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Vakhtang Mikhailovich CHABUKIANI (1910-1992)

September 2010

(born Tbilisi, 12 March 1910; died Tbilisi, 6 April 1992).

The Mikhailovsky Ballet’s recent revival of Chabukiani’s ballet Laurencia (seen at the London Coliseum in July) has drawn attention to this great Soviet dancer and choreographer’s centenary and to his key place in ballet history. Described as ‘the archetype of the heroic male dancer on the Soviet stage’, Chabukiani deserves to be universally recognised as creator of the style later associated with Nureyev.

Chabukiani’s origins were humble and (like Nureyev) he began training late. He was 16 when, following lessons with his elder sister’s ballet teacher and occasional appearances in productions at Tbilisi’s Paliashvili Theatre of Opera and Ballet, he moved to Leningrad with the intention of entering the Choreographic School. Because of his age he was at first admitted to the evening course, studying with V. A. Semeonov. After 2 years, his outstanding talent earned him a place in the School’s day course, where he spent a year under V. I. Ponomaryov, and in 1929 he graduated and was invited to join the Leningrad State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet (later the Kirov). Here he made an immediate impression in the Fire Dance from Anton Rubinstein’s opera Ferramors and was soon dazzling audiences in most of the company’s repertoire. During the next twelve years he created roles in The Golden Age (Shostakovich’s first ballet score), The Flames of ParisThe Fountain of BakhchisaraiPartisan Days (all by Asafiev), Esmeralda (Pugni) and Taras Bulba (V. Soloviev-Sedoy), as well as in his own ballets Heart of the Hills (A. Balanchivadze, 1938) and Laurencia (A. Kreyn, 1939). The company’s 1941 revival of La Bayadère, by Chabukiani and Ponomaryov, has served as the basis for nearly every production since staged outside Russia.

In 1934 Chabukiani and Tatyana Vecheslova were the first Soviet dancers to tour the USA. The New York Times, referring to their ‘terrifically energetic’ performances, described Chabukiani as ‘a swarthy young giant with … a facility for doing unbelievable technical tricks …. His leaps, his turns, his lifts are phenomonal’. His other legendary Kirov partner – for whom he created the starring role in Laurencia – was Natalya Dudinskaya, later to discover and promote the young Nureyev.

The company’s 1941 evacuation from Leningrad saw Chabukiani returning to his native Tbilisi, where for the next 32 years he headed the Paliashvili Theatre as principal dancer, choreographer, teacher and artistic director. His later ballets, to outstanding new scores by Georgian composers, include Sinatle (G. V. Kiladze, 1948), Gorda (1950) and For Peace (1953) (both D. A. Toradze), Otello (A. D. Machavariani, 1957), The Demon (S. F. Tsintsadze, 1961) and Hamlet (R. K. Gabichvadze, 1971). Many of these ballets, like his first two, fuse classical and Georgian folk elements to create a powerful new national ballet style. Otello was filmed in 1962 (and described by the New York Times as ‘Shakespeare with electricity’).

Chabukiani received many awards, including the USSR State Prize (3 times), Peoples Artist of the USSR, the Stalin Prize (twice) and the Lenin Prize. A statue of him was unveiled in Tbilisi in 1998.