Greetings from Tbilisi! It’s been too long since I’ve written here on Gravity From Above. And given the current strictures of these pandemic times I shouldn’t have an excuse. And I don’t. Nevertheless I do have an answer. My video channels have been distracting me quite a bit as well as my observations of the moment. And I have some videos to share.
Tbilisi Georgia has actually turned out to be a very good place to be. Only 626 cases. Almost half now recovered. Just 10 deaths. And the reason the numbers are quite low for this country of about 4 million is that the government took the advice of their medical staff and put things into quite a serious lockdown, which given the touchy feely nature of Georgians in general is quite a blessing, lest we repeat the nightmares of Italy or Spain. Meanwhile there have been moments when the one and half million population capital has felt like a strangely muffled ghost town. Particularly around Georgian Easter.
I won’t spent too much more time telling you about the lockdown here. If you are curious watch some of my videos posted here. It will give you glimpses of desolation that should satisfy your apocalyptic soul.
I guess one thought I’ve had is about puppetry during this pause. I have noticed on Facebook that many puppeteers have been heroically doing little impromptu live video shows to keep up morale for others and for themselves. Actual puppet filmmakers whether animated or live certainly haven’t had enough time to assemble anything too elaborate yet. They are I am sure doing what they’ve always done. They remain hidden in studios moving little inanimate yet highly symbolic objects around to create the images they have often made. But who knows maybe a few puppeteers have decided to dabble more in actual cinematic dramaturgy?
Meanwhile I’m sure that most puppeteers the traditional and the experimental have been itching to get back to the place that they long to be, in their theatres, or on the streets, or in their castelets. And puppets are in a unique place in this worldwide pause that we will be emerging from. They are objects, objects reminding us of the material texture of the world and of actual presence on the stage. Too many people now are feeling the effects of the glut of virtual imagery. Like a lethargy of the mind, too many stories, too many images following on quick succession, without recourse to the physical stuff that dreams are made of, it produces a strange heaviness. Life becomes a series of visual binges, without the tactile sense of daily life, of exploration in the material that makes up our own stories, nor the discussions we use to ruminate over our little discoveries. And so the puppeteer can, upon the reawakening of physical life, bring the object back to the starved folk willing to partake. Yet some will not come because the virtual opioid addiction will be too hard to break. Yet many sensing the unreal rickets of the soul developing in their marrows will want the vitamins of tangible puppetry and theatre as an antidote. And so my suggestion. Get your shows ready. Spend this time developing ideas.
And for inspiration I’m going to pass on a couple of videos I haven’t shown you here yet.
First I present to you Giorgi Apkhazava, theatre director and puppeteer here in Tbilisi. Georgia has gone through tough times particularly from 1989 until 2008. And Giorgi came of age during this time and sees puppetry as a way to fight the virtual disease of which we now being given a mega-dose. I have given you his entire interview because I feel like it is important to understand the meaning of puppetry during these dark abstract times.
Next on a more practical nuts and bolts level I present to you a couple of Czech carvers Lenka Pavlíčková and Mirek Trejtnar who show us more about the actual art of carving wood into puppets. So take heart. Make a puppet. It doesn’t have to be wood. Follow your own muse. But sometimes just watching another creator gets the little gray cells working.
Meanwhile if you you wish to support this endeavor use the PayPal link.
I have 40 hours of interviews and time but I need to get backing to finish Gravity From Above. But I’ll discuss that at a later time.
Also check out my YouTube channel called Georgian Crossroads.
Well I will be back soon with more…
10 / 5 / 2020
First the joke. You might not see the humor in it. But I do.
I came to Georgia to work on a doll and puppet museum. But recently I have realized that it would be an impossibility. I don’t wish to elaborate. But let me compare it to an event that occurred several years back in Alaska.
I moved from New York City to Haines Alaska. In Manhattan I lived somewhat close to Chinatown. And so I availed myself of the many flavors of Chinese groceries and cuisine. On the other hand, Haines is probably one of the few towns in North America without a Chinese restaurant. One summer day I heard a rumor that a Chinese takeaway place had opened up in an RV park near the edge of town. So I expectantly drove over to sample the wares. Pitiful. That’s all I will say. And I wondered why? The chef was Chinese. He seemed to have woks and knew what to do. But soon I was told the reason. The RV Park owner had brought the chef to town, like an indentured servant. Then he prohibited him from using Chinese ingredients. The owner actually bought the ingredients himself for the Chinese chef. And you can see him lingering over a food supply catalogue on the phone withe the dealer. “Okay so fifteen number 10 cans of that sweet and sour stuff with red food dye. Oh and what’s the cheapest rice you have?” Ad nauseum… The place closed in another two weeks. The RV park is now a field used for storing pipes by the state road crew. And that’s that.
Read between the lines and you’ll figure out what happened to me here.
And the joke? It’s not on me. It’s with me. So yeah Gravity From Above is stalled. My work in museum Georgia has dried up. Far too much cash has flown the coop. But you know what? I’m in Georgia. And had I known half of what I know now I would certainly have stayed in Alaska. But I can’t help feeling that this ruse, played upon me by God no doubt, got me here.
Recently my dear friend Silva Morasten and her boyfriend Honza stayed with me. Several things happened then to really renew my sense of purpose here in Georgia. Summer quite frankly had been tough. I expected it. But the heat drained me. (Next year time in the mountains. The museum work evaporated. Finances got wobbly. (I finally solved that by applying early for my retirement money. Which I still won’t get till the end of November.) Computers broke down. Etc. etc. But more than anything else a vague sense of failure hovered directly over my head.
On the good side I did get a temporary residence permit. Which isn’t going to last too long, but will look good next time I apply. And even if I don’t get another right away I can stay here if I cross the border once a year. So I’m not worried about getting chased out.
But with my friends here we drove up into the mountains and I finally had a chance to really get out of the city. I discovered this singular little village called Sno made out dark moody and very sharp rock walls. I walked into the Caucasus briefly, enough to give me a sense of mystery and enticement. I drove through the lush vineyards of the Alazani valley. Silva had a chance to sing her gorgeously dark songs at a museum. (To hear her music follow this link.) I also took Silva to meet my friends at Budrugana Gagra. And seeing them again reminded me of what I love most about Georgia. Likewise a trip to watch Erisioni practice had the same effect. I also stopped in a couple of times to see Giorgi Apkhazava’s work on his little theatre. (I have a whole interview that I need to edit and upload here!) And Giorgi was quite kind to me. And these people were all a part of what energizes me about being in Georgia. And so having resigned the museum project today I feel lighter already.
And so I am laughing at my great fortune, a fortune not connected to the local currency.
This is one of my first videos on Georgian Crossroads (Watch it & Subscribe.)
And another thing, back in February, when I was informed about the actual ‘salary’ I would be receiving I immediately realized I needed to get something together to staunch the pecuniary wound. I also felt it should be something that would grow, not some stopgap measure. And so I started a couple more YouTube channels. One for my ideas – The Anadromist. The other for my observations about Georgia – Georgian Crossroads. It was a wise decision. For even though the income from them is a slowly increasing trickle, that trickle has allowed me to breathe easier. More importantly I have found a few people receptive to my curious investigations. And the truth is I have been sitting on far too many explorations that need to finally see the light of day.
Hey if you are here for the puppets you should watch this.
And so with all of this in mind, I recently found myself watching Todd Phillips’ new film Joker, with Joaquin Phoenix giving an astounding performance. And as I watched it I realized I was present for a moment in film history likened to Psycho or Star Wars. That is a complete game changer for the direction of cinema. Psycho opened American filmmaking up for what would eventually be the New Hollywood of the Seventies. Star Wars opened the door to the unfortunate blockbuster era that has enveloped us ever since. But Joker is something different. Joker, an extremely dark realistic vision based on the Batman villain. It has become a roaring success at a time when the hollowness of the mainstream world has become almost impossible to ignore. Also it wasn’t lost on me that the Joker is a clown, at a time when scary clowns have surfaced as a source of fear instead of fun. Which is quite ironic considering how devoted this age is to the teleological concept of Fun. I also saw the connections to Punch, the smiling psychotic hand puppet. And so I felt compelled to make a video on the subject. Not a review, but a search for the origins of this mythic imagery historically and presently. So I present that here for your consideration.
But there are other subjects I have dealt with on my new sites that might intrigue you as well. Particularly one series on Time and the other on How We Got Here.
And you should just watch this no matter what your motivations!
Anyway this has been a report on my activities here in Georgia. Deep gratitude to those who have helped out. And I hope to add more substance to these pages soon.
October 11th 2019
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Back in January of 2018 I was visiting Tbilisi Georgia for the second time. I had stopped into visit my friends at the hand shadow theatre Budrugana Gagra. A few actors were there waiting for the rest to arrive when a young man named Irakli Toklikishvili walked in with some images on a sheet of paper. Suddenly Mariam Kapanadze and Elene Murjikneli lit up happily and went over to see what he had brought them. When I asked Elene what it was she said it was for Mariam’s animation project. I looked at the paper, a decayed landscape with a cabin on it. I thought it interesting. I looked for the drawings of the little characters who would be inhabiting the landscape. None ever materialized. Mariam said that the short animation film was about the landscape itself. I thought that was a beautiful idea and then didn’t think too much more about it.
While I was back in Alaska someone told me about an animation festival calling for submissions. I thought of Mariam’s film. I wrote to her. But she said it would be a long time before it was finished, maybe December 2019. I thought that there must be more to the story if it is taking so long. And so when I arrived back in Tbilisi back in December 2018 I asked Mariam what the story behind the short film really was. And then she explained it to me. And even in her imperfect English I suddenly caught my breath. I had never heard of such a simple yet complex idea.
In April I finally caught up with Mariam and Elene and asked them more about the project. The title of the project is მიტოვებული სოფელი (mitovebuli sopeli), in English The Abandoned Village. And essentially all it shows is the slow transition of a desolate village during the course of the day from night to morning to day to evening to night again. During the course of that day there are a few changes fog, wind, unseen clouds creating diffuse light, shadows changing during the course of a day. And with one exception that is pretty much it. There are no visible people, not even animals. Just the empty village during the course of a day in during the late autumn.
