- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2007

Despite being a two-leg, Paata Tsikurishvili intimately understands the world of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”

“I grew up under the Soviet system, and I know perfectly what tyranny is,” he says.

With their new adaptation of “Animal Farm,” the Soviet Georgia-born co-founder of the Synetic Theater and his dancer-choreographer wife Irina bring their distinctive, cinematic style of calibrated movement, music, dance and drama — as well as their personal experiences of communism — to the classic anti-totalitarian fable.

Mr. Orwell’s 1946 tale of a workers’ revolution gone wrong may take place among the downtrodden livestock of Manor Farm, but the allegorical novel reflected his curdled disenchantment with Soviet communism, and many of the four-legged characters have two-legged counterparts. The swinish pig Napoleon, for example, is a stand-in for the horrific Josef Stalin.

“Some people [in the ex-Soviet Union] still worship Stalin,” Mr. Tsikurishvili says with a shudder. “They still believe that he was right, that he was the people’s father. He created the biggest modern empire, and that cult of personality still exists in the older generation in Russia. Our generation hates him.”

Mr. Orwell called “Animal Farm” the first book in which “I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.” The Tsikurishvilis will likewise strive to blend the political and aesthetic in their movement-based staging of the novel.

“As an artist, politics are interesting to me, and I want to express my opinions because I can now,” Mr. Tsikurishvili said. “It was the opposite in Soviet Russia.”

The Tsikurishvilis burst upon the Washington scene in the late ‘90s, working with the Stanislavsky Theater Studio on “The Idiot,” “Don Quixote” and other works before breaking with the company in 2001. As their premiere offering for Synetic, Paata and Irina, a former principal dancer at the Georgian State Pantomime Theatre in Georgia, created “Hamlet the Rest is Silence,” the signature piece that introduced area audiences to their largely wordless, highly symbolic brand of theater and also brought Mr. Tsikurishvili a Helen Hayes best director award.

Since then, Synetic has dominated the Helen Hayes awards — 10 nominations for the 2006 season alone — and been a critical success both here and in New York City, where they received accolades for “Host and Guest” in a New York Times review. While there are other theater companies in America that also rely on the classical precepts of pantomime and movement-based theater, Synetic Theater is alone in the blending of choreography, music and drama into a fluid, cinematic whole. This filmic quality may be due to Mr. Tsikurishvili’s degree in film directing from Tbilisi State University.

The Tsikurishvilis set out to make “Animal Farm” dissimilar to their dance-like adaptations of other classic works, such as “Macbeth,” “Faust” and “Hamlet the Rest is Silence.”

“Since it is a political satire, I wanted to use the multimedia Synetic is known for in a different way — not as a special effect, but as part of the storytelling,” says Mr. Tsikurishvili.

A debate between the characters Snowball and Napoleon, for example, will be staged as a political debate, and filmed for simultaneous broadcast. Trash cans will serve as a podium during these political debates. “It’s garbage what they’re saying, it stinks,” Mr. Tsikurishvili explains.

For the show, towering screens serve as security devices, and video cameras will capture the actions of the actors and the audience — another reflection of the Soviet era. “Constantly, someone was watching you, and there were video cameras always around, pointing here and there,” Mr. Tsikurishvili says. “We want the audience to feel that constant surveillance.”

“Animal Farm” will be more straightforwardly cinematic, says co-adaptor Nathan Weinberger. “The surveillance and the screens will give the sensation of always being watched, but the work of the animals on the collective will be expressed in repetitive, factory-like movement,” he said. “It is a satire on communism, but there are more broadly Orwellian moments that remind you of ‘1984.’ ”

Privacy and personal property are concepts that still amaze Mr. Tsikurishvili, although the Tsikurishvilis have been in the United States since 1996 and he was in Germany running a theater company in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, the tumultuous period when the struggle for Georgian independence from the Soviet Union was waged and the empire itself unraveled.

“Everything was a collective, you had nothing for yourself, especially privacy,” he recalls. “Everybody was digging into your personal life, everybody was spying on one another. I freaked out when I saw the police when I moved to D.C. At home, when the police came, that was it. You were gone.”

Mr. Tsikurishvili hopes to infuse “Animal Farm” with these feelings of paranoia and lack of control, but it will not, he emphasizes, be a literal translation of the novel and its condemnation of systematic oppression.

“I have to admit when I first envisioned the animals, I saw pig noses and tails,” Mr. Tsikurishvili says. “My actors are trained to be more physical than literal, so I worked with that. The characters are more human-looking, but the audience knows in their heads they are animals. I wanted to get across the concept that the biggest animal is a human.”

Physical actors are what Synetic is known for, and you can usually pick out a company member anywhere because of their carriage and extremely fit physiques. Synetic is also known for the grueling regime (the Tsikurishvilis prefer the word “program”) they put their actors through.

“Every year we have auditions, and only four or five survive the training,” Mr. Tsikurishvili says. “It is very intense gymnastically, with two or three hours of jumping around in addition to the dance and mime training. We help them to create a library of physical and facial expressions so they can collaborate in the shows with us.”

“Intense” doesn’t even begin to cover it, says Mr. Weinberger, who has traded the ballet barre for the comfier position as company co-adaptor. “I did the training for a long time, and it is unbelievable,” he said. “It was a year before I could go comfortably up and down stairs.”

Company member Meghan Grady likens the program to “high impact aerobics class times ten. There is all this dance training and Pilates-like stretching, and then pantomime technique — the first time I did it parts of my body ached I didn’t know could hurt, like between my toes and fingers.”

Yet, the training has a purpose, other than inflicting physical agony. “It allows you to have a higher level of control over your body,” Miss Grady says. “Working with the Tsikurishvilis makes you aware that every movement you make has meaning. You never merely walk across the stage ever again.”

WHAT: Synetic Theater’s production of “Animal Farm”

WHERE: The Rosslyn Spectrum, 1611 N. Kent St., Arlington

WHEN: Through May 20

TICKETS: $10 to $35

PHONE: 703/824-8060

WEB SITE: www.synetictheater.org.

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