The State Ballet of Georgia to perform Swan Lake in unique visits to London and Dublin

Photo courtesy of The State Ballet of Georgia

Despite being one of the world’s most accomplished and thrilling dance companies, The State Ballet of Georgia has never appeared in London during its distinguished 175-year history. That absence is soon to end as this revered company is to perform Swan Lake –the world’s most treasured ballet – at the London Coliseum from 28th August to 8th September 2024; and then at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin from 20th to 24th November.

For a small nation, with a population under 4 million, Georgia has exported many ballet legends: three of the most important figures in world ballet during the twentieth century were George Balanchine (born Balanchivadze) (1904–1983), regarded as the “father” of American ballet and still – 40 years’ after his death – one of the most influential choreographers; Vakhtang Chabukiani (1910-1992), a great virtuoso dancer following in the footsteps of Nijinsky; and Tamara Toumanova (birth name, Tumanishvili) (1919–1996), one of the century’s most sought-after dancers who became a Hollywood film star. In more recent times, many outstanding Georgian dancers have performed in the UK, such as former Royal Ballet principal, David Makhateli (his sister, Maia – a principal at Dutch National Ballet – is one of today’s leading ballerinas) and Elena Glurjidze, a leading principal at English National Ballet.

The greatest Georgian dancer of modern times is Nina Ananiashvili. Born in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, Nina became the leading ballerina at the world-famous Bolshoi Ballet of Moscow in the early 1980s and following the Gorbachev reforms of Perestroika and Glasnost, she was a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre and an international guest star in countries all over the world, including at The Royal Ballet in London.

In 2004, Nina returned to Tbilisi as artistic director of The State Ballet of Georgia while continuing to dance. She celebrated 30 years on stage in March 2012 (at the age of 49), performing in a series of national galas in the Rustaveli State Academic Theatre and the magnificent glass and steel rotunda of the Tbilisi Concert Hall (the opera house was under renovation).

Ananiashvili was a supreme exponent of the dual Odette/Odile roles. After having performed Swan Lake in Hamburg during a Bolshoi tour, Nina received a non-stop 30-minute ovation. The ballet’s importance to her is neatly summarised in a comment released at the announcement of her company’s upcoming performances in London: ‘it was the first ballet that I performed in the Bolshoi Theatre and was my first and final significant performance at American Ballet Theatre.’

Photo courtesy of The State Ballet of Georgia

Referring to that final performance in America, the New York Times critic, Alastair Macaulay wrote that Ananiashvili was ‘singularly endearing…singularly cherished,’ adding that, ‘…amid all the excitement she still brought rare and eloquent beauty.’

The star quality that Ananiashvili brought to her own superlative dancing is now vested in the 65-strong company that she has directed for the past 20 years, and which is now rated amongst the ten best classical ballet companies in the world.

Although now the most famous of all ballets, Swan Lake was not originally well received when it premiered at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre on 4th March 1877. Despite substantial revisions to the choreography and music, the ballet enjoyed just 33 performances in seven years before being dropped from the Bolshoi’s repertory. Herman Laroche – a contemporary critic and composer – wrote: ‘…I had never seen a poorer presentation on the stage of the Bolshoi. The costumes and décor did not hide in the least the emptiness of the dances.’ When Tchaikovsky heard the score composed by Léo Delibes for the ballet Sylvia, he declared that his own score for Swan Lake was “poor stuff by comparison!”

The ballet tells the story of Princess Odette, who is turned into a swan by the sorcerer, Von Rothbart. She can only return permanently to human form if a man swears true love for her, which happens when she encounters Prince Siegfried by the lakeside (ironically out hunting for swans with his crossbow). Von Rothbart, however, fools Siegfried into believing that his daughter, Odile, is Odette (disguised as a black swan) and, enchanted by the sorcerer, Siegfried unwittingly breaks his bond to Odette by promising to marry Odile.

When the ballet closed at the Bolshoi in January 1884, that should have been the last of it but having achieved great success with Tchaikovsky’s other two ballets, respectively The Sleeping Beauty (1890) and The Nutcracker (1892), both the director of the Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, and the chief choreographer, Marius Petipa, were set on reviving Swan Lake at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. Tchaikovsky died before this plan could be implemented and so the in-house music director, Riccardo Drigo, revised Tchaikovsky’s score to suit new choreography by Petipa and his assistant, Lev Ivanov. It is this reworked Tchaikovsky score by Drigo that almost every version of Swan Lake has used ever since.
The revised Swan Lake received its premiere at the Mariinsky Theatre on 27th January 1895 with Pierina Legnani in the dual ballerina role. She couldn’t resist adding her unique trademark of 32 whipped spins on one working leg (known as fouettés) to the coda (the final part) of the “black swan” duet (known in ballet as a pas de deux), where they have remained ever since.

Photo courtesy of The State Ballet of Georgia

The reputation and affection for the ballet has grown throughout the twentieth century, bringing it into the repertory of every ballet company in the world. Marking the 75th anniversary of the first performance, the US writer, Anatole Chujoy, summarised Swan Lake as being ‘…the greatest romantic-classic ballet of all times…the highest point of the curve which represents the history of the source of all ballet as we know it today.’

It is impossible to separate the spectacle of Swan Lake, and Tchaikovsky’s music, from images of the ballerina as first the white swan (Odette) and then her black swan imposter (Odile). The dual role is performed by the same dancer and remains the epitome of the ballerina’s art, providing one of the most difficult challenges in the classical repertory.

Another elite addition to these performances at the Coliseum – at a time when no other production of Swan Lake will be seen in London – is that Tchaikovsky’s soaring music will be played by the award-winning English National Opera Orchestra, which has an established international reputation for versatility and excellence.

This production of Swan Lake is the perfect ballet both for ardent balletomanes (a noun termed to describe those who love ballet) who will be eager to see this extraordinary company making its London debut after 175 years, and as an undemanding introduction to this beautiful artform, bringing the elegance of movement by world-class dancers together with gorgeous music and sumptuous set and costume designs. It promises to be an unmissable spectacle!

Swan Lake is at London Coliseum from 28 August to 8 September 2024; then at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin from 20 to 24 November.

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic writing regularly for Shinshokan Dance magazine (Japan), Tanz (Germany), The Spectator (UK), and He has written the biography of Daria Klimentová (The Agony and the Ecstasy) and chapters about the work of Akram Khan for the Oxford Dictionary of Contemporary Ballet and on the work of Shobana Jeyasingh for Routledge’s Fifty Contemporary Choreographers. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of The Critics’ Circle and of the UK National Dance Awards and regularly lectures on dance writing and criticism at The Royal Academy of Dance and The Place. He was nominated for the Dance Writing Award in the 2018 One Dance UK Awards and was appointed OBE in 2008.