Ballerina Nina Ananiashvili brings her vision of Don Quixote to Hong Kong
Star dancer Nina Ananiashvili brings her vision to Hong Kong Ballet's Don Quixote, writes Natasha Rogai
A superstar is in town. Nina Ananiashvili, one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century and former star of the Bolshoi Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, is here to stage a production of Don Quixote for Hong Kong Ballet - and the dancers are dazzled.
For Yuh Egami, who grew up watching her videos, working with the star has been surreal.
"She is such a great inspiration and fantastic to work with. So funny and passionate and ... always laughing a lot," Egami says.
Fellow dancer Jonathan Spigner agrees: "She's a great character. It's easy to fall in love with her."
People around the world have been falling in love with Ananiashvili since she burst onto the scene in the 1980s. Born in Georgia, where she was a national figure skating champion, she switched to ballet and moved to Moscow to study full time at the age of 13, accompanied by her grandmother.
Dancing lead roles with the Bolshoi during her teenage years, she is famous for her beauty, the virtuosity of her dancing and radiant stage presence. A national treasure in her homeland, she returned to Georgia in 2004 at the invitation of then president Mikheil Saakashvili to become artistic director of the State Ballet of Georgia.
In person Ananiashvili is youthful and lively - her sparkle and sense of humour make it easy to see why Kitri, Don Quixote's feisty heroine, was one of her signature roles. Packed with comedy and spectacular dancing, this is a ballet everybody loves. "It's exciting, there's no tragedy - even if you're in a bad mood you come out feeling good," she says. "Ballet is so easy to watch - you get music, dance and drama all in one."
Although she's performed Don Quixote hundreds of times with many different companies, this is the first time Ananiashvili has staged it herself. She has brought with her a strong team: Aleksei Fadeechev, her partner at the Bolshoi where he was subsequently artistic director (and staged the troupe’s acclaimed Don Quixote, seen in Hong Kong in 1999) as artistic consultant; and Ekaterina Shavliashvili, State Ballet of Georgia's ballet mistress, as assistant to the choreographer. "We're keeping the classic choreography by Marius Petipa and Alexander Gorsky, but have cut the ballet down from three acts to two," says Ananiashvili. "So it will be a very dynamic version."
That will suit Hong Kong audiences - on the other hand, Ananiashvili is wondering what will work here in terms of humour. "Different countries respond differently. Things which make people laugh in Moscow aren't funny in New York. So you have to adapt."
Ananiashvili herself continues to dance with the State Ballet of Georgia, knowing that her appearances guarantee sold-out engagements abroad - in New York or Japan adoring fans queue for hours to get her autograph. Luckily, she still enjoys being on stage, although she feels her technique is no longer what it was, especially her renowned elevation.
"I can't jump any more," she says mournfully. Shavliashvili interrupts: "Oh, yes you can. It's just that now you jump like a normal ballerina instead of like a man."
Fortunate to be a member of the first generation of Soviet dancers allowed to travel and work abroad freely, as an artist Ananiashvili "treasures freedom". At the same time, she believes the old ways are best when it comes to the discipline needed to be a good dancer. "Ballet is not a democracy," she says firmly, with a flash of her huge dark eyes.
Her own troupe in Georgia have found this out the hard way. "Georgians are like Italians - we love good food, wine and having fun," and dancers with that temperament don't appreciate her insistence on being on time for class and rehearsal ("especially the men", she says). She also demands that dancers rehearse in leotards and tights, instead of the loose tops and bulky legwarmers commonly favoured today.
"When the dancers wear things like that it's impossible to see their bodies properly, so you can't give the right corrections."
It's an integral part of the Russian tradition Ananiashvili grew up with that coaching and correction from your teachers never ends, no matter how experienced you are or how big a star. At the Bolshoi her teachers were two great ballerinas of the past - Raissa Struchkova and Marina Semyonova - both of whom she revered and whose guidance she found essential. So when she started appearing with companies overseas, she was surprised to find that the teaching staff never corrected her. It turned out that they didn't dare - most guest stars, it seems, wouldn't accept any criticism.
"I had to explain that, on the contrary, I wanted to be corrected - that's the only way to learn and improve."
Today's dancers find this hard to take, she says. "They need to understand that I'm not correcting them because I don't like them. I do like them. That's why I want to make them better dancers."
A key element in dancing that is often neglected, she reckons, is acting, which is particularly important in ballets such as Don Quixote. While acknowledging with a twinkle that every generation thinks their juniors aren't as good as they were ("The dogs didn't bark that way in our day, as they say in Russia"), she feels dramatic standards have fallen, even at the Bolshoi.
"You must be able to act as well as dance. Ballet is about stagecraft and art, not just technique," she says, recalling how Struchkova made her rehearse every detail again and again before she would let her go on stage. "It had to be perfect."
Her dramatic ability is obvious, even in an interview - a vivid mimic, her face and body language bring the person she's talking about to life in front of your eyes. In the studio, it's a revelation watching her transform from one character to another as she rehearses with the dancers in a mime section.
Her energy seems inexhaustible. At an age when most ballerinas have hung up their pointe shoes, and ignoring doctor's instructions to rest an injured foot, Ananiashvili demonstrates Kitri's virtuoso steps herself.
If Hong Kong Ballet dancers are thrilled to have Ananiashvili here, she, too, is impressed by their professionalism, work ethic and standard of dancing. Asian dancers, she notes, are making huge progress - they now dominate international ballet competitions.
"They learn so fast and so well," she says. "I want to pass on everything I know to them because they're hungry to learn."
Don Quixote, Aug 22, 23, 29, 30, 7.30pm, Aug 23, 24, 30, 31, 2.30pm, Grand Theatre, HK Cultural Centre, TST, HK$140-HK$1,000, Urbtix. Inquiries: 3761 6661