Now if that sounds like nothing happens you really don’t understand what Mariam is attempting here. In a way what Mariam is creating is something that has rarely been done. A living painting. Which is why for me to tell you what it is about is not to ‘spoil the plot’. What will matter in the end is simply you, stopping the insane business of your life for 13 minutes, watching the subtle transitions of a day in an abandoned village to ponder them. For Mariam has something up her sleeve much more complex than a mere picture.
She told me that “It’s a very important idea, it’s not only a village. The village is our world. Where we are living. What is an abandoned village? It’s when we have lost love, when we’ve lost important people. Life, this life, is very important. Because one day our spirit is abandoned. (Which is why the cemetery is an important image within the film.) The village is our world.”
Click on the Images to Expand
Is this village based on a real village that Mariam knows? Yes and no. As a young girl Mariam’s parents would take her to the family’s ancestral village in Imereti called Zodi. This is the village where her grandparents had lived in when she was a child. She remembers Zodi being full of life and people. But since then, while it is not quite the abandoned village of her story, some parts of it are not too different. This is actually a problem throughout Georgia as small villages wither as the youth leave to go to the cities. Of course similar problems have occurred throughout the world at one point or another as transportation and technology change the way we seen the world. But Mariam is very quick to point out that her film is not really a story about this particular village. For her the village in her short animation film is about the loss of love and joy. The abandonment of love, that the life of these old villages represented, the families, the songs, the communal feasts.
There are 21 paintings by Irakli Toklikishvili containing each cell of the animation for this piece. And then there are hundreds of small subtle effects that change slowly during the course of the film. Mariam says that her favorite filmmaker is the Greek Theo Angelopoulos. And another influence is Andrei Tarkovsky. And the slowness of the changes within the frame are certainly reflect their influences. Elene Murjikneli, her colleague at Budrugana Gagra, has been working with animation for twenty years, is both her assistant and at many points her instructor as they create this unique project. Other animators include Natia Pochkidze, Giorgi Chanturia, Nina Gvasalai. It is being produced by Tsotne Kalandadze for the “Kvali XXI” film studio. And when I asked where she got the idea for static frame without cuts she credits Gela Kandelaki, the Director of Budrugana Gagra, with the suggestion when she presented the idea to him.
Mariam Kapanadze originally conceived of the idea in response to a call for submissions by the Georgian National Film Center, when it called for its yearly submissions in 2017. She won the competition. They wanted a budget and a time frame. This was Mariam’s first attempt a complete film, and so she gave herself around two and a half years to complete it. She was awarded money, which by American standards would hardly pay for the electricity for the computers and lights. But Georgians have become quite adept at stretching budgets beyond what many further to the west would consider possible. In March of 2018 the project received a bit more funding. The money was important to keeping The Abandoned Village on track to a December 2019 completion date.
And yet this certainly isn’t a project with money as its central goal. Mariam told me that that even though the film has Georgian themes she considers it to be universal. The film while essentially being a silent film, has one character, an old man who can be heard mumbling inarticulately. He turns a light on in a rustic shack in the dark. And in Mariam’s eyes the entire film is a struggle between the life of light and the death of darkness. And this darkness is not an abstract thing for Mariam who is old enough to remember the times when the electricity failed regularly in Tbilisi. For Mariam the light brings the music of birds and the dark brings a muted muffled silence. And it remains for us to keep the light on in the dark. Mariam hopes people are reminded by this film to remember the goodness in life, the times of joy, and especially the love. If that sounds like a lot for a 13 minute animated painting then you should hear Mariam talk about it.
Better yet look for it sometime next year: მიტოვებული სოფელი The Abandoned Village.
June 25th 2019
Photos of Byrne & Mariam, Mariam in Zodi and all Production plates and art © Mariam Kapanadze
All other photos © 2019 Byrne Power
What’s happened to the documentary Gravity From Above? What happened to Byrne? We haven’t heard much about puppets or Georgia since the beginning of the year.
I’m wondering the same questions. The truth is that I guess I’m recovering from the double shock of losing whatever funding I had hoped to get for the documentary and then finding the work that I was supposed to do in Georgia not only endlessly bogged down in bureaucracy but also paying me far less than a living wage for the work that I am doing causing me to lose money every month.
Or to put it another way reality has set in.
Now to put a little more meat on the bone let me explain a bit. First of all I am quite hesitant to say much at all publicly. At this moment the details would be less than helpful. (Privately I can explain anything if interested.) And the situation has never been dire. But essentially I am only receiving about a third of what I need to live every month. Which is a drain on my personal economy, which can’t go on forever. Then there are expenses that I have to make to actually live here as opposed to being a transient. Things you need to buy simply to be a resident from frying pans to curtains. More catastrophically my computer has died twice on me. I now live in a strange twilight world of used MacBooks and external hard drives. (I’m waiting for a new hard drive to arrive through a tortuous path of mailing services.) And I have spent a fair sum just to keep myself running. And then there is the much larger question of how I will get my belongings shipped here. (Which had seemed quite possible when I left, but now more doubtful.)
The practical minded person would say something like this to themselves: “Well you’d better get back to Alaska where you can make money and forget about all of this. Admit you’ve been beat. It was an interesting dream, but it’s time to face the truth. Better get back while you still have the money to get there.” (I can hear the worried voice of my late mother here.)
Yet I know I haven’t made a mistake. Every time I have made a radical change in my life, from California to New York City, or from New York to Alaska, I have gone through exactly these moments of wall-smashing reality. In New York it took me multiple beds and floors for 4 long months to find an apartment. And that was beyond my means. I ended up leaving it after a year. Not to mention having one of the worst fevers I’ve ever had in my life during that first Christmas time. Narrowly escaping being beaten to a pulp by a street gang. And essentially finding that most of the folks I met during that period receded as friends. And then again in Alaska. I arrived without the job that supposedly was waiting for me, a container load of my library and other junk which then immediately sucked up all of my money on overweight freight charges, and I was renting a house for more than I could afford, especially without a job or money. The radio station work did eventually kick in. So did comments from certain members of the community about the music I was introducing to the airwaves. And I discovered the rather petty and vicious nature of otherwise friendly Alaskans during public board meetings, which I had to take part in as a part of my radio duties. Within six months I had to move everything again because the house I was renting was being sold out from under me. In both New York City and Alaska I knew I should be there. And eventually they became two of the most important places in my life.
So my thoughts now? What’s new? I expected the brick wall of reality. I look at these confrontations as the real test of my faith. If it’s worth it then it won’t be easy.
So I am very slowly learning kartuli, a language that has been very difficult to read and to pronounce. And I do not mean difficult to pronounce the way French and German are difficult to read or pronounce. We are talking a different order of experience here. And the besides the language there are the many cultural misunderstandings between the Georgian mentality and the Western European or American. The sense of time here is something I am still struggling to understand. It isn’t that it is loose as in many cultures, it’s erratic, inconsistent. Now slow, now fast. It has the irregular rhythms of its language.
But overall I haven’t felt let down, as much as puzzled. And hopeful. And cautious. Sometimes at home. Other times like an alien. Yet never in danger. I don’t feel that I’ll fall through the floor. It feels like there is a net somewhere below me. So apart from the drain on my economy and the moments of bewilderment, how are things really going?
Well I do feel at increasingly at home more than foreign. And I think what it comes down to is this… the conversations. Whenever I am feeling a little too distant from my own culture I end up having conversations that allow me to breathe in a way I normally can’t back in the USA. I find an openness to art and culture that is far more serious than I have found back in the states in a very long time. And that is why I am here.
Or I meet someone doing something creative that just takes my breath away. For instance seeing the animation that Mariam Kapanadze is working on for two years. Just to produce ten minutes of footage that hardly moves at all. Then she explains what she is trying to achieve and I am left speechless by the depth of it. (I’ve already interviewed her and will be sharing it very soon.) Or meeting Giorgi Apkhazava and the other members of the Tbilisi Chamber Theatre and realizing that they have the best perspective possible on why they are puppeteers. (Also coming soon!) Or the again being surprised at an intimate piano recital by the depth of music played by Eter Tskipurishvili. Words would fail me entirely here. And it is in moments like these and dozens more that I find myself more than feeling at home; it is something far more spiritual.
And it’s not that life here is in anyway convenient… for anyone. There is a sense of total chaos at times. I have been without electricity or water many times. I have lost the food in my freezer and then gotten sick on the food that wasn’t cold enough. I have found myself hunting endlessly for something as simple as thread or tape. The summer heat is not something I am looking forward to. Yet as I walk beneath endless grapevines on tree shaded lanes passing children who still play in the streets I find something human and humble here. And when I look around I see an intriguing future, both for the Georgians, and for myself.
And so that is where I am right now. I don’t need assurances that everything will work out. I just need to keep walking and see where this road goes and why I am here.
Well I’ve got three or four essays due to be written very soon. So no (!) I haven’t forgotten anything. I’m just looking around, catching my breath, taking stock, and uttering quiet words of gratitude.
And I haven’t forgotten about Gravity From Above, the documentary!
Thanks for your patience my friends.
June 3rd 2019
And thanks April Harding!
I haven’t written for a while now. It isn’t that there is nothing to say. It’s that I’m not sure exactly where I am. I am certainly not where I thought I might find myself three months ago. I’ve been waiting for more resolution to give you all some account of my time in Tbilisi Georgia. But the resolutions are slower in coming than I imagined they would be. So I might as well report on what I can say. Which isn’t much.
Not long ago I thought I might get most of the money to finish up Gravity From Above. I then realized that I would have to downgrade what support I thought I had. Now I am wondering if I’ll get any help at all from the sources that seemed promising. If it sounds like I’m being vague I am. Let’s just say this the funding isn’t there… yet. And because I stumbled into some murky cultural waters that I didn’t understand let’s just say I don’t know if anything will come my way from that direction. But I am still hoping to hear something.
Then there is my life in Tbilisi. It’s not bad at all. But it is much slower commencing than I thought it would be. Again odd cultural issues play a role. Strangely many of the friends I have made are slow in getting back to me. If it was just one person I wouldn’t think too much about it. But it’s almost everyone. It probably didn’t help that I arrived in the holiday season again. And so had to mostly sit out a month waiting for it to end.
