towards the Swiss phase of my journey.
Written on board La Superba in the Mediterranean on the way to Palermo.
PS. A reminder we’ve had many hefty unforeseen expenses since the beginning of our trip, including a crashed hard drive. Though I had excellent news about my film financing from the International Institute of Puppetry, none of that funding will affect me at all for at least a year. So if you are wondering if I need anything or if you can help out? The answer is yes. You can put some coins in my PayPal account. And I can assure you anything would be practical and useful. Thanks Byrne
(Note: The next few essays on Gravity From Above will deal with the music and dance of Georgia. This does not represent a widening of the documentary, but our interest in those things that still connect us to reality as puppets do. The music and dance of Georgia does this in ways our own more alienated music no longer can. I am working on an idea for a new documentary. Those reading GFA primarily for puppets I beg your indulgence and encourage you to follow us to the end of our journey.)
Tinatin Gurchiani drove me over to the security entrance at the back of the Tbilisi Paliashvilil Opera and Ballet State Theatre. She parked her car as most Georgians do, half on the sidewalk half off ,and left me the car to see if she could arrange a meeting with Nina Ananiashvili, the artistic director of the Georgia State Ballet company and one of the most celebrated dancers in the world. Tinatin did not know her, and did not seem to have any specific connections at the ballet, yet this was Georgia where the improbable might indeed occur. After about five minutes she returned. “There will be a press conference for the Firebird tomorrow afternoon at 2:30. Enter at the front.” Tinatin handed me a piece of paper with a name and phone number on it. “Ask for Tamar and she will let you into the press conference. You might be able to talk to Nina Ananiashvili then. After that you can watch the dress rehearsal and take photos.” I was impressed. Suddenly I was being allowed to get into a ballet rehearsal and perhaps get to meet a Prima Ballerina Assoluta. I would indeed be there.
The next day I showed up a bit before 2:30 and found myself being escorted to the press conference by a blond haired woman who not Tamar. It was somewhat as you would imagine. Various Georgian media outlets were there to get the story about the recreation of Mikhail Fokine’s original version of the Firebird. Andris Liepa had directed it and Nina Ananiashvili had a big hand in the proceedings. They were there along with the conductor David Kintsurashvili and the two main principle dancers, Nino Samadashvili and Philip Fedulov. They soon came out. Nina was slightly taller than I imagined and had far longer legs. But of course that only makes sense. She is a ballerina to say the least of it. Smiles and Georgian words flowed and a touch of Russian. They were explaining that it was indeed an attempt at historical illumination. Cameras and video rolled. I took just a couple of photos, feeling like a fish out of its element. I was fascinated just to be a part of these doings. Soon the conference broke up. Nina and Andris were available for televised inserts. And the next thing I knew, after finding the Tamar I was meant to find, I was being introduced to Nina herself. I explained very casually that I was in Tbilisi working on a puppet documentary, but that my next project was on the music and dance of Georgia. She offered a five minute interview in a quieter room right then. But I held out for a longer possible interview on another day, besides I really wanted to see the dress rehearsal. She agreed and told me to arrange it with Tamar before Tuesday, when the troupe would be traveling to Italy and Spain with the Firebird.
I then looked for the entrance to the recently renovated interior of the theatre. The stage sets glowed like the interior of a glacier as I stepped through a curtain down into the largely empty hall dazed as I was. I had seen dancers before when I lived in New York City but this was my first official moment at the ballet. I was dazzled by the site. Dancers were stretching, doing pirouettes, leaping across the stage as the orchestra tuned in the cacophony that leads to the beauty of a performance. I found a spot to sit fairly close to the front and immediately fumbled with my camera equipment to pass myself off as a qualified observer. Stravinsky’s primeval strains slowly swelled out from the orchestra pit. And I was still trying, often failing, to figure out the proper settings for the camera. I have often said that I can shoot interviews, but performance? That is a skill I haven’t yet mastered. And so this was a complete challenge for me. Nevertheless I did manage to find a few images that might give someone a small idea of what I had seen. The red Firebird figure danced in bright spotlight, while the background shimmered in deep blues and violets. I purposely didn’t try to follow the dramaturgy. Before I knew that I would be here on this day I had already bought tickets for the Sunday afternoon performance.
