Thursday, April 12, 2012

Georgian National Ballet Sukhishvili

By Edith McClintock

I fell in love with Georgian folk dance by accident. I’d just arrived in the country during my first visit, and was invited to attend a kids' dance recital. The day turned epic, culminating in an eleven hour supra (feast), but that’s a different story. Before the supra, we attended what turned out to be a national youth festival of Georgian folk dance, with kids from all over the country demonstrating their regional traditions. Despite the age and variable talent, the show was mesmerizing, partly because of the costumes and music with hints of so many cultures, but also because of the sheer athleticism.

Since I loved the youth dance festival, my new friends recommended I see the Georgian National Ballet Sukhishvili, the first professional state dance company in Georgia. They said the ballet toured frequently, but often came back to Georgia around Christmas. I kept mentioning my interest and a few weeks later an American friend who lived outside Tbilisi called and asked if I wanted to see Sukhishvili, and could I also buy tickets for her and another friend. I happily agreed, despite barely speaking Georgian, or even knowing how to get around the city very well.

I walked to the theater during a lunch break, managing to get lost several hundred times, but eventually I found the hordes of people waiting in line. I even had the wherewithal to ask someone who I thought might speak English (based on his blond hair and general scruffy appearance) if he would help me if I had any problems with translation. Sure enough, the tickets were sold out for the date I wanted, but my translator told me they had tickets for the day after Christmas. So I bought the tickets and wandered on my merry way.

Before the dance, I met up with the friends, all American and mostly new to the country. We entered the theater, which, surprisingly, wasn’t full, given the popularity of Sukhishvili in Georgia. The show started, with no dimming of the lights, only a man on stage talking for a very long time—we didn’t know why—followed by another man singing a tortuously long Georgian ballad (they sound similar, no matter the language). I began to suspect I’d made a mistake. Several songs later, we left, asked around, and confirmed I’d purchased tickets to the wrong show.

So while I can’t provide you with a live review of Sukhishvili, as I’d really like to do since they are one of the few Georgian dance troops that tour frequently, I can say with authority, as I’ve seen other performances of Georgian folk dance and watched several Sukhishvili performances on TV, that if they ever come to your town, you must go to a show.

To wet your appetite, below are some videos and a bit of history.

Georgian folk dances reflect the country’s history as a crossroads of trade and war between Eastern Europe and Western Asia. The music and also many of the costumes, particularly for the women, have a strong Middle Eastern influence, while the men often dance on their toes, or actually the knuckles of their toes, or fall to their knees, which seems influenced by Russian and Central Asian cultures (or the other way around). The dances also seem heavily influenced by the medieval reign of King David IV and Queen Tamar in the 11th–12th centuries, the peak of Georgia’s political and economic strength.

Here’s an introduction to Sukhishvili:

Georgia is an ancient land and many regional differences date back to between 2100 and 750 BC, a period of numerous invasions. It also heralds the formation of the Georgian language and the beginnings of the first two Georgian states, the Kingdom of Colchis in the west and in the east the Kingdom of Iberia. These regional divides are still reflected in modern culture and statehood, as well as some regional traditions in dance. 

Georgia is also a country still very defined by gender. Reflected in their folk dances, the men and women do not touch. The women's dances are smooth, elegant, often with rippling silk costumes, and based on traditional women’s roles such as the Samaya, or dance of the bride's attendants, or the Tzkarostan, a dance of water carriers. The male roles, by contrast, are athletic. The men are competitors and warriors. The Mkhedruli (see below), for instance, is a dance of cavalrymen; the Khandjluri, a fight dance with swords and knives.

Below is (I believe) the Georgian National Ballet performing the Acharuli dance that originated in the Adjara region, an autonomous republic located in the southwestern corner of Georgia, bordered by Turkey to the south and the Black Sea to the west. Adjara is a home to the Adjar ethnic subgroup of Georgians and about 63% are Georgian Orthodox Christians and 30% Muslim. Acharuli is distinguished from other dances by the costumes and music that have a definite Middle Eastern influence.

Want more? Visit Sukhishvili TV on the internet.

Or visit my author website and/or personal blog, A Wandering Tale. Even better, order a copy of Monkey Love & Murder on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or the Book Depository (free shipping nearly anywhere in the world).


  1. This is lovely, Edith. I'm glad you included so many photos and, especially, the videos.

  2. Edith, tortuously long ballads definitely need no translation! From the videos it is such a beautiful dance, I am sorry that you did not get to see it live! I know you may not have intended to, but my niece will be kept occupied trying to learn the dance for a quite a bit of my allotted babysitting time!

  3. I can see the Russian influence in some of these dances. And also the Middle Eastern. It reminds me of the Kurdish dances and music I saw/heard in Western Iran.

  4. Fascinating! Such lovely costumes. It seems like a blend of so many familiar sounds and dances. I oculd hear a bit of Irish influence in there too. Thanks for sharing Edith.

  5. This is fabulous, Edith! I love learning about this part of the world from you.

  6. I meant to ask---did you take these beautiful pictures?