I was looking forward to editing Gravity From Above. I had the time. Oodles of it! But I wait for returned emails, Facebook messages, etc. This is a cultural thing. In America we are trained to get back to others as soon as possible on the Internet. But in Georgia I get the feeling that emails aren’t seen as being quite real. Which is fine. I’ve been saying this for years. And if I were settled in more it wouldn’t bother me. I would have other ways of contacting people. But I don’t feel I know people well enough yet to just call them up or stop by. So I wait.
And that goes for my work as well. The museum project is there, down the road. Eventually. Though the architectural design part has been siphoned off. But that doesn’t bother me. If anything was going to be taken away that would be what I was expecting. And truthfully there is a lot more politics in all of this than I imagined. And by politics I don’t mean office politics. I mean the real beast. Government officials, state and city budgets etc. And that’s about all I can say about that.
But I’m not without work. The plan is to have me teaching puppetry in English for students in the schools. And while I am planning that, I haven’t got the paperwork done yet, because I have to see what the legal prospects are for me as a resident. So again I wait. And hopefully this will be resolved relatively soon. But then again this is Georgia where I’m discovering that everything takes time. But when you finally get the signal then the question will be why isn’t it finished yet? (See the architectural issues above.)
And then there is the question of money. So far I am coasting. But this can’t last. And I’m not really sure how I will fare in the future. Everything is up in the air. And how will the documentary, which is so close to being done, be finished?
And you know I’m not worried about all this. I figured that there is a reason I followed the breadcrumbs here. So meanwhile I explore the city. I’ve taken bus trips to nearby villages. I’ve hiked up the mountains near Tbilisi. I’ve explored more art and culture. I’ve discovered a couple of worthy bookstores previously unknown to me. I’ve gone looking for practical necessities.
And I’ve discovered the many things that hardly exist here. Where is a lumber yard? Can I find black string for puppets? Food ingredients that are like gold: Bottles of vanilla??? Molasses. Malt vinegar. Decent peanut butter. Maple syrup. Cream of tarter, which is really weird since it’s a wine derivative and wine is everywhere here. Recognizable cuts of meat. Most Chinese ingredients. Any Mexican ingredients or spices. Let alone real salmon. Oh Alaska you spoiled me!
Stop and watch this for a little taste of joy!
But oddly I found some real pluses too. For instance I noticed that Georgia has about 20,000 people from India, mostly students at the state university. Thus I reasoned they must have Indian spice stores. I’ve found two! And one guy Vijay was a real help. But there are much fewer Chinese. Thus real Chinese food is much harder to find. And there is something that Georgians eat at the few ‘Chinese’ restaurants which has very little to do with China. But great news! Just down the street from me on Vazha-Pshavela Avenue they just opened a real Chinese restaurant since I’ve been here. And I’ve gotten in good with the owner, Shelia, from China by way of Vancouver. And she has two, count ’em, two Chinese cooks. Okay I survived 22 years in Haines Alaska without Chinese food. I think I’m going to be all right. (In New York City I used to go to Chinatown all the time.)
I did spend a little time with friend and photographer (and my landlord) Mariam Sitchinava and her pixie daughter Sophie. I did visit my good friends at the hand shadow theatre Budrugana Gagra. And I was welcomed with open arms and kisses on my cheek from everyone, men and women. And I got to watch a complete show of their shadow version of Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion. And for the premier even the new president of the country, Salome Zurabishvili, was in attendance. I was quite proud to call these folks my friends. I will eventually write a more detailed review of this piece. As well as a report on the work on Mariam Kapanadze’s unusual animation project.
And then I found myself back at Erisioni where I was greeted as a returning friend. Otar Bluashvili commented that I indeed returned in December just like I said I would. When I first stepped into the dance studio several of the young male dancers broke into applause. And later when I finally saw the women dancers again I was greeted tenderly with kisses and very warm smiles. And today I stopped in and was invited to their big show this Sunday at the Philharmonic Hall where I was offered a better lens for my camera. I took a few photos today and greeted several more friends.
When I first arrived I felt even more disconnected than I did last year at the same time. With the financial questions hanging over my head, with Gravity From Above back in some sort of limbo, with friends yet to find me again, I was seriously wondering what I was doing here. The ground did not feel solid. I still have no idea how the practicalities of anything will work out. From getting a residence permit, to finding a permanent house to live in, to getting my container full of possessions, including my massive library, here, to getting Gravity From Above finished. These question fed my sense of dislocation.
Slowly I have been finding myself at home. I remember the day I walked up through Vake Park past the Soviet World War 2 Statue into the mountain, and then down the other side I felt at ease as I stopped at Parnassus Books, which also had books in English. More importantly there were two university students working there, Mariam and Ana. A wonderful conversation led to their offering to find someone to help me with Kartuli (the Georgian language). Within a week I had another university student Sandro helping me, for free! But it was on that walk, even before I got to the bookstore, that I thought to myself, how much I was feeling better about being there.
And there have been many other discoveries. But we’ll end our narrative here. What will tomorrow bring? I have no clue. None. Will I ever get enough money to finish up Gravity From Above? Will I find the wherewithal to get my stuff here? Will the Georgians let me stay? There are answers to these questions, but not yet. And so I am left with the big question mark. But you know a life without question marks really isn’t a very interesting life. So I accept that.
Oh and if anyone wants to help me get this bloody documentary finished….
There’ll be more to say, and soon, but for now I’ll just leave you all where I am. Wherever that is.
So if you wish to help out financially you can help me through PayPal. You can pass on a one time donation, or commit yourself to a small amount on a regular basis. Anything you choose to give will be helpful. And if you are one of those people who can help out in a more substantial way do consider it. I really am close to finishing Gravity From Above. But the amount needed is beyond me in this moment. So get in touch if you feel so moved. Click to donate. And thanks all of you for tagging along on this strange journey. CLICK ME!
While I am traveling through Western Europe on my way to Tbilisi Georgia to work on the puppet and doll museum I have been thinking about the project ahead of me in the next few years. And one reminder of that task is that I have the stunning new book of the Tbilisi Dolls and Toys Museum (თბილისის სათამაშოები და თოჯინების მუზეუმი). This is a large chunk of the collection I will be working with when I eventually start my job. And it is a curious eye view into the world of Georgian tojinebi (plural of tojina which can mean dolls or puppets) The book is a fascinating look at the history and art of Georgia tojinebi.
Interestingly Georgia doesn’t have a deep historical tradition of popular dolls the way France or England does. And just as intriguingly Georgian dolls have not descended into the overly cute and sweet commercial playthings that have developed in the West. Not that bad baby dolls can’t be found in bargain shops. Or that Barbies are nowhere to be found. In fact it was the Soviet Union, in one of their rare enlightened decrees, who decided that Georgia needed dolls. And so the museum collection was started in 1937 by Tinatin Tumanishvili (1892-1966)
Tumanishvili in her role as secretary of (in typical soviet speak) The Children’s Toy Committee of the People’s Commissariat of Education who originated The Children’s Toy Museum. At this point there was no official style of popular doll that came from the Georgian traditions so, like puppetry in various corners of the Soviet Empire, dolls were decreed into existence. And so Tina Tumanishvili began an ethnographic search through the country to seek inspiration. And then she commissioned several dolls to be created by artists.
And for me the most startlingly unique dolls are also the most primitive. The most traditional folk dolls, called fork and spindle dolls, traditionally were made simply and beautifully with sticks, cloth and sometimes corn silk or even human hair. The dolls had an unusual aura to them, with the face made abstractly out of cloth, buttons, and thread or yarn with an X or a cross for a face. Often the cloth for the figure was embroidered with designs. The faces alone are enough to give the puppeteer in me many ideas for figures not yet imagined.
These primitive tojinebi also connect back to a not so distant past where these figures were used in rain making ceremonies. There was one ritual of making the doll, or is it a puppet since these were also moved with simple strings at times, in the form of the biblical Lazarus. Getting the doll wet was an important part of the various rituals. And Lazarus was beseeched ‘Humidify and wet us.’ During the Gonjaoba festival a figure called the Gonja was thrown into the water, while saying ‘We do not want hard dried clods of earth anymore. God, give us the mud.’ More fearfully there was another festival the Berikaoba, which is still occasionally celebrated, with strange masks that used to be made from animal skins, particularly pig faces which were particularly used to offend the various Muslim overlords. There was also a ritual of a person or figure riding a donkey backwards who was then thrown into a river at flood stage. A form of this can be seen in Tengiz Abuladze’s film The Wishing Tree, where a very symbolic figure is seen riding a donkey backwards. And it isn’t a good thing. These festivals, like Mardi Gras end at the beginning of Lent.
(Click to Enlarge)
There is another folk style involving stitching a simple expression on tightly pulled cloth. This technique as well as its extensions in design become through Tumanishvili and her artists, especially Nino Brailashvili, eventually become the inspiration and beginnings of serious doll making in Georgia. Thus Georgian doll making moves also most instantly from primitive ritualistic images straight to art, skipping the centuries of popular doll making in between. There is another worthwhile, and quite hard to find west of Russia, (in Russian and English) book featuring some of these primitive dolls and lavishly illustrated Nino Brailashvili, from her journeys into Georgia villages. It is called Ethnography In Georgia. It is well worth seeking out.
Inevitably Georgia costume design also holds an important place in the art of the tojina. Embroidery, thread and yarn all capture the elaborate patterns to be found in Georgian traditional dresses. The texture and detail of the fabric is just as important as the materials used to make the dolls. And again almost instantly created small works of art out of the tojina, blurring the line between the private fantasy of the doll and the storytelling skills of the puppet. And book of the museum’s collection shows this over and over again.
As far as tojinebi makers in the catalogue go (and there are many newer doll makers not in the catalogue) Irma Kaadze is the real discovery here. Her work figures quite strongly in unusual textures of natural cloth and fabric as well as various papier maché techniques. Her work is filled ornate designs in fabric ranging traditional figures that have faces with expressions like Byzantine mosaics. She also makes angels again with archaic faces. And an absolute gem of a puppet of a bedouin on a camel with more texture and creativity than seems legally possible. (Puppeteers take note.)
