Dance, music and wine

The highlight of a trip to Tbilisi was the opportunity to experience Erisioni, the 132-year-old national dance company, in its natural habitat.

Bronzed dancing girls in front of the Old City. (photo credit: ORA BRAFMAN)
Bronzed dancing girls in front of the Old City.
(photo credit: ORA BRAFMAN)
The basic ingredients of true Georgian hospitality are dance, music and wine – not necessarily in that order.
Our first encounter with those ingredients occurred in 2001. Several artists in a semi-official delegation were invited to an exhibit in a Tbilisi gallery on September 11, 2001, as part of an international event.
Among us were a number of American artists whose embassy arranged for security measures as soon as news reached us that the Twin Towers in New York City were hit.
From that point on we were accompanied by soldiers.
We traveled from Tbilisi (Georgia) in an off-road vehicle on a military road, crossing the Caucasian mountains in the direction of the Russian-controlled border post with North Ossetia. We proceeded along unpaved paths until we reached a single building that hosts skiers in the winter and remains deserted in the summer. Next to it was an old, empty chapel.
The view was overwhelming, with an impact reminiscent of a desert without any signs of civilization. The only sound we heard was the wind blowing.
At sunset, the group of armed soldiers accompanying us warned us not to go outside alone, since there were highway robbers in the area. We suspected that they were teasing us, a small group of middle- aged ladies, yet on the flight back we met a few Israeli tourists who had been robbed at gunpoint in the Caucasus.
As we enjoyed an opulent dinner in that rustic, secluded location, our companions enlightened us about the renowned local customs which, beyond the generous meal, included heavy alcohol consumption, before, during and after each toasting by each male in the room. The longer the toast, the merrier.
Soon our new friends grew less formal and started to sing a capella with multi-vocal, polyphonic harmonies that encouraged them feel so comfortable that they started dancing around the dinner table.
Those rough and rugged men surprised us with their ease and grace, exhibiting ritual elements of ancient Georgian warrior folk dances native to the mountain tribes of each region, which lived by the sword through a great part of their history.
Later in our trip, we were awestruck by the virtuosity achieved by very young boys being trained in folk dance and ballet at the dance academy in Batumi, by the Black Sea.
They introduced us to their traditional folk dances, including some of the inimitable traits of Georgian dance, such as male dancers who dance on their folded-in toes protected only by soft leather boots and often dance or jump and land on their knees, performing time-honored war dances, dressed like soldiers from a much earlier time.
That was then. Now, in the fall of 2017 I had the chance to revisit Tbilisi.
Commemorating 25 years of diplomatic relations between Georgia and Israel, which were established soon after the Soviet Union disintegrated, the Georgian embassy initiated the visit. The aim was to introduce us to Erisioni, the oldest Georgian National Dance company, which will be touring Israel soon with some 100 dancers and musicians and endless colorful costumes and sets.
The presentation took place at the spacious Erisioni studios in an ornate 19th century building on Rostaveli Avenue in Tbilisi.
One can see the past glory of the building predating the Soviet era, yet it begs for serious renovation. Although the Erisioni company is recognized as a national company and totally supported by the state, no funds have been allocated yet for the much-needed renovations .
In contrast to that policy, significant funds were invested in a make-over of the city of Tbilisi – particularly the old section.
It looks at least 10 times more inviting now than it did 16 years ago. Many upgraded parks, gardens, streets, buildings, the new museum and an endless of bronze statues adorn the city. My favorite item was the dancing maidens at the entrance of the old city, next to the casino. In contrast to the sorry sight of the old city quarter in the past, this area, following significant renovation, is now thriving. Its quaint narrow alleys beckon, with obvious effort invested in restoring local authentic architectural details, such as the wood lattices on its balconies, covered in grape vines.
Tourists and locals alike are attracted to the small bars, restaurants and cafes, interlaced with churches and “The Patriarchy” quarters behind ornate doors. Along the stone-paved roads one can see traces of Islamic influence in tiled Persian-style houses, near the large complex of the Turkish baths with their protruding domes.
One remembers that the city, which dates back to the 5th century CE, was finally unified by King David IV and Queen Tamar in the 12th century. It was occupied through the centuries by the Arabs, Mongols, the Ottoman and Persian Empires before it was taken by the Russian Empire in the early 19th century, and all those cultures left their mark.
Some of that turbulent history is evidenced in the local dances, which centered predominantly around war themes, glorifying male attributes of virility and competitiveness, or dances depicting unattained love, longing and adoration of women. There are literally dozens of recorded war dances characterized by high jumps, fast turns, fists in defensive positions, fierce looks and competitive staged battles with or without spark-producing fencing swords. The male courts the lady, but never touches her – out of respect, one assumes.
Traditionally in dance the woman’s image is chaste, shy, often taking small steps under her long skirt with her upper body held up tightly, at times she looks like a smiling mechanical doll moving in unison, often in lines and circles with other dancers, seeming to float above ground, accentuating her spirituality. This is the ideal, virginal romantic image of a woman.
In reality, the old prevailing Georgian custom of bride kidnapping, almost eradicated under Soviet rule, made a comeback of sorts, particularly in the rural, Caucasian mountains, attributed to the economic setbacks and wars.
The repertoire of the Erisioni national dance company is based strictly on staging traditional dances and the company is certainly the oldest of its kind – more than 130 years old – founded long before most national dance companies in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. Originally Erisioni was a musical choir dedicated to Georgian chants. Like other leading Georgian song and dance companies, the musical quality of their choir is perhaps just as impressive as the dancing. Erisioni maintains a choir of 30 people and eight to 10 musicians, all on stage live along more than 50 dancers.
Through the years, t he company compiled a repertoire of some 8,000 chants.
Traditionally these chants are sung harmoniously by at least three or four voices and produce impressive and thrilling effects rarely achieved elsewhere.
Earlier choral polyphony chants were documented by the Greek historian Xenophon, about 2,500 years ago. The Georgians developed their own musical notation system to record their liturgics chants. Many of the old scripts have been deciphered in recent decades. Some of the original highly decorated principal notation manuscripts survived, and are located in St. Katharine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai.
Due to the primacy of song and dance in Georgian culture, a pleasurable way to reach and get acquainted with the rich Georgian culture is through the arts.
The tour was sponsored by the Georgian embassy in Israel. Performances are scheduled in Beersheba on October 9 at 8 p.m., at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center on October 10 at 8 p.m. and at the Haifa Congress Center October 12 at 8 p.m.