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Travel Writer/Novelist Paul Theroux at the Ballet

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From Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar

[I realized immediately who "Nina" must be, but for some reason Theroux didn't mention last names in this section of the book. Rather odd, since he has no problem with naming the various writers he meets with along the way.]

NOW AND THEN YOU MEET SOMEONE at a party or at a friend's house and he says, "I'm from Tbilisi" — or wherever—"and if you ever visit, you must look me up."

    And you say, "Absolutely," but the day never comes, for why on earth would you ever go to Tbilisi? And usually the person is merely being polite and doesn't mean it. But Gregory and Nina, whom I had met a few years before in Massachusetts, seemed sincere.

    And there I was in Tbilisi, under wintry skies, with time on my hands. And so I made the call.

    "Are you going to be here tomorrow?" Nina asked.

    "Oh, yes," I said.

    "Then you must come to the ballet." Nina was a ballerina in the Georgia State Opera Company, and Gregory was her husband. "It's the premiere of Giselle. Come to the Opera Theater at seven. Ask for Lizaveta. She will have a ticket for you. We will meet you in the box."

    The Opera Theater was a notable landmark of Tbilisi. I found it easily on foot. An imposing cheese-colored nineteenth-century edifice on the main boulevard, Rustaveli Avenue, it was built at a time when Russia — which had annexed Georgia in 1801—regarded an opera house as essential to the romantic idea of Georgia as one of the more picturesque regions of the Russian empire. Georgians were great agriculturalists, and their vineyards were renowned, but Georgians also danced and sang.

    It turned out that Nina was not merely a prima ballerina but also head of the opera company. When I met her in the box, she had recently given birth to a little girl.
    Gregory, who was a prosperous investor and also a doting husband and Nina's manager, said, "But she will dance next year. She will prove that you can have a baby and also be a great ballerina."

    Other people — mostly friends and relations — were already seated.

    Introducing me, Nina said, "This is Paul. He went through Africa alone!"

    "Is true?" a woman said.

    "By autostop," Nina said.

    "Not really," I said.

    But the woman hadn't heard. She had turned to tell her husband that I had hitchhiked through Africa.

    Then Giselle began. The title role was performed by a ballerina from the Bolshoi. The male lead, Prince Albrecht, was a local dancer who was only twenty-one. He was cheered when he appeared onstage. I had no idea what I was in for. I knew nothing about ballet, but it seemed to me a melodious way of spending an evening in Tbilisi.

    After my rainy journey of bleak hills and foggy valleys and muddy roads, this packed opera house — warm and well fed — was the antithesis of Batumi: pale pretty sprites in tutus, men in tights, some of them spinning, some of them leaping, and an orchestra pit where men in tuxedos scraped out mellifluous tunes and cascading harmonies.

    I was sitting comfortably in a gilt chair, resting on velvet cushions, watching Prince Albrecht (in disguise) fall in love with the peasant girl Giselle. But there was a hitch: he had been betrothed to Bathilda, the Duke's daughter. Giselle also had another and very excitable lover. Lots of prancing and leaping and flinging of arms, and finally identities were revealed, sending Giselle off her head. Just before the prolonged and ex quisite death agonies of Giselle, she heard the Wilis—"the spirits of young girls who died before their wedding day," the program said — and then she died.

    Second act: Giselle was now transformed into one of the Wilis. She was reunited with Albrecht and danced with him through the night. In so doing she saved his life, before she vanished at dawn. An angelic kickline of flitting nymphs, eloquent mime, syrupy music, slender legs, graceful leaps, and strange moves, especially Giselle's as she hopped on one toe while propelling herself by kicking her other leg, receiving wild applause and bravas.

    This ballet induced such a feeling of well-being in me that I sat smiling tipsily at the big red curtain for quite a while after it fell.

    And then I heard, "This is Paul. He went through Africa by hitchhike!"

    "Not exactly," I said. "Do you speak English?"

    "As a matter of fact, yes," the woman said. "I'm British. I'm just visiting."

    She was, she said, a ballet correspondent for a London newspaper, in Tbilisi for the week. She would be writing about this.

    Still besotted by the ballet, I asked, "How do you even begin evaluating something as pleasant as this?"

    "The corps de ballet needs work," she said without hesitating, "though they're about average for this part of the world, and if they keep working really hard they'll have a chance of being something watchable in about two years."

    So much for my angelic kick-line of flitting nymphs.

    "The male lead, I'm afraid, doesn't really have what it takes," she went on, "though you can see the chap is trying his best." She smiled grimly and dismissed him with a wave of her hand. "That ballerina from the Bolshoi, Anastasia Goryacheva, is talented. She performed well, but she was terribly let down by the orchestra. They were just so plodding. They're all second-rate players, not real symphony musicians. I mean, they hardly seemed to care."

    So much for the mellifluous harmonies I'd heard.

    Her criticism was probably accurate, though the audience had been more enthusiastic, had cheered the ballet all the way through, and had applauded numerous curtain calls. As for me, who had happened upon this spectacle and gaped like a dazed dog, I was grateful for the warmth and the music and the sight of the weightless legs of flitting nymphs moving to and fro on tippy-toe.

Edited by pherank
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