The work of Tamar Kvesitadze are also miniature statuary in a melange of materials, creating, as Kaadze does, miniature tableau vivant.
Besides the Georgian tojinebi the catalogue features mechanical toys, an automaton that blows bubbles, unknown dolls from Germany, a gift of dolls from Japan and other fragments of Georgian creative history. Also included in the book is artwork from the collection by such important Georgian artists as Elene Akhvlediani, Lado Gudiashvili, Natela Iankoshvili and others.
Tinatin Tumanishvili started with a toy collection and created a haven for tojinebi as well. The Tbilisi Dolls and Toys Museum has been housed in several locations before being packed away from its last location near the Gabriadze Theatre and packed away securely at the Union of Museums offices on Agmashenabeli in Tbilisi. And they will lie in boxes until a new home is constructed for them. Which is where I come into the picture. (But that will be another story altogether and the immovable tojinebi will find new movable companions when that happens!)
Oh by the way a word about this book: It is a large gorgeously printed 288 page tome. Only 500 were made. It is predominantly written in the beautiful but indecipherable Georgian script yet with plenty of English to give one a very intelligent idea of what the book is about. A reader of this essay might find themselves desperate for a copy. Getting one sent to you will not be an easy thing, but… it is possible. The actual cost of the book is mercifully not that much. But shipping? It weighs a couple of kilos (a few pounds). That will cost you more dearly. If you are one of those people curious to own it you can contact Nini Sanadiradze at the Union of Museums in Tbilisi. She can tell you how to obtain one. It cannot be found in any country other than Georgia.
You can go to this page.
At the bottom of that page there is a place to send email massages. Do so. And you should be able to get the information you need. The Union of Museums also has a Facebook page.
Well next time we discuss life at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières France. But for now we’ll just say Au revoir and Nachwamdis.
And so my journey commences, Alaska is behind me as I sit at the Juneau Airport having just suffered the serious indignities of the TSA, while watching an elderly woman so infirm she could barely move her wheelchair get patted down for five minutes as a threat to national security. It’s strange that Juneau, a place I seriously doubt anyone is going to ever use as an entrance for international skullduggery, usually has the worst security checks. Much worse than JFK, Heathrow or Charles De Gaulle. And since September 11th 2001 it’s always been that way. The only thing I can think of is that being so far removed from any aspect of terrorism, being so completely unable to imagine real terrorism, having only experienced these things through television and the internet they have succumbed to a dread paranoia of whoever ‘they’ might be. My dear departed mother whose body had been regularly infused with replacement parts was usually detained for the same treatment that the woman in the wheelchair had been. Which must explain the severe irritation I feel at the guards invading the propriety of the aged or handicapped who couldn’t possibly have ill motives nor the wherewithal even use the restrooms, let alone carry out an attack. And if you point this out to them, you will be suspect yourself, and pulled over to the side. Thus we submit. This is life in 2018.
Okay. Sorry. I just had to get that off of my chest. What am I doing here? Oh yeah I’m waiting to board a plane to get to Europe to continue my Gravity From Above journey and to end up in my new life in Georgia. So I suppose what I need to do is let you know my itinerary. And if anyone wants to meet me along the way contact me.
So yes… though I am moving to Tbilisi Georgia, I won’t get there until December 15th. So what will I be doing in the meantime?
Here is my itinerary.
October 6th through October 20th staying with friends in Paris and doing more puppetry and cultural research.
October 21st through November 2nd L’Abri in Huémoz Switzerland
November 2nd through November 4th Back in Paris
November 5th through November 30th Residency at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières France
December 1st and 2nd Luneberg Germany visiting friends
December 3rd through December 9th Prague Czechia (I liked the Czech Republic as name much much better. There just aren’t enough places you get to say ‘the’ before the name.)
December 10th through December 14th Paris one last time
December 15th Tbilisi Georgia to live.
And so I leave Alaska with too many mixed emotions to share here. Alaska will always be a part of me. Yet I know it is time to leave. The finger points east to Europe, even further east to Georgia. I will try to finish up this everlasting Gravity From Above documentary project as soon as I can. Editing will take time. Distribution longer. Yet Alaska will stay with me. Just as New York stays with me. California stays with me. The faces, the events, the ineffable.
I’ll be reporting more about my adventures through this Gravity From Above site, and of course I’ll keep writing my ideas over at The Anadromous Life. But eventually I’ll have to start a new site (I can’t bring myself to call what I do blogs. It is such a slobby sounding word.) about my Georgian life… but it’s certainly not going to be called My Georgian Life. I need to come up with a name.
Stick around. It’s sure to get interesting.
Feel like helping out? I can certainly use it. Contribute through PayPal today. Click here!
Well I’ve been quiet for a little while, catching up with my writing and catching my breath between journeys to Europa. Mostly preparing to leave Alaska permanently. Being back here has been tinged with a kind of nostalgia already. I am doing things that I know I will probably never do again: Picking spruce tips for tea, harvesting devil’s club, drying morels, puffballs and boletes to rediscover in over a year when my container is finally sent to Georgia; Taking people on tours to float down the Chilkat River or to see bears on the Chilkoot; Meeting friends to discuss my plans; Stopping others to let them know that my farewell event will be coming up on September 8th at the ANB/ANS Hall. Plus remembering the things I won’t miss here. Everyplace has its curses. In New York City it was crime, rats , roaches, ultra hipness. Here in Haines it’s small minded pettiness, bovine tourists and other forms of myopia. But there is much goodness and many friends that I will indeed miss.
Meanwhile on October 4th I leave for good. And there has been much to consider. Fortunately last summer’s insane moving crunch has left me in perfect position to move. Everything I own is in unit number 3 at S & W Storage. And I have gone through it all to remove things I won’t need in Tbilisi: lamps, waffle irons, heaters, microwave ovens, anything that simply plugs in and gets hot. Also I’ve put the finishing touches on my boxes and reorganized everything into the most efficient shape. And finally I’ve gone through the last of my mother’s things and mailed off the items connected more to my stepfather Mike’s family. And so my life here seems nearly completely closed down. Only a few final details left. They could be finished in a day. My storage unit is paid through October 2019.
Then there are the more complicated problems associated with my departure. New passport? It arrived last week after being rejected once for too much shadow in my photo I assume, but they didn’t specify. Airline tickets to Paris? Yes. But I still need to buy my December tickets from Paris to Tbilisi. I’m waiting for my funds to resolve a bit first. Train tickets for the Western European portion of my journey? Yes. Though I have to wait until I get to Europe to buy my specific reservations. A rental in Prague for a week? Yes. Though I am reminded how much hotel prices have risen since my first visit to Prague in 2000. Letters to friends in Paris, Switzerland and Germany? Yes and they are waiting for me. My apartment for the first three months in Tbilisi? Yes. Same place. (Thanks Mariam.) Continuity is a good thing.
But there is much I am struggling to get done. I have been working a lot to try to get the money I need to survive until my European money kicks in, which won’t be until early 2019. So after all of this summer’s traveling expenses, which also includes new clothing, a daypack, medical check up, car repairs so that I can sell it in good shape before I leave, and many other sundry things I am hoping my funds will hold to get me through the valley. (You can help out below through PayPal.) And I am trying to get my little book of puppet plays ready to sell before I leave. There are so many other things that I had hoped to finish before I leave. Because once I get to Georgia everything will change. (Mail is terrible there, which is a major problem.)
And so what am I doing once I leave?
On October 4th I leave on Alaska Marine Lines’ ferry for Juneau. I’ll spend a night at the Best Western Hotel then ricochet from Juneau to Seattle to Portland to Reyjavik to Paris. Then I’ll spend a couple of weeks in Paris with the Carons decompressing from all of my summer finalities. I’ll then spend two weeks at L’Abri in Switzerland where I hope to give two lectures: one on rediscovering beauty; one on the meaning of texture. Then I have been granted a four week residency at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières France.
At that point several things will happen: I will give a presentation on the state of this Gravity From Above documentary project. And then there is an important moment for both the life of the project and my own future. I don’t know how they will decide. (There have also been changes in the leadership since I was last there.) I will also interview more students for the project as well as do more research on the project especially for older imagery and cinematic images. All in all it looks to be a time to keep an eye on.
Then at the beginning of December I will travel up to northern Germany to visit good friends and then slingshot over to Prague for my final Gravity From Above interviews and images. Then I will return to Paris to wrap things up to go to Tbilisi, Georgia on December 14th.
When I arrive in Georgia I will immediately go to work getting ready to edit Gravity From Above on professional equipment. I will also check in with Nini Sanadiradze at the The Union of Tbilisi Museums at start to prepare for a tojina conference in late January. And thus my new life begins.
Watch this to be mesmerized by the dancers at Erisioni that I saw last March.
And so is this the finish line for Gravity From Above? Maybe. Or close to it. The end is in sight though. I still have to get my translations done. I still need to get music composed and recorded. I’ll probably need a few shots that I forgot about. I will need to get the films and their rights. But that’s what I’ll be working on from October to January. And how much of what gets done depends on what the International Institute of Puppetry provides.
Oh! And then there is trying to get the thing seen!!!
And so maybe there is more left than I thought. But we are certainly closing in on something!
And dear readers, friends and puppeteers I still need your support. The challenge isn’t over.
But thank you so much for helping me get this far.
August 26th 2018
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.
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.
One of the puppet theatres I had most wanted to contact was the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre. I had seen them perform in Paris and then again in Tbilisi and yet I never quite made contact. It was a disappointment since Rezo Gabriadze was one of the puppet directors I had most wanted to interview and Ramona one of the best puppets shows I had seen. But alas, one doesn’t get everything one wants.
Click on these for larger images.
I did however discover that there was another place in town, the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre (TSPT), which has existed in one form or another since 1934. And so I late February I found a Facebook page for them and and sent them a message. I was contacted by Ana Sanaia, an actress and their manager. She was happy to have me come see them. I found them in an old factory building called The Silk Factory, where they had a small theatre. I was let in on a day when there was an art exhibition in an adjacent gallery. The Silk Factory was used for a variety of purposes including a production studio that I was shown, which might be a place where I can edit the final version of Gravity From Above.