Sunday came and I entered the ornate hall surprised to find that not only was I attending the ballet that day but that with an olive green tie on my black button up shirt that I was actually overdressed. I looked around for one more man in a tie and did not find him. What I did notice, however is that the sold out opera house had an audience that was somewhere between one third to two fifths filled with children under 15, a large percentage of them young girls. Now this was a scene I couldn’t really imagine being replicated too often in America. Especially given American ballet prices! And what really surprised me, and which I understood more completely later when I was informed that that fully one third of all Georgian students had serious folk dance classes (we aren’t talking square dances here), was that the children really watched the ballet with some comprehension. They quieted down as the ballet started, though still occasionally whispering to each other when the ballerinas made a particularly beautiful movement. There were two teenage girls sitting next to me, who were wise enough not to applaud after every movement and were held silently, raptly, by the dancing. I could tell they were watching, not only as spectators, but as possible participants as well. And not only those girls! At the end of the ballet the audience erupted in applause and when favorite dancers came out to take their bows the young children cheered their favorites. And it was quite a sound. It was indeed the sound of children who knew what dancing was supposed to look like, who knew the difference between a good step and a great one.
The program itself featured three Fokine choreographed recreations, which added to my own idea of early 20th Century dance history. Besides The Firebird they also performed Chopiniana and Le Spectre De La Rose. But of course it was The Firebird that everyone came to see. And now I could relax and take in the story and dancing. And I was indeed fully captivated: The staging, the sets, the dancing and music fit together consummately. The fearful demonic creature Kashchei darkly realized. The white maidens shimmered. The nobles at the end conjured up a Caucasian fairytale. And the red Firebird flew hypnotically. And all to the majestic score by Stravinsky.
As wondrous as the experience was it made me doubt slightly that I would ever get to talk to Nina Ananiashvili the next day. But on Monday morning I dutifully called Tamar who told me I could visit the theatre to see Nina at 5PM. I did not know how it would all play out, but I was dutifully at the gates of the theatre at the appointed time. I approached the guards. They knew nothing, nor spoke a word of English. I puzzled my next move. I need not have fretted though. At a couple of minutes after five a girl came out and escorted me passed security and up several flights in an elevator and within a few minutes I was greeted by a busy, but welcoming Nina Ananiashvili. Obviously with the troupe leaving the next day things had been hectic. I asked if I could film the interview. She sighed and said she wasn’t ready to filmed, but she had no problem with an audio interview. And so I sat back in her office in the dying daylight and discussed ballet, traditional dance and music, the Georgian custom of the supra, the effect of technology and modernity and its wastefulness upon Georgia and it’s culture. It turned into another defining moment of the trip. She was particularly glad that I pointed out the children at the ballet, since she had worked hard to expose the local kids to real ballet, not some simplified children’s ballet, but the real thing. She was also acutely sensitive to the need to preserve the depth of Georgian music and dance.
I had come to Georgia to ponder the meaning of music and dance in our human ecological needs, and not the recordings of these things, but the continuing of deep traditions. Through Nina I realized where the traditions of music and dance really flourished. And that was in the supras. The supra is an extended meal that features much food, toasting, poetic utterances, music and even dance. It is in this humble institution that heart of Georgian folk tradition lay. She told me that the supra is the place of Georgia spiritual and psychological therapy, the place of laughter and tears and mostly of friendship. And by ‘friendship’ I was beginning to understand that Georgians meant something much richer than we Americans, even the best of friends, meant by the word. Had I been to supra yet? Nina asked. No I hadn’t. She then asked how long I was staying in Tbilisi. Till April 15th, I replied. We won’t be back yet, she said shaking here head. Next time you come! She offered. What could I say? I will have to come back! Oh understatement.
Next time we visit the National Folklore School.
The next day I kept an appointment with filmmaker Tinatin Gurchiani, who directed the documentary The Machine That Makes Everything Disappear. The film asks questions of and sometimes follows various Georgians, mostly below the age of 30. She poetically unfolds their dreams and aspirations living in the Georgia of the moment, along the way hitting notes of the comic and the despairing, the tragic and the hopeful. I consider this documentary essential viewing before a journey to present day Georgia. It does not give the tourism gloss but is made by someone who is not blind to the reality of her country. Tinatin met me at Rezo Gabriadze’s Cafe, located next to the best marionette theatre in Georgia. We were to meet someone who would let us know the possibilities of interviewing the highly respected Gabriadze, whose greatest puppet show was entitled The Battle of Stalingrad. (I need to see that!)
