Enduring story

Giselle

A last-minute replacement in the principal male role doesn't daunt prima ballerina Nina Ananiashvili.

Despite only having two days to rehearse the ballet with David Makhateli as Prince Albrecht, the National Ballet of Georgia will open the first of four performances of "Giselle," the classic story about enduring love tonight at Gaillard Auditorium.

Because the original 1841 choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot and staging by Marius Petipa has been preserved, most productions of the classical ballet are nearly identical when it comes to the actual steps. What sets "Giselle" performances apart from one another is the technical skill of a company and not just the lead dancers, Ananiashvili said.

The troupe is reported to be one of the world's most technically proficient ballet companies, which is why "Giselle" is an anchoring event during Spoleto's final weekend this year, and it serves as an anchor for the troupe's artistic director, too.

"It's one of my favorite ballets," said Ananiashvili, 47, who dances with the company and serves as its artistic director. "I think our 'Giselle' shows what NBG is doing and how we've changed."

Six years ago, Ananiashvili was in the midst of her impressive ballet career. Since her 1988 debut as a prima ballerina of Russia's Bolshoi Ballet, to which she received a 30-minute standing ovation, Ananiashvili has danced with American Ballet Theater and Houston Ballet as a principal, and as a guest performer with most major Western ballet companies.

But in May 2004, Ananiashvili said she received a life-changing phone call. It came with no warning from Mikheil Saakashvili, then the president of Georgia. She said he had an unusual request. He wanted the ballerina to put her New York career on hold, and return to her home of Tbilisi, Georgia. Why? To take on the role of artistic director of the neglected ballet company.

Eastern European ballet companies are not run by private donors and national arts grants: They are run by the government.

At the time of Saakashvili's call, The New York Times reported that Georgia was in the midst of an economic depression and had no money to fund its national ballet. The company had not toured since 2001.

Although she had never directed a company before, Ananiashvili agreed to the task of reviving the troupe.

Her first tough challenge: telling the dancers that they would not be paid for two months.

Luckily, she said that she inherited a company of dancers who were willing to sacrifice if it meant that the company could perform once again.

To rejuvenate the company, Ananiashvili relied on her fame and connections. She said that she called on former colleagues -- including choreographers Alexei Ratmansky, Trey McIntyre and Stanton Welch, as well as former Bolshoi Ballet artistic director Alexei Fadeyechev -- and asked them to create and stage new one-act works that would be added to the company's repertoire.

She said no one refused her request.

Only two months after taking charge, The New York Times reported that Ananiashvili had the ballet company performing to packed houses at Tbilisi's Paliashvili Opera House.

In 2007, the company toured the United States, making a stop at Spoleto Festival USA to perform another classical ballet, "Swan Lake," to enthusiastic and receptive audiences.

Since their 2007 performance, NBG has received a great deal of critical acclaim, and has added new works to their now extensive repertory. But there are always new challenges. Case in point: this "Giselle."

On May 26, just two days before Spoleto Festival USA began, it was announced by Spoleto Festival USA that principal dancer Irakli Bakhtadze, who was scheduled to dance the lead male role of Prince Albrecht in the matinee performances of "Giselle," had suffered a foot injury and would be unable to travel to Charleston.

This meant that Ananiashvili had roughly two weeks to find a replacement dancer. The restrictions were daunting. Whoever took the part would have to dance the role with minimal rehearsal time and have a schedule flexible enough to join the company at the last minute.

More critically, he would also need to already have clearance to travel to the United States.

"Because of visa paperwork, to bring someone from Georgia is near impossible at this point in time," Ananiashvili said in a telephone interview last week. "So, we have to bring in another dancer. We have no choice."

That substitute will be David Makhateli, a Georgian-born dancer who is currently a principal at the Royal Ballet of London, as well as an in-demand guest performer. This summer he will perform at galas in Italy, Spain and Greece, in addition to this weekend.

"I've done this role many times," said Makhateli of the Prince Albrecht part. In fact, he has partnered with Ananiashvili in a past production of "Giselle," but will partner with ballerina Nino Gogua during the Spoleto run.

"I'm very familiar with the production. We have two days to rehearse, and we will get it right," he said.

Despite the scramble to find a replacement dancer, Ananiashvili is excited to share "Giselle" with the Spoleto audience.

"We do this to make people happy," she said. "And to educate people, because it's art. We all need something for inside, for soul and for heart, you know. It's very, very important to keep art at a very high level. That is why we're so excited to come to Spoleto. We get to share our art with others."

Bethany Larson is a Goldring Arts Journalism Program writer. Reach her at blarson@syr.edu.