“Up to now, I’ve had about 120 partners in total,” Nina Ananiashvili declared with a laugh. “Of course, I mean on the stage.”
Even after 35 years in the spotlight, the dancer described by London’s Daily Telegraph as “one of the 12 greatest ballerinas of all time” was obviously still her famously sparkling self when we met for an interview ahead of her “Final Classical Gala” shows in Tokyo next month.
Now aged 53, the former child prodigy from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi danced in Russia and widely around the world before being invited back to her then independent homeland in 2004 to revive the State Ballet of Georgia as both a performer and its artistic director.
After being talent-spotted in her early teens and enrolled at the Moscow Choreographic Institute in 1976, Ananiashvili joined the Bolshoi Ballet five years later and soon became its prima ballerina.
In more than two decades with that famed Moscow troupe, she was a guest at many overseas companies and was a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre from 1993 to 2009 — along the way also gaining a devoted following in Japan.
Meanwhile, back in Tbilisi, she is also head of the State Ballet company’s school — a role about which she observed, “If the dancer teaching the choreography actually dances instead of just teaching, the younger dancers can really learn a lot.
“Dancers nowadays have beautifully long arms and legs, and a lot of them have wonderful technique, but what’s important is how they express what’s inside.
“For a teacher, it’s often hard to explain things with words, so I think it’s easier to help them understand by actually dancing.”
Yet although many ballet dancers in their 30s are already starting to think about retirement, Ananiashvili is one of those rare artists who is so accomplished and also so blessed physically that neither her smooth actions nor her physique appear to have changed an iota in 30 years — so much so, that this living legend still dances “Swan Lake” in its entirety.
With that in mind, it would probably be wise not to take that word “final” in the title of her Tokyo show too literally. Even so, this is likely to be the last opportunity in Japan to see Ananiashvili dance extracts from so many of her renowned classical roles again.
The two upcoming programs also feature pieces by the great 20th-century Russo-Georgian choreographer George Balanchine (1904-83), who co-founded the New York City Ballet in 1948 (with Lincoln Kirstein) and became known as the father of American ballet.
In the pre-1992 Soviet era, state media criticized Balanchine’s works for their “formalism,” meaning they were unofficially but effectively banned. Touchingly, though, in what is a special story she shared, Ananiashvili’s husband, the former top Georgian diplomat Grigol Vashadze, remarkably gave her the rights to perform Balanchine’s “Mozartiana” at the Bolshoi in 1998.
“It wasn’t flowers or a ring he gave me, but the performing rights. Normally such permission is given to a ballet company, not an individual, so rather than feeling surprised at the gift, I thought he was kidding,” she said with a laugh.
“This work was Balanchine’s last before he died. Although you might say it was his requiem, I love the part that portrays a feeling of, ‘Even if I die, my spirit will continue living.’ ”
This time in Tokyo, performing with young dancers she herself trained in Tibilisi, Ananiashivili will showcase extracts from pieces full of personal significance, such as Balanchine’s, and also “Swan Lake” — the work in which she made her debut in a leading role at both the Bolshoi and the American Ballet Theatre.
And as a further treat, she will also dance with the Brazilian-born American Ballet Theatre star Marcelo Gomes, one of the foremost of her 120-odd partners.
So, regardless of whether this will really be her last time on stage here, be prepared for a gorgeous lineup that reflects Ananiashivili’s unrivaled experience at the highest levels of ballet worldwide.
Nina Ananiashvili’s “Final Classical Gala” runs March 16 and 18 (A Program) and March 19 and 20 (B Program) at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan in Ueno. For tickets and details, call 03-3234- 9999 or visit www.t-bunka.jp. This article was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.