Tinatin came up carrying her recently birthed baby, Maryam, like a suitcase in a baby basket. (There will be more Maryams to come. The country is full of them; as well as Elenes, I would meet three at once below, Sophos, Ninos, Annas, Ketivans,Tinatins and Tamars among other names.) I volunteered to help carry the precious human luggage and we sat at the cafe, where I proceeded to try a mixture of hot wine and tea. I had contacted Tinatin a couple of years back after being impressed with her documentary. She’d said if you ever need help trying to contact Rezo or others let her know when you come. And so I did. And I was glad I did too.
Tinatin, my second contact in Tbilisi, proved to be able to get me into places I had only imagined. By the time the day was over she had meetings arranged for me with Gela Kandelaki and the Budrugana Gagra hand shadow puppet theatre as well as a meeting at the ballet that might conceivably allow me to meet Nina Ananiashvili, who was the director of the State Ballet of Georgia. But alas Rezo would have to wait, seeing as they were on a small tour. But there was a good chance of seeing him before I left.
That Thursday I found myself waiting around the back of the Rustaveli Theatre for someone to meet me. A friendly girl with long dark brown hair named Elene (pronounced like Elena) came out to greet me and take me into the Budrugana Rehearsal space. It was a darkened medium sized room with a partially lighted screen in the back of the room. As soon as I came in the lights came on. I then met long black haired Sophie, who would be my official translator. (I’d better stop mentioning long hair, since Georgia is a sea of girls with long straight dark and black hair.) I was also introduced to another Elene who had very curly dark hair. (How else am I going to keep the Elenes recognizable?) They eventually introduced me to a shorter haired Elene, who provided tea, cookies and shadows. I asked how they identified so many girls with the same name. They said that the first Elene was the smallest. Curly haired Elene was the middle and short haired Elene was the biggest. But then I said “Wait a minute short haired Elene was not taller than ‘small’ Elene. Then they pointed out that they meant youngest to oldest. There were several other players as well, more women and men.
And finally there was Gela Kandelaki himself, he reminded one of a large elder Pooh bear. He warmly grasped my handed and welcomed me to see them practice. He was garrulous and was off and explaining many things before I could get my camera out for the interview. I suggested watching some of the rehearsal before the interview so that I could get an idea of what exactly was this art of hand shadows. An excellent idea.
The lights were dimmed and the partial screen glowed in a raised rectangle. It was explained to me that I was about to watch Bach’s Second Violin Sonata done as shadow theatre. And if you are at all sensitive to Baroque music you probably just went as blank as I did wondering what on earth you were about to see.
Hands. An abstract play of hands following along to Bach’s music. Abstract and yet completely human, a dialogue of motions with the second most expressive part of the human body. And it was utterly fascinating, inspiring thoughts I didn’t know I had. And that was followed by a fantasy featuring Louis Armstrong as a bear made of fingers. And Louis falls in love with another finger creation of jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. And then the Louis-bear loses her. (They never were an item in real life.) All done to live recordings of Louis and Ella, Benny Goodman and others. Again totally inspired. That was followed by a sample from an older piece again featuring a bear, Gela loved the fact that I was from Alaska, trying to swim off an island, and somehow it involved the four seasons. The more I watched the more I thought of new applications for this unusual technique. And I came back the next day to watch them rehearse an abstract hand shadow version of parts of Saint Matthew’s Passion. (!!!!)
Absorbing stuff! And unlike anything I’d ever seen before. With Sophie’s help I interviewed Gela for my Gravity From Above project. When I asked Gela if there was a connection between dance and the balletic hand motions I was viewing, he not only said yes but went on to elaborate not only that connection, but that between Georgian music, poetry and art. And told me that he was also involved with animation as well. Curly haired Elene was eager to show me examples of her rough animation style, preferred over slick commercial work. Brown straight haired Elene was also an animator besides being a hand puppeteer and a help at with translating between myself and Gela one day.
I visited them several more times before I left and on the last day I showed Gela and curly haired Elene samples of my rough cut for Arca, a strange little film I directed a while ago that is still not edited together yet. They found it mysterious in a very good way. Before finally leaving Gela grasped my hands and spoke a Georgian blessing on my endeavors. I left knowing that I had made friends that I must visit them again someday.
Meanwhile I had a rendezvous with Prima Ballerina Nina Ananiashvili. But more on that next time.
Come back again soon.
(And go back and read what you’ve missed!)
London, Heathrow Airport
This little essay has almost nothing to do with anything and is more or less just a series of travel observations that have accumulated thus far and didn’t really fit with any particular place. Some might consider this travel advice. It might contain such. But basically it’s just detritus.