I was enjoying a conversation with a woman named Salome Berikashvili when Ana Sanaia came in. She was very glad to meet me. The show for the day was a short version of Tbilisi’s history done through allegorical imagery. The play called Sakartvelo (Georgia) featured a modified bunraku style not too different from the Gabriadze Theatre. They performed mostly on a table top, with performers in black moving the figures from behind. The main figures were a wooden donkey and a bird. But whether cotton balls for clouds or flat cutout dancers or pails filled with sand and turned upside down, then lifted up to represent an older Tbilisi, the sense of invention was continual. The main director Nikoloz Sabashvili had come from the theatre but was bringing to the puppet stage a wider grammar. I was especially impressed when the sandlot Tbilisi was set ablaze, some inflammatory accelerant laced into the sandcastles and then the sandcastles were destroyed. The donkey and the bird were seeking a butterfly, Suliko, who represents the soul of Georgia. Suliko is also a Georgian song, which is heard several times in the piece. But just when it seems like the butterfly will return it is crushed by the frightening boot of Communism. But, and this was a similar theme to Budrugana Gagra’s Isn’t This A Lovely Day, the donkey ascends in a ladder into the clouds to find the butterfly in a heavenly place. And then everyone sings a song. And that’s a happy ending in Georgia. Looking forward to eternal life, rather than the life in this embattled world. I find I am often impressed by the deep longings, often thwarted, in Georgian stories.
The song Suliko ends with these lines:
Ah, life has meaning once more now!
Night and day, I have hope
And I have not lost you, my Suliko
I shall always return to you, I know now where you rest.
Watch this now… It’s only 5 minutes of your life.
I also attended a children’s show on another day. The narrator was essentially a large khinkali. Let me try to explain what I mean. Khinkali is one of the national dishes of Georgia. It is a ravioli-like dumpling stuffed with ground spicy meat or selguni cheese. So what I’m saying is that the narrator of this children’s show was a large dumpling. The story, which I must confess I didn’t quite follow, my Georgian language skills can best be described as infantile, but it did involve love, a journey of sorts, farm animals and an ogre. Or was that a demon? The children were as noisy as the French kids, happily clapping and singing along when there was a moment. And the house was so crammed full that I felt guilty for taking up one of the seats.
A couple of weeks later in March I was invited by Ana to see the actual studios and rehearsal space of the TSPT. I met her in the Marjanishvili Square area. While waiting for her I bumped into Nino Namitcheishvili who was directing a puppet show based on Antoine Exupery’s The Little Prince over at the Marjanishvili Theatre. I told her I would go in a week. Ana came along after Nino had gone and had also met her on her way to see me. Artistically Tbilisi is not a very big town. Most people seem to know each other or at least about each other. Ana took me into a strange old modernist building that I had seen from a far but never seen close up. The building felt partially deserted partially unlit. We took an aging elevator up about seven floors. I entered the ramshackle hall on the floor that was used mostly by the puppet troupe. I was allowed to visit the rooms where craftsmen worked making dolls. I also met a few women working on clothing and other artistic aspects of puppet creation. It was a suitably crowded and thriving hive of activity. In another room the various puppeteers were gathering to work on improvisations and scripts. I also saw old rare posters for past shows sitting in a huge pile. At one point a puppet of Woody Allen was brought out. Evidently Georgians have a fondness for the neurotic New Yorker. Although it was hard to imagine what a Georgian would sound like imitating Vudi Aleni.
I was sitting in a moody dimly lit office with Niko Sabashvili watching a video he had directed in a theatrical manner that told a tragic Georgian political story of recent vintage. Ana Sanaia was there. She was also a potent actress within the film. Niko had to work on rehearsals when Salome came in. I told the two women about what had happened before this trip even started, losing my home of more than 20 years, receiving the backing of the International Institute of Puppetry in France at the beginning of this journey. As we spoke I also conveyed that I was starting to wonder if maybe I should relocate to Tbilisi. I had had several conversations that pointed me in that direction. They both looked at me seriously and told me at different moments: “You are supposed to be here.” There was something eerie about it. As though some direct word from above was coming through them. If I had been tilting towards the idea 60/40 when I walked in, I was even more thoughtful about the possibility when I left.
So while I was ruminating over these things it was clear to me that puppetry it turns out is very much alive in Tbilisi. There is much more to say though. Next time as we will visit the Marjanishvili Theatre and celebrate World Puppetry Day with the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre.
Come back soon!
Svaneti is a province in Georgia in the Greater Caucasus Mountains with the highest permanently inhabited village in Europe; Ushguli at 2,100 meters (6,900 ft). It is buried in snow about six months of the year. Until recently the roads were so fierce and unpredictable that the village remained essentially in the Middle Ages culturally. The roads are still quite dangerous. And so Ushguli has preserved strange towers that make it look like something Tolkien forgot to describe in Middle Earth. Improved roads now take visitors up the mountain sides today, mountain roads festooned with crosses for the dead who drove off the path. But as recently as the 1990’s not only Ushguli but much of Svaneti was living in a tribal past. Soviet Communism never penetrated too far. Even the Georgian Orthodox Church found its beliefs with mingled with animal sacrifices of a not too distance pagan past.
Mariam Khatchvani’s film Dede (pronounced day-day), which opened in Tbilisi Georgia in February 2017, after being featured at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, among others, is set in the near feudal world of Svaneti in the 1990’s. And you’ll have to remind yourself of that when you watch it. Filmed in Ushguli and other Svaneti locations it has the feel of authenticity that comes from a filmmaker knowing exactly what she is seeing. Khatchvani in a Svan herself and tells a story partly based on the stories her own grandmother told her. And in case you were thinking that the tribal past sounded like a romantic place to visit Khatchvani is sure to make you rethink that notion. In an earlier short film, Dinola, also based on her grandmother’s stories, and some of the harsher Svan traditions, a woman who loses her husband must marry the first man who then proposes. And leave her child with her late husbands family. Dinola is almost told from the child’s perspective.
Dede is the full perspective of the mother. It is a slightly different setting but recognizably the same basic story. But now it is much more complex. With three men and one woman and their relationship to her. But again the issue of child loss through tradition comes to the fore. Without going too deeply into the subtle and intense plot twists, which need to be seen without any advance knowledge, we can say that the issues with the child eventually recreate a winter trek through the deep snow directly based upon Khatchvani’s grandmother’s story.
The film is beautifully shot in Svaneti by Konstantin Esadze, which gives it far more production value than any Hollywood special effects could possibly match. Everything is real, because Svaneti, though now more accessible, is still there. Khatchvani uses stillness. She is unafraid to study the faces, the behavior of her characters. Giorgi Babluani is the only professional actor in the film. For anyone who has ever seen the original French/Georgian film 13 Tsameti he is the central figure in that extremely dark film. All of the other actors in Dede, as in Dinola, were Svan amateurs. And that is hard to believe. Especially in the central performance of Dina by Natia Vibliani. Natia plays the role with such conviction and honesty that I was surprised to find that she was not an actor at all. In two moments of emotional connection she conveys beautifully the depth of human longing and tenderness.
Now this is the part of my story that would be hard to replicate anywhere but Georgia. And why I am reviewing this film for you. I was in Tbilisi. I also have many Georgian Facebook connections. So I was curious as to whether Natia had a Facebook page. Why yes. She did. And so I wrote to her. And lo and behold within a few weeks we were sitting down in a cafe in the Saburtalo area, not too far from my apartment, for an interview. One thing I have come to understand about Georgians is that there is almost a innate curiosity about people and things. And so after a bit of communication back and forth we eventually found time to meet. And the reason it took a while, apart from the fact that she had to come back from an Egyptian film festival, is because her job keeps her quite busy. Natia she is a policewoman! She had studied law at university and was now doing security duty at the airport. This really made me laugh. One minute I’m watching her on a screen. Then I’m getting in touch with her. And she’s with the police. Only in Georgia!
We had a friendly and natural discussion, she in no way has let her film experience affect her. One thing that was important for me was to clarify parts of the film I may have misunderstood since there were no subtitles. Yes the film was about a woman whose child was taken from her due to ancient tribal codes. One character dies in a mountain car crash off screen. She was taken to another village to live while her son had to be left behind. We then entered the meat of the interview. (Which can be viewed below.) Why she was chosen to play the role. How she portrayed her character. How she felt working with professional actor Giorgi Babluani. Eventually we simply talked about ideas and places. I shared a few Alaskan stories and images. Natia had very recently gotten married. She wanted to take on more serious policing responsibilities and yet the idea of being in another film was also intriguing to her. One thing that was clear to me was that no matter what else happens to her Natia would always look at this time of her life as a unique moment.
While Dede has been shown in a few festivals it has not arrived in any English speaking countries yet. But I know one day it will. Mariam Khatchvani has made a very special and personal film well worth seeking out on disc or download someday. I would not have sought out Natia had the film not been excellent. My only small criticism of the film was that I would have wished that the scene where Natia’s character Dina had to walk through the snow to get back to her child had been more developed. But this is really a minor flaw. It was an excellent and heartfelt first feature film.
In an earlier essay I lamented the lack of mature films in our times. I mentioned the glut of comic book heroes and science fiction fantasy culture that surrounds us today. And many of these symptoms of cultural sterility can be found in Georgia as well. But not being made by Georgians. Dede is the kind of film we need in such hollow times. A film of honesty and reality set in a specific time in a specific place.
More Georgian stories are coming!
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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’ve discovered a lost world just this week.
And I mean that. I’m not talking in hyperbole.
I was ushered into a room that had the puppetry equivalent of King Tut’s treasures in it. Collecting the dust of years. Made by a name seemingly opaque to the world of puppets, puppet films, puppetry animation, never mind the big world. More than once my jaw was firmly resting on the floor with the miniature spectacle being revealed to me. I found a lost world this week, the world of forgotten Georgian puppet animator Karlo Sulakauri.
