The indigenous dances of Soviet Georgia are as unlike other forms of dance as they can be. Where else will you find men--not women--performing brazen athletics on pointe? Or courting couples dancing without any physical contact?
"Georgian dances are very different," Anzor Erkomaishvili, artistic director of the Rustavi Company, acknowledged by phone from the touring trail. "But Georgian songs are even more different from other cultures than its dances."
The Rustavi Company, one of Soviet Georgia's leading song and dance ensembles, will make its L.A. debut Tuesday evening at the Wiltern Theater, where it will continue to showcase Georgian folk forms for eight performances through March 18.
Erkomaishvili and his ensemble have been performing in the United States since the end of January. And the troupe has experienced enthusiastic response, according to the director. Erkomaishvili has a ready answer for the obvious question: How did the Georgian people develop such an iconoclastic style of dance?
"The reason is in our nature and character. The dances mirror our way of life. Georgia is sort of an island in the surrounding world. The Georgian spirit is completely different from other nations. And everything in our history and our lives is reflected in Georgian dance.
"When you see Georgian dance, you see a lot of different parts of Georgian life," he explained, "military dances, couples dances, humorous dances. . . ."
Erkomaishvili is stumped for an explanation of why the Georgian songs--dating back 2,000 years--are so sophisticated. All he can say is, "The ancient Georgians were ahead of their time, just like some philosophers.
"The most important thing about the songs, are the extremely developed polyphony," Erkomaishvili noted. "Stravinsky once said, 'Georgian folk music has more new musical ideas than all the contemporary music.' For him, Georgian music was one of the biggest delights in his life."
The same can be said for Erkomaishvili, the seventh generation in a dynasty of singers and folklorists. As a result, the director has put a premium on collecting and preserving the ancient songs of his homeland.
Rescuing the ancient songs from oblivion was his primary motivation for founding the Rustavi song and dance troupe in the late 1960s. And the zealous Erkomaishvili has obviously been successful. Since starting his quest, he has recorded more than 200 obscure folk songs for posterity.
"There are many folk dance companies in Soviet Georgia," he said, "so the dances were being preserved. But many of the traditional songs were not."
Dance still plays the major role in Rustavi concerts, and, according to reviews of their performances, the energetic dancers deliver the goods with laudable virtuosity. Macho men pounce up vigorously on their black-booted toes, then come crashing down for a powerful landing on their knees--only to repeat the punishing cycle again at breakneck speed.
The men also take center stage with daredevil displays of swordplay that look menacingly real (and have resulted in a few injuries during the tour). Like their Russian counterparts, the Georgians can spin at dizzying speeds, leap through the air like demons and maneuver through myriad bravura feats.
In sharp contrast, Georgian women dance demurely. They glide across the floor effortlessly, their steps so tiny and invisible the dancers appear to be skimming the surface of the stage. When the women team up with the men, they never touch. It's part of the Georgian tradition. And as Erkomaishvili noted:
"When you see them dance, you might not think the women are as important, but everything the men do is to impress the women. The dances express the Georgian attitude toward women--that women are something sacred," he said.
Art, entertainment, and spectacle blend in the Rustavi Company's colorful production numbers--all brilliantly costumed according to tradition. And that has been a winning combination everywhere the troupe performs. But Georgian folk forms tap a deeper source in American audiences.
"Americans love it because it's pure folklore--a pure people's art," he stressed, "and it's very old. America is a young nation, and they're interested in things that are very old."