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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Georgia on My Mind

From the Vault Dept.: The Ensemble Rustavi, which was founded in 1968 and is still going strong, paid its first visit to the U.S. in 1990, and a stop at Proctor’s in Schenectady was part of the tour. Here’s my report.


JUST IMAGINE: YOU’RE THE toast of the village, being courted by the area boys. They gather with you on the green, each one cock o’ the walk, and proceed to dance for your attention, punctuating the movement by flinging daggers into the ground.

Ensemble Rustavi
You’d be impressed, right?

I don’t know if this actually was a courtship ritual of Soviet Georgia, but a stylized dance with those ingredients was part of a wide-ranging ethnic showcase by the Rustavi Company, a group taking its first American tour, that drew a large crowd to Proctor’s Theatre Thursday night.

Despite the many political changes that have afflicted the country over several centuries, a strong, homogenous national character prevails. Traditional costumes may not be seen on the streets any more, but the Rustavi Company, based in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, preserves that traditional flavor in dance, music and song.

An elegant starkness characterizes much of the costume, especially for the men. Crimson and black are the dominant colors, with clothing cut to accommodate riding and battle. The men dance on their toes or on their knees with painful-looking ease: in one sequence, titled “Simdi,” a courtier spends several minutes en pointe while dancing with a lady – and this is done without blocks in the shoes.

The evening’s program comprised a series of songs and dances, the latter featuring an athletic company of handsome men and women, the former handled by ten men singing unaccompanied (most of the time).

Instrumental accompaniment came from accordions and drums, the drum being a two-headed, tom-tom-sized device called a doli.

There was an exhibition of doli virtuosity by a trio of players. Proficiency on the instrument requires not only a limber wrist and good sense of rhythm but also the ability to toss and spin the drums between strokes.

Love and labor are the dominant themes of the songs and dances. Hundreds of years of precedent give us an emphasis on the athletic ability of the men while the women are costumed to be beautiful. Often clad in skirts that touched the floor, the more formal dances found the women gliding with invisible movement, a picture of perfect poise accented by a stunningly graceful choreography of arms and hands.

In a telling commentary on class structure, the occasion for more lively women’s dance is when all are dressed in peasant costume, as in the “Mountain Suite” that finished the first half of the performance and left the stage covered with those daggers that the men buried in the floor with breathtaking abandon.

Energy is kept at an amazingly high level throughout, even when the dance is gentle or the song is slow. One of the high points was a gentle, contemporary ballad titled “Suliko,” sung by the chorus of men with instrumental accompaniment. To hear such sturdy voices used so softly, in the setting of a sweet, plaintive melody, was a compelling moment.

You want special effects? “Parikaoba” depicts a fencing match (the men trying to impress the women again) in which each clank of the heavy sabers sent sparks flying. When the stage was filled with men and swords, the result was, well, electrifying.

It’s difficult to imagine what an American equivalent to this show would be. Something that crosses a circus with a square dance and throws in some hymns besides.

A foreign culture becomes magically transparent when examined in terms of its traditional entertainment. Although nothing was sung in English (until an encore of “America the Beautiful”), the sentiment was always clear. Which is what makes a company like this one so important to spread the goodwill of its people.

The audience was very appreciative. Too appreciative in some respects: despite the page on concert etiquette that faced the Rustavi information in the Proctor’s program, there were people behind and around me determined to explain to one another what was going on and how they felt about it. People who should know better.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 14 April 1990

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