I originally visited Tbilisi Georgia in March of 2016. One of the tiny museums I tried to get into was what the Georgian Museums site called the Animated Puppet Museum. I had dutifully, eagerly hunted it down, going so far as to navigate the cryptic bus system to end up at 23 Amagleba Street. All I found was a locked door, the most paint cracked door imaginable, with an old rusty plaque on it that read ‘Karlo Sulakaure – Puppetton (?) Animation Doll Museum’. A ringing of the bell and knocks on the door produced no sound. Trying to peer into the windows proved impossible. The other puppet folk in Tbilisi didn’t even know of the existence of this place. I wrote to the email addresses listed on the Georgian Museums page. Silence.
I wrote a note to the Quay brothers about it. They immediately saw the extreme possibility of what might lay behind that door. They wrote back: “The plaque of the Puppet Museum is very moving and poignant. Somebody probably walked out, locked up, and then passed away and that person had the only key and he/she was buried with it, and the museum as well. But you must try to get into it.” I took that as a command. But to no avail. Like the spectral house in Shirley Jackson’s Daemon Lover, no one ever came to the door. Whenever I mentioned it to people who might know something they just looked at me with a puzzled hopeless expression. And so I left Tbilisi and all I had was the mysterious plaque in a photograph.
I arrived back in Tbilisi in late December of 2017 for an extended three month stay. I would meet more people. Occasionally I asked about the museum. No one knew anything. Then at the beginning of February, reflecting on the older photo, I thought again about the museum and then remembered the Quays command. I thought let’s give it one more try. So I wrote to the email addresses still listed on the museum website.
A few days passed.
And then I received a response from someone named Daro Sulakauri. Originally I thought it was a man, but it is hard to tell male and female names apart in Georgian. Tako is girl. Toko is a boy. Daro proved to be the granddaughter of Karlo Sulakauri, who had made animated films from the 1950s until the 1980s in the old Soviet Union. The little museum featured his work exclusively. Daro would be happy to open the door to the ‘Puppetton Animation Doll Museum’ and to give me a private showing. I had no idea what to expect. But it would take longer than I expected to get in. Daro is a photojournalist who works for international magazines like National Geographic or Georgian Journal, etc and she was often out on assignment. I had to wait. But what else is new? This is Georgia. I’m getting used to it.
Eventually Daro’s schedule proved favorable to a visit. And so I took the bus up to Amagleba Street and stood again at the decaying door. I pressed the doorbell. No answer. But I assumed that she would be coming from somewhere else. I was wrong though. Shortly before the appointed time a pleasant curly haired young woman wearing glasses opened the door with a friendly smile. She didn’t know I was there. The doorbell didn’t work. I should have knocked.
But as I stepped in I was suddenly presented with a very tactile colorful artistic stairway leading up to the first floor. But we stepped under it and back passed piles of stored boxes and other debris. Daro opened up a door and flipped a light switch. I was sidetracked by some art on the wall. And then I turned my attention to the room. And as we entered I must have gasped. I had expected some children’s puppetry. It turned out that Elene at Budrugana Gagra did know about this place. In fact they used to practice underneath in the basement, in what is now a restaurant. (This happens all the time here. Someone says they don’t know what you mean. Then it turns out they know much more than they said.) Elene had shown me a couple of pages in a book on Georgian animation. A thick book! And it seemed like pleasant work. But none of those images prepared me for what I was about to discover. Karlo Sulakauri wasn’t just an animator, he was an artist with a complete aesthetic vision. And no one seemed to know anything about him.
But Daro knew a lot. We spoke as she pointed things out. I waited a moment before beginning to photograph the collection. I was just trying to take it all in. Once my eyes adjusted I began to see images of creatures and people that I had never seen before. There was an old man in a wagon. I saw strange assemblages on the wall made many years ago that looked like they could have been found in a Soho gallery today. There were strange figures with even stranger lips. A tree man, I think, made of of wood. Look again and that old man had a strange grin. There were old posters of puppet shows from the mid-20th Century. Photos of Karlo and his film crew. Deformed asymmetrical puppets. A wicker figure. A large spider with a weird painted abdomen. A wooden flute with insectoid notes emerging from it. And most impressively, even eerily, of all I was struck by an insect/bird/moth/fairy that was battered with age and set against a ragged aquamarine background.
And as I spoke with Daro fragments of Karlo’s life began to revealed. And I soon recognized an absolutely dramatic story in the telling. And later I would hear even more of the tale from Daro’s father, Karlo’s son, Dato. Meanwhile I began to discuss even more with Daro, which eventually settled upon the topic near and dear to many Georgians – music. Then Daro introduced me to her husband, an electronic DJ, Giorgi Kancheli. And soon we were sitting in his studio listening to music and discussing the vinyl LP, of which he had a respectable collection. And I realized that there was something in the way Georgians talk that is at once open to new ideas, yet simultaneously respectful of traditions. Meanwhile I was smitten by the art all over the house. Much was by Dato. One wall tapestry arrested me for its use of textures. This was made by Daro’s mother, Nino Kipshidze. Then Daro pointed out a portrait of her mother in her youth as drawn by the famous Soviet Era filmmaker, Tbilisi born Armenian, Sergei Parajanov. In fact the creativity of this lineage of human beings was quite something to behold. And soon I would see just how much more there was.
Daro drove us through the back streets of Tbilisi until we arrived at a building not too far from Rustaveli Square, yet complete hidden. A gently aging ornate wooden house similar in color to the paint behind the moth fairy. We were met at the door by Dato Sulakauri, who it turns out is a very respected painter in his own right, and his wife Nino Kipshidze, who actually runs the Georgian State Museum of Folk and Applied Art that I described in my last essay, and does fantastic patchwork art of her own in tapestries, based on traditional Georgian motifs. And the part of me that is desperate for texture really connected to one of her works back at the museum / Daro’s house. But it was Dato’s work here that caught me. His work too was often inspired by Georgian themes. And his encaustic (waxed based) ikons were beautifully rendered, being both primitive (you could see ancient Roman art in his paintings), contemporary (technique, style, intensity) and yet there was gratefully no trace of postmodern irony. I was so impressed that Dato noticed and eventually handed me a copy of a book of his work.
But I was here to discuss his father, Karlo. But not until Nino laid a small but wonderful table setting of wine, tea, cookies and jam. Eventually it was time to set up the camera and train the lens on Dato, who then through Daro, an excellent interpreter due her time spent in the USA. (But that’s a long story better left for another time.) Then came the story of Karlo Sulakauri, which touched me in its complexity, heartbreak, drama and epiphany. How can I possibly do it justice? Perhaps a few details.
Karlo left Georgia to work in puppetry under the great Sergei Obraztsov. Obraztsov soon recognized his talent and sent him back to Tbilisi to work on animation films. He made a series of animated films including Soviet childhood classic Bombora, Salamura (a serious and impossible to classify hour long film based on the work of poet E. Kipiani), Dolls Laugh, and a unique film whose title translates into Fairy Tale Within A Fairy Tale. Sadly the only copies of these films available for anyone to see are muddy copies on YouTube in the Georgian and Russian alphabets and certainly no subtitles. Supposedly at least some of the films still exist in vaults in Moscow, but who knows in what condition. (I’ve linked Salamura and Fairy Tale Within A Fairy Tale which are highly worth watching even in this form.)
But that’s only the beginning of the issues surrounding these films. The Soviet apparatchik producers were playing a strange game with the puppets, which involved destroying the figures in front of Sulakauri at the end of production in order to embezzle the money needed to produce more puppets. Sulakauri was able to smuggle out duplicates of many of the puppets. But many precious originals were cut in half before his eyes. And then there was a fire that swept through the Tbilisi studio. Sulakauri actually risked his life to rescue the puppets that now live in this museum. There were strange issues with the censors. Sulakauri would put in ambiguous images like a red Kremlin shaped building that was filled with clowns. Hmmm. What kind of symbolism could that contain? When asked, he waved away their correct suspicions by saying it was just the clown house. They made him paint it white. But the point was still being made. In another episode Sulakauri put a subliminal image of St. George. But they caught it when they happened to freeze frame the film accidentally in that exact spot.
After the end of the Soviet Empire, in the early 90s, when Georgia was independent but caught in an internal civil war, fighting spread to the streets on Rustaveli Avenue. Sulakauri watched on helplessly. The main body of his work was finished. Yet he was inspired to make a new piece. He worked on it for over a year. He wanted the strife to end. This was to be his masterpiece. When it was finished he took it to be developed. As it was running through the developing machine the electricity suddenly failed, as happened often in Georgia in the 90s. The entire film was ruined. Sulakauri was devastated. He gave up on filmmaking, never to make another film. His depression was serious. It was the birth of his grandchildren that brought joy to his final days. He died in the year 2000.
And so his collection has remained pretty much where he left it ever since then. Collecting dust. Awaiting rediscovery. This small museum was occasionally open. But not for some time. And it was his granddaughter Daro, now living in that house, who opened the door for me to see these treasures. I told her that I was absolutely stunned and honored to be able to see these things. I also told her that puppet animation history needs to be rewritten to include Karlo Sulakauri. My time with the Sulakauris was deeply moving on many levels. And I felt grateful to be allowed a step into their world.
When I arrived at my apartment on Vazha-Pshavela Avenue I did a little online homework. I accessed the archives at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières, France. Not a mention of Sulakauri. Nothing on Wikipedia. He is listed as Carlo (sic) Sulakauri in IMDb. I guess someone thought he was Italian. There was very little information there. Not even his dates (1924 – 2000). I was more convinced than ever that others, especially animators, need to know who he was. And so this essay along with my photos is a first step to informing the rest of the world about him.
There was one final thing that Dato told me that said me everything about his father. When he was just a six year old boy a traveling puppet troupe had come through his village. Later the family realized that Karlo was missing. Everyone searched the village. Karlo was nowhere to be found. The whole village was worried. Eventually it was discovered that young Karlo had stowed away to join the traveling puppet show.
Many more discoveries are awaiting. So come back again soon. (Or stop now and read our past encounters with European puppets, filmmakers, musicians, dancers and more.)
For more information about Dato Sulakauri’s art:
For more information about Daro Sulakauri’s photojournalism:
I’ve written more on the unique world of Georgian artists here:
And remember we are still funding this project from the bottom of very shallow pockets and can still use all the help we can get. We are grateful for recent PayPal contributions that really meant much more than can be expressed here. If you wish to help out please feel free to make a contribution. You can also share this story with others. Thanks for the continuing encouragement.
