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Georgia: Acclaimed Puppeteer Has New York Audiences On A String

  • Nikola Krastev

In a rare U.S. appearance, the renowned Georgian director Rezo Gabriadze brought his moving world of puppet theater to the 2002 Lincoln Center Festival in New York City. The sold-out performances of "The Battle of Stalingrad" and "Autumn of My Springtime" conveyed a kaleidoscope of personal and political issues through the eyes of Gabriadze's characters. In an interview with RFE/RL, Gabriadze spoke of the universal language of puppets and how his education as an artist was strongly influenced by American literature and films.

New York, 29 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Puppeteer Rezo Gabriadze's Tbilisi Municipal Theater Studio performed extensively throughout Europe over the past decade, but the director's stylish, inventive marionette plays were only performed twice in the United States.

The organizers of the Lincoln Center Festival in New York City decided to plug this gap by inviting Gabriadze to conclude the popular three-week summer cultural fiesta, which this year also featured the Kirov Ballet from St. Petersburg, the epic Persian saga "Ta'ziyeh" from Iran, and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from the U.S.

Gabriadze's troupe performed "The Battle for Stalingrad" and "Autumn of My Springtime," the latter based on a Georgian folk tale.

Gabriadze's "The Battle for Stalingrad," which combines puppets, poetry, and film, drew glowing reviews in both "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal." The piece is a requiem to the hundreds of thousands of people who died in defense of the Russian city during World War II. There is an eerie scene during the performance when trays filled with rows of tiny military helmets move across the miniature stage, suggesting the mechanical slaughter that Stalingrad has come to epitomize.

Gabriadze said he was initially afraid that American audiences might not understand the allegory of the play. But then, he told RFE/RL, he concluded that the language of puppets, as well as human emotions, are universal. "People are people. There are 44 muscles in a human face. Everywhere, they are the same. They move in the same way as [Julius] Caesar's [moved], as mine [move], as yours [move], and as the contemporary theatergoer's [move]. I am very glad that the American audience is so good-natured. They really want to understand what's going on. I guess it's interesting for them that someone is telling the story of the greatest battle of all on the Volga River's banks. They really show respect and compassion. This is good," Gabriadze said.

Gabriadze's art also encompasses film, painting, sculpture, poetry, and prose. He said the leading motif in all forms of his expression is love. Quoting the famous Beatles song, Gabriadze said, "All you need is love."

Last year, the director spent a two-month summer hiatus in New York City. He said he finds creative inspiration in the positive attitudes of New Yorkers, which he said starkly contrast with the unsmiling, sometimes hostile attitudes he is accustomed to back home.

Gabriadze told RFE/RL that New York City reminds him of the Mediterranean. "New York [is about] how people dress, how they move around. Yesterday, I was joking about having a strong Mediterranean feeling -- how people are dressed, how they move their bodies, the way women walk, how people open doors, how they smile. It reminds me a lot of the Mediterranean, although the Anglo-Saxon culture is dominant here," Gabriadze said.

Reminiscing about his formative years in Stalin's Soviet Union, the 66-year-old Gabriadze recalls the great appeal of American movies at that time and about the strong influence that American literature cast on his generation. Among his creative inspirations, Gabriadze listed Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, Fred Astaire, and Louis Armstrong.

Surprisingly, he said that after World War II, audiences in the Soviet Union reacted most enthusiastically to the American film "Tarzan" starring Johnny Weissmuller. Gabriadze told RFE/RL that there was a strong sense of liberation running throughout "Tarzan" that was absent from the uniform lives in communist Georgia. "I frequently talk about 'Tarzan' and even for myself want to clarify: Why is it like that? Why did 'Tarzan' so overwhelmingly win us over? At that time, there were Soviet people dressed like pieces of furniture who were walking among us. And the way they moved reminded us of pieces of furniture, too. And suddenly we see Jane, Tarzan. Who would dare, under Stalin, to yell from the screen, to yell from a tree? No one. It was out of the question," Gabriadze said.

Speaking about the younger generation of Georgian filmmakers today, Gabriadze told RFE/RL that they are blessed with the possibility to be open to the world, something denied to his generation. "[Georgian] filmmakers are becoming part of the universal, world language [of expression]. We were cut off from the context of world culture. It affected us in a very negative way. But the young generation is becoming again part of world culture. Their way of thinking is universal. Some of them will succeed, some will not. But it is a joy to observe the process [of becoming a part of world culture]," Gabriadze said.

Gabriadze's performance of "Autumn of My Springtime" concluded the 2002 Lincoln Center Festival yesterday. The director said he's not planning any new plays, devoting his time instead to finishing a novel he said he's been writing for almost 25 years.

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