"I'm always worried about how the audience will respond to the first piece, because it's so contemporary," says Joffrey Ballet Principal Dancer Victoria Jaiani. When I tell her that's why I like it, she exclaims with a laugh, "That's why I like it, too!"
We are in an Ottawa hotel lobby, relaxing in a couple of wingback chairs. Jaiani, dressed in jeans and a black turtleneck, has her waist-length dark brown hair pulled back off her face. Her English is flawless, with just a hint of an accent. She was born in the Republic of Georgia, a country wedged between Turkey and Russia, which was once a part of the U.S.S.R. Her 12 years in the United States have given her a vocabulary of North American sayings.
We are discussing the Joffrey Ballet's one-night-only, sold-out mixed repertoire performance from the evening before, March 3, at the National Arts Centre. The first piece of interest is In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated, choreographed by William Forsythe. It was commissioned by Rudolf Nureyev in 1987 for the Paris Opera Ballet. It's a futuristic piece, somehow swanky. The costumes are Martian green and black. Forsythe's work shows off the athletic strength of the dancers. They casually walk to the back of the stage, like it is no big deal. The audiences at the National Arts Centre were entranced, and then there was a thunder of applause.
Second, After the Rain by Christopher Wheeldon, originally choreographed for New York City Ballet, had gorgeous partnering. Finally, there was Age of Innocence choreographed by Edwaard Liang for the Joffrey Ballet, in 2008. In it, the petite Jaiani is paired with the six-foot-six chiselled Fabrice Calmels, for one of the most beautiful pas de deux of the evening, entitled Obey Thee.
"When he lifts me, it feels like I'm flying!" she says. Does she ever feel like she will fall from such great heights? "No! Never."
The Joffrey Ballet does not bill individual dancers as stars. They are a collective ensemble. Some dancers, distinct in every motion, can't help but stand out. Jaiani is one such dancer. She is exquisite to watch, with effortless leaps, unstoppable flexibility, and elegant arms and hands. She credits her early training.
"When I was young, the teachers nurtured whatever I had. They never said I couldn't do something because I wasn't strong enough. They always told me to try." She also keeps certain things in mind when performing. "I pay a lot of attention to my hands. Breathing life into my fingertips is important to me."
As for her gazelle-like jumps, she practises them every day for at least 30 minutes. On a typical day, she joins the professional company for a 90-minute dance class. Then there are two blocks of three-hour rehearsals. She admits it often leaves her physically exhausted, but as she talks, it's clear she wouldn't want to be doing anything else.
She started dancing at age 10 at the Choreographic School of Georgia. By her early teens, she approached her teachers about trying different styles of dance. Jaiani made an audition tape. Stretching at the barre, centre work, jumps and pointe work were all recorded. What was the reason for this tape? To gain admittance into the Joffrey Ballet School in New York. The company had performed in the Republic of Georgia and had left a great impression on Jaiani's dance teacher. The enthusiasm was contagious. Jaiani was accepted into the school on a full scholarship. She was 14 years old.
Jaiani moved to New York with her older sister. But, while her career as a dancer was taking shape, she was experiencing inner turmoil. About her initial impressions of North America, she states, "It was a culture shock. I had lots of friends in Georgia that I left behind. It was hard to make new friends because I didn't speak English. There was a language barrier."
Perhaps it was the loneliness that prompted Jaiani to bring the Joffrey Ballet School a dance audition tape featuring her friend from back home, Temur Suluashvili. Of Suluashvili, Jaiani says, "We met at the same dance school. I had the biggest crush on him. He was always very talented and the best in the school."
The Joffrey Ballet School had found another talented Georgian youth. Suluashvili was given a full scholarship, too. It was destiny for both of them. Jaiani and Suluashvili joined the professional company in 2003. They naturally fell in love and eventually married.
When asked about her favourite role with Joffrey Ballet, she replies, "Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Dancing the role was a dream comes true."
Jaiani has also performed in Alegro Consabor, Apollo (Terpsichore), Arpino's Birthday Variations, Ashton's Cinderella, Creative Force, Dark Elegies, Giselle, The Green Table, In the Night, Kettentanz, Laurencia Pas d'Action, Light Rain, Monotones II, The Nutcracker, Pas Des Deesses (Grahn), Petrouchka, Postcards, Les Presages (Passion), Jiri Kylián's Return to a Strange Land, Round of Angels, Square Dance, Viva Vivaldi and A Wedding Bouquet.
When Suluashvili enters the lobby where we are speaking, Jaiani's face lights up, "This is my husband," she says. We shake hands and he sits a short distance away, while we finish our interview. The couple plan to walk around Ottawa's downtown core, before flying home.
In March, the two were asked to perform at a gala together in the Republic of Georgia to celebrate Nina Ananiashvili's 30th anniversary onstage. The piece chosen was a pas de deux from the ballet Bells choreographed for them by Yuri Possokhov in 2011. It was the first time the dancers had performed in their country since they left.
Jaiani is also asked to perform solos at other galas, which she gladly accepts during summer breaks from the Joffrey Ballet. It gives her a chance to work with other dancers and meet some of her dance idols. She says she was overwhelmed by meeting American Ballet Theatre's Julie Kent and National Ballet of Canada's Guillaume Côté.
While galas offer her a change from the everyday, she is content to remain with the Joffrey Ballet, "I really like the company. I think the repertoire is great -- everything from classical to contemporary." She is also excited to be part of a company that choreographers set new works on. Working with Wayne MacGregor for a week is an experience she cherishes.
Of the city Jaiani now calls home, she exclaims, "Chicago is a beautiful city with all kinds of parks." On sunny lunch breaks she likes to visit a park close to the studio. The couple has a miniature schnauzer, which they take for walks in the city's green spaces.
To relax, Jaiani likes to read novels and memoirs. She also states she and Suluashvili have made certain agreements. "We have a policy that we don't talk about work at home."
At the end of the interview, the couple walk away with their arms linked, two perfectly postured dancers looking happy and in love. "Have a lovely day," Jaiani calls, while Suluashvili waves and smiles.
A successful career. A blissful marriage. It is possible for a woman to have it all.
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