One of the things I’m attempting to do while in Georgia is to explore the culture to understand where the music, the dance and the puppetry comes from. In order to do this I find myself haunting some fairly out of the way locales. And that means finding museums that are not only ‘off the beaten path’ but almost abandoned. It’s weird to find yourself being the only person in a museum for over an hour. And these are ‘national museums’ and certainly listed as such. And yet when I arrive it seems that the main job of the friendly museum staff is to care for the treasures that they are sitting on. I’m also imagining that in the summer they get a bit more traffic than I’ve seen so far. And I hope they are getting school field trips and other purposeful visits as well. And yet as I open these cabinets of curiosities I am frankly entranced by what I find. And when I pay a few lari more I can get a personal guide to walk me through the collection and explain everything to me in the most knowledgeable ways.
The Quay Brothers once told me that it wasn’t simply that they were attracted to puppets, rather it was the discarded things found at the fringes of art and society, the cultural marginalia, that inspired them. And I seriously understand this. To say you’ve been to Europe and that you’ve seen the Mona Lisa means almost nothing. Especially when you’ve entered the Louvre along with thousands of other visitors only to stare for a few moments at the small painting ensconced behind bulletproof glass and surrounded by endless quantities of tourists taking videos and selfies of the experience rather than actually seeing the thing itself. I get the same feeling when someone tells me they love films, then go on to list popular fantasy and science fiction films that quite literally 90% of earth’s population has seen. It all becomes part of what Walker Percy describes as a preformed symbol complex, making it nearly impossible for the average person to actually see the Grand Canyon or the Colosseum, even while standing before them. Thus those who really are able to grasp meaning from art or culture are not those who will wait for hours at the most recent super show at the Met, rather it is those who can stop and gaze at the patterns of embroidery on a regional costume. Those able to see through the musty scratches of an old silent film. Or those willing to find arcane treasures in forgotten museums.
In some sense every museum in Tbilisi, Georgia, is already obscure by the standards of present day art and relic consumption. How many Americans could tell you who Niko Pirosmani is? And he is the most important artist from Georgia. Not to mention Lado Gudiashvili or Davit Kakabadze? Few indeed. But then again how many of my fellow citizens could even name a living artist? So even the most prestigious galleries and museums in Georgia are, by definition, marginal outside of Georgia. But I will save a discussion of the art for another essay and will only incidentally mention it here. (For more on Georgian art and culture follow this link.) (And since I have already written about my encounter with the Stalin museum elsewhere I leave aside that visit here.)
So let’s dive off the edge!
One of the most consistent features of these strange little Georgian museums is the fact that they are rarely advertised or even well advertised, even on the buildings they inhabit. Consider the most recent museum I discovered: The State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Musical Instruments. Sounds pretty interesting no? Especially if music interests you. So I walk up a street out of the way off the main tourist route. I’m looking for a sign. I see a little sign. So I turn towards the sign. Nothing. I walk a little into a passageway. What would you expect if you were looking for a museum? Not what I found. I basically entered a backyard, descended steps, and did not feel at all that I was about to enter anything resembling a museum. (See photo below.)
I enter the building to find what I always find in these odd museums. Police guards. Who seem to be on the most boring duty imaginable. No one else. Nothing that immediately suggests museum. Just police. It was the same at the silk museum, and at the various small art museums. They must be there for a reason! But they usually look at you as if to insinuate ‘What are doing here?’ When I say something like ‘Museum?’ they point further back into…. what? I never know. I don’t know which way to turn. I am obviously the only person there who isn’t being paid something by the state. But then this is where the interesting stuff starts to happen. I find a closed door with people behind it. I motion at them. I hate to disturb them. Then they look at me as if to say ‘Did you want something?’ I say ‘Gamarjoba’ (‘Hello’ but literally Victory!). And ask if they speak English. Then offer to pay the entry fee. Which sometimes leaves them scrambling for something resembling change. Am I the first person today? And it’s an hour and a half until closing time! The fee is usually about 3 to 5 lari; less than two dollars. This time they asked if I wanted a guide. And this time I said Yes! And so they asked for 5 lari more. And so at the State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Musical Instruments my guide was a friendly and knowledgeable woman named Eka.
She started to walk me through the exhibits explaining to me the various instruments, how old they are, where they are from, and what they do. And then she is pleasantly surprised to discover that I am not your average tourist. But then again what on earth would the ‘average’ visitor to this museum be like? Nevertheless it is clear that I already know more about Georgian music than 99.9999% of all non-Georgians. So she gives me even better information than I was expecting. And then she stops and plays an old 78 rpm record of the song Tsintskaro on an ancient wind-up Victrola. Later she starts the mechanism of a street barrel organ, opening it to show the barrel and pin as it plays. Eka even sits to play an ancient Georgian church melody on an antique wheezy German foot pump church organ. Now that is five lari well spent!
I also managed to locate the Georgian State Museum of Folk and Applied Art in the old town. Again I enter it takes fifteen minutes to make change for 20 lari. They did let me start looking at the museum as they were sent into a spiral of questions amongst themselves. (Am I the day’s only visitor again?) But soon I find myself drifting through Georgian carpets, traditional costumes, intricate parasols, and beautiful porcelain tea cups. And they were featuring a special exhibit of primitive paintings by random Georgians of Shota Rustaveli and Queen Tamar from the Golden Age of Georgia’s Medieval Period. Fascinating stuff. (Click on the photos to open up the images.)
By far one of the most unusual experiences I had was at The State Silk Museum. First of all read that title again: The State Silk Museum. What could that be? Are they showing silk fabric? Well yes. But you see Georgia was a major stop on the Silk Road. And like Lyon, Tbilisi was a silk manufacturing town. And so not only was this a demonstration of fabric… It was also a display of silkworms! And all things sericulture. This is the kind of place Guillermo del Toro could only dream of. The lights were off in the cold museum and they turned one on and told me how to turn the rest of them on. Half of this museum was dedicated to silk cocoons, silk caterpillars in glass, and strange devices for silk harvesting, all in dark wood and aging glass cases from the museums opening over 125 years ago. And there was a whole room dedicated to mulberry shrubs, the silkworm diet. And did you know that silk quality depends on the mulberry quality? I didn’t. But my faithful guide Mariam did. She knew more obscure facts about silk than I could possibly ask. But somehow we ended up talking about music. It is Georgia after all. And not only is she conversant sericulture but she is a musicologist as well. And as our conversation veered from Jimi Hendrix, to Bach, to John Cage, to Bernard Herrmann she kept up eagerly with all of the twists and turns. I can’t even begin to tell you how many discussions about music I’ve had here. Worth all five lari I spent on the day!
Oh and speaking of obscurities, while visiting the musical troupe Erisioni (Be patient for that one!) I met a former BBC, NBC, etc cameraman, documentarian, an Australian of Ukrainian heritage named Vladimir Lozinski, who would later fill me on the turbulent politics of Georgia’s post-Soviet history. He had heard that there was a locked door in the building Erisioni rehearsed in. So he managed to get the room opened up while I was there. And we entered. This was genuinely a surprise. The vast chamber had been a movie theatre prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. Ornate designs were encrusted on the walls. But in the 90’s the Georgian Civil War, raging on the streets of Rustaveli Avenue below us, had destroyed it. The floor was dirt and debris. But the walls remained magnificent. We were allowed to take all the photos we wanted. And I could only hope that someday this along with many other structures would be restored… And not removed by the powers that be to build some hideous postmodern monstrosity.
And of course the most mysterious museums of all were the ones I most want to see. The puppet museums! A few days ago I sought for the illusive Tbilisi Puppet Museum, which supposedly was not too far from the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre. I didn’t find it. Today my friend Elene Murjikneli from Budrugana Gagra explained why. One day it was simply emptied out. Then the building was torn down. And now in its place stands sterile contemporary architecture housing a hotel. And what happened to the puppets? No one knows. The puppeteers didn’t know. Were they stolen? Hidden? Buried? Sold?
And finally there is the most mysterious museum of all which I discussed in my first visit to Tbilisi in 2016. The Animation Puppet Museum. Does anyone know that Georgia used to make puppet films in the Soviet Era? All I ever found was a corroding sign on the door. But!!! Now I have good news. The daughter of one of the animators has contacted me. And will open the doors of the museum soon… Just for me.
Speaking of the marginal and magical: Really I don’t need anyone else to come find me here. I’m fine. I’m happy with empty museums in this mysterious place.
But do come back soon to read my next adventure.
16 / 2/ 2018
PS. The way things are going I’m pretty sure I’ll be counting my tetri (Georgian cents) in March. The financial losses I took at the beginning of my journey are starting to become apparent. If you are appreciating this reportage from the other side of the world then you can be a part of it by using my PayPal account to contribute. It’s safe and easy to do and anything would be helpful. Thanks! Byrne
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 was whisked from Brussels back to Paris on the TGV. Sitting next to me was a young woman in sloppily dyed greenish/blondish hair reading Russian. We struck up a conversation and it turned out that Olga worked for one of the three larger media conglomerates in Moscow and within a few moments she revealed to me the depth of the state control on all the media outlets there. I don’t think writing this will get her in trouble since Olga is an extremely common name (though the green tint not so much), and she didn’t act particularly worried about it, and besides I suspect that these essays are on no one’s radar. She was taking a break to come look for art in Paris and was quite curious about the Symbolist museum I’d visited in Brussels. She was also going to see a progressive metal concert in Paris the same night I was scheduled to catch up with the Gabriadze Theatre’s performance of Ramona. I helped her get situated at Gare de l’Est and the continued on by metro and bus to L’Häye Les Roses in the southern banlieue of Paris to stay with Paulette’s parents Gilles and Lori Caron.
This was my home base on my journey through Europe and I would be breaking bread and sharing good conversation with them off and on until I finally took a plane to Georgia in late December. I also was getting to know Paulette’s younger brother Julian, who is an avid gamer and is aware that his chosen field is a battleground of sorts. He is working on a theses concerning the sociology of gaming. And was aware the some aspects of gaming had an extremely addictive quality built into them by the designers (MMORPG’s for instance). He himself was actually working on games to be played in real time, without computers, roughly based on the old Dungeons and Dragon model. He could see the importance of not being disconnected from living breathing humanity. A worthy discussion was had all round.
Since I was only in Paris for a few days I decided to make the best of it. After a day off, working on practical chores, I decided go to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs to see the Christian Dior retrospective. It was quite crowded but I’m quite glad I waded through the humanity to see Dior’s fashions. Part of my reason for coming was in my continuing to think about texture and its affect upon us. And indeed there was much food for thought here. (I thought of several friends who would have feasted on this exhibition.) Now I won’t say that everything in the show caught my eye. Occasionally there were the kinds of clothes that seemed too fashionable, too haute couture, for my tastes. But when confronted with actual items made of a vast variety of textures I was smitten by the way texture changes everything. And how so many clothes today (T-Shirts with slogans, yoga pants, gray sweat shirt material, various polyblends) see so lifeless by comparison. The weave of a fabric changes its texture, changes its meaning. While we, American’s are particularly bad at this, seem to have only one criterion left, comfort. But I was certainly converted to a more truly beautiful aesthetic by my stroll through this gargantuan exhibit.
Finally on the same November evening I took a bus over to Le Monfort théâtre in the 14th Arrondissement to see the Rezo Gabriadze Marionette Theatre’s production of Ramona. And this proved to be one of the best puppet shows I’d ever seen in my life. The story concerned two trains in the old USSR, one named Ramona, who are separated by the socialist call to duty during World War II. The trains are given character and the supporting cast of puppets were made largely of various socialist functionaries. The trains are constantly separated from each other by war, circumstances, and communist decrees. And in the end both trains are scrapped. And in the heartbreaking twist they are both melted down together to form one essence.
The puppeteers performed largely on a tabletop dressed in black faces exposed. Related to, but unlike, bunraku style. I approached one of the puppeteers after the show to introduce myself. He did speak English yet didn’t know exactly what he could do for me. But then as I turned to walk away the puppeteer called me back. He told me to wait while he called a man over to meet me. Rezo Gabriadze is no longer traveling with the troupe due to his age. But I was introduced to his son Leo and he was glad to meet me. And I will indeed be visiting them again in Tbilisi in 2018.
I also met another Russian, Irene, who was an actress come down from Saint Petersburg who had two months to try to get involved with French film or theatre before her visa expired. And something in her manner struck me in that elusive manner that only the Russians can generate; part mystery, part tragedy. All in all this little interlude proved to be evocative on many levels. And inspired many new thoughts and ideas.
Next stop: Lyon, France.
So here is a vague idea of my itinerary on this mammoth adventure from October 3rd 2017 through April 3rd 2018. This only gives you the geopolitical references not the reality of my expectations for each place. Suffice it to say that this will be a serious undertaking. And as I review my expenses, after far too many last minute hidden unexpected major payments, I will indeed be counting coins by the end. (So feel free to help out with that PayPal button on the right. I can’t tell you how much that could help.) I won’t mention my expenses again for quite a while and unless I get in deep waters but do keep me in mind in your ponderings. Meanwhile I am going nuts trying to literally store my entire life of 21 years into one storage room and haul the rest away. (Garbage costs!!) In three more days! So I haven’t got anymore time to fill you in about the journey. If you need more information, read the last few entries. If you want to know why on earth I am doing this then go back to the three essays I wrote as a history of the project. (Click This Spot.)
This journey is a strange mixture of exploration, exile and mission for me. I’m not exactly sure what I’ll find this time, but I really don’t have another choice but to go. So next time I write it will be from Europe. Hopefully I will have settled everything back here in Haines. Wish me well. I can use prayers too. Good thoughts if that’s what you can spare.
Back to work!
And thanks for your support in this.
October 3rd Haines to Juneau, Alaska
October 4th & 5th Juneau through Seattle and Reykjavik to Paris, France
October 5th – 8th Paris
October 9th – 27th Charleville-Mézières, France – International Institute of Puppetry and ESNAM
October 27th – November 5th Brussels, Belgium Time spent with the Toone and Peruche tMarionette Theatres
November 5th – 7th Paris
November 8th – 13th Lyon Various Guignol related activities
November 13th – 24th Huémoz, Switzerland – L’Abri Fellowship (Giving two music lectures)
November 24th – Train to Genoa, Italy then 17 hour ferry to Sicily
November 25th – 30th Palermo, Italy – Sicilian Marionettes
December 1st – 5th Rome, Italy – Commedia dell’arte style puppets
December 5th – Overnight train to Paris
December 6th – 10th Paris (More puppet related activities including Guignol)
December 11th – 14th London – The Quays & meeting filmmaker Matty Ross
December 14th – 21st Paris More puppet and cultural activities
December 21st – 22nd Plane through Warsaw, Poland to Tbilisi, Georgia
December 22nd, 2017 – March 28th, 2018 (!) – Tbilisi, Georgia Guesthouse stay for a few days then three months in a studio apartment – Much more research into Puppetry and the unusual music and dance of Georgia.
March 28th – Plane from Tbilisi, Georgia through Warsaw to Paris
March 29th – April 1st – Paris
April 2nd – Plane from Paris through Reykjavik to Seattle to Juneau, Alaska
April 3rd – Juneau to Haines, Alaska
Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.
The season changes. The unknown beckons. It’s been a short time since I wrote to delineate the developments in our Gravity From Above documentary and the coming major journey. And there have been several good reasons for that.
First of all last I wrote it was mid-fundraiser. And I haven’t wanted to keep writing after going through the endlessly necessary and annoying task of pleading for donations. It was time to give you all a break. Now on the sidebar here I have written to thank everyone, as I have through Facebook, for helping us to achieve our modest goal for this trip. In a nutshell, we received enough money through Indiegogo to let you know that we took home about $3,700 after they took their cut. Besides that we received more money through a live fundraiser in Haines and another $1,100 through donations on my PayPal account through this site here. (Hint. Hint.) bringing us over $5,000 for this site. The PayPal contributions here are actually more beneficial since they only take 3% away versus Indiegogo’s 8.5%. So if you choose to add to our funds as we travel then please feel free to do so. I can say this with absolute conviction we are traveling on the cheap here and will be counting our pennies, cents, centimes and tetri.
The second reason for the delay is that I have also been packing my entire life into boxes and taking them over to a nearby storage facility. And this will involve as many as five hundred boxes. Acquaintances will often commiserate and tell me how they know that moving takes a while. They mean well. I usually don’t disabuse them of the difference between what I mean when I say moving as opposed to what they mean. I will simply say this: When I moved up to Alaska 20 years ago my library weighed over 10,000 lbs (over 4500 kgs). That is most likely on a different order than what most people mean by the minor difficulties in moving. It takes two months simply packing everyday.
Thirdly… Oh yeah, I’ve been planning for what is now a six month journey into Europe. And that requires plenty of planning all by itself. I’ve been writing back and forth to puppeteers and friends. I’ve been trying to stay with people as much as possible and trying to reduce my costs as much as possible. I’ve been wrangling with Polish airlines and hotel booking sites and the inevitable mistakes that arise in undertaking such an intense endeavor. And since I am effectively in a form of exile during this time I must fill up my entire schedule. Returning for a month for Christmas and New Year isn’t an option. So there have been plane and ferry tickets, several hotel rooms, an apartment in Georgia for three months, and train reservations to make all requiring serious expenditures and much forethought. There are calendars to fill, itineraries to write, schedules to consult, maps to study, researches to follow, guide books to read. How do I travel from the train to the hotel? From the hotel to the puppet theatre? A journey this vast takes serious thought and time to construct. Especially if I want to have a meaningful trip and not just a series of random encounters. (Sometime soon I’m going to write about my traveling philosophy and how I really do manage to have such meaningful experiences.)
And now the good news… With the funds raised recently through my crowdfunding campaign I can now add Italy to my itinerary for the first time ever. (By the way without friends acquaintances and former supporters I would have made almost zilch from interested parties with whom I have had no previous contacts. Please prove me wrong! I have in the past been the recipient of a few very generous strangers’ largess. But not this time.) And I am very excited to finally get down to Italy. I will be going to Sicily to see the Sicilian marionettes in Palermo as well as a great puppet museum. And I will be going to Rome for the first time ever to see a puppet theatre with figures based on the commedia dell’arte. These two styles are some of the most foundational in European puppetry and I am privileged to finally witness them.
I will also get to spend more time in Brussels with the Toone and Peruchet marionette theatres. And this time I will be lodged with Toone. So I’m really looking forward to that. I will be able to visit Pascal Pruvost and Guignol again in Paris. And spend time with a new troupe in Lyon with my dear friend Paulette Caron. Plus I’ll be staying with her folks in the Paris area which will help save funds and allow me to dive more deeply into French culture. Plus there is the three week sojourn in Charleville at the International Puppetry Institute, which is what kicked this whole journey into gear in the first place. I’ll see the Quays again in December. Stay at L’Abri in Switzerland for a couple of weeks in November where I’ll give a couple lectures. And then there is the huge three month chunk of time in Georgia, which I know will produce cultural experiences that I can’t even begin to measure; puppetry, music and dance. And there will be much more. There will undoubtedly be more puppetry experiences, particularly in France. And there will be surprises. There will of course also be illnesses, stomach problems, sore feet, strange scenarios, missed connections, frustrations, misunderstandings and the usual headaches of real travel. These things come. You just bite the bullet and accept it.
But I can’t wait. Except for around two hundred more boxes to pack, some furniture to sell, serious cleaning up to do, a work season to finish up and too many last minute tasks to mention, except for that I’m ready! I’ll be writing much more regularly now. So stick around and travel with me. And thanks to all those who have helped me with this journey… And those who will help in the months to come.
Time for a little disheartening news. After my long journey to Europe this year to gather more interviews I find myself at a serious temporary roadblock. It’s not the first it won’t be the last. But this time it’s particularly frustrating since I’m much closer to the finish line than I’ve ever been before. I can see it ahead. But that pesky old devil, money, stands in the way.