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On tiptoes of steel. Russians amaze London with daring leaps and crash-knee landings

In their mountainous country, the men had to pick their way on tiptoe through narrow goat paths -- and it was a point of pride to hold themselves ramrod straight. This explanation came from Tengiz Sukhishvili, co-director of the famed Georgia State Dance Company, now making its first tour of Britain in six years. It helped answer for me a question being voiced around London lately:

``How do they do it?''

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How do the male dancers stand on their toes in soft boots without the support of wooden blocks, as in a ballerina's shoe? How do they manage to keep smiling after they've jumped high in the air and landed . . . on their knees?

What's the secret that enables Georgian female dancers to glide as though they have casters on the soles of their feet?

The Georgian company is now on a tour of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, both north and south. It has been brought here by the same Entertainment Corporation impresarios whose contacts within the Soviet Union gave us the Moscow Classical Ballet Company last spring; will bring the Moscow State Circus this summer; and is presenting the Bolshoi Ballet Company itself next year.

According to Victoria Charlton, a director of Entertainment Corporation, there is a definite East-West thaw in cultural relations, and she is hopeful that the Georgians will be seen in the United States ``in the near future.''

She says, however, that Americans will be able to buy videocassettes of the Georgians on stage in London in the next few weeks.

The Republic of Georgia -- one of the 15 republics that make up the USSR -- is renowned for its dark-eyed, dark-haired, fiery, almost Latin people. Bordering on the Black Sea and Turkey, it has been called the California of the Soviet Union for its sunny climate and fertile valleys.

It dates from the 3rd century BC, was converted to Christianity in the first half of the 4th century AD, and was incorporated into the Soviet state in 1921. The republic is rich in tradition that is brought out in the individuality, vigor, and artistry of its folk dancing.

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The dance company is a family affair. A classical ballet dancer in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi in the 1920s, Nina Ramishvili met and married Iliko Sukhishvili, a dancer and choreographer who had plans to start a national folk dance troupe. They formed a small company (Nina often having to dance male roles with her husband), and in 1935 Iliko took first prize in the World Folk Dance Festival held in London. He received a gold medal from Queen Mary, the present Queen's grandmother.

Since then the company has expanded, so that today 51 dancers and nine musicians came to Britain under the artistic direction of Nina and Iliko's son, Tengiz Sukhishvili.

Tengiz's wife, Inga, is a soloist. Their 10-year-old son, Iliko Jr., is learning the family tradition back in Georgia.

Ill health kept Iliko Sr. from making the British tour; he passed on in Georgia as the company was performing in London. A moment of silence was observed in his memory before the curtain rose March 25 -- and a group of Jewish demonstrators who held up placards outside the theater every night to protest Kremlin policies against the emigration of Soviet Jews stood up and shouted.

The group was whisked away by ushers. When the curtain did rise, the dancers were greeted more enthusiastically than usual.

``Our tradition dates back to the 17th century,'' Tengiz told me in heavily accented Russian.

``You know, our country is very mountainous. The mountains are very steep. To cross them, The men had to walk in little ruts, so narrow that only goats used them [they] would pick their way by walking on their pointes [toes] . . . and, being proud, they held themselves very straight as they did so.''

He demonstrated.

``And then, of course, they had to show their womenfolk how they did it, and so it became introduced into dancing at festivals.''

``Doesn't it hurt?'' I asked, ``especially when the men jump so high and land on their toes, or do the `can-can' movements, hopping repeatedly on the one foot?''

``Yes,'' Tengiz replied, ``but boys start at a very early age. The toes are bound with bandages before they are put into soft skin boots which are longer than usual. No, it doesn't affect them in old age . . . ,'' he said with a laugh.

The visit to London has been a box office success, with even standing room sold out. The first-night audience whistled, called for encores, and cheered the precision and spectacular feats. Critics were impressed.

Eighteen dances were performed, along with a musical ``Doli'' in which three men played drums in a dozen difficult ways as they twisted and turned.

The dances included:

Samaya, performed by three bejeweled girls. Slow and Oriental in style, it dates back to frescoes found on the walls of the 15th-century cathedral of Mtskheta, the ancient capital of Georgia.

Simd, the wedding dance. The entire company fits tightly in a line across the stage and wheels around with perfect precision.

Lelo, based on an old football game, which gives the men opportunities to be individual and humourous.

Kartuli, a special form of pas de deux. The man, with hands hidden in overlong sleeves, dances for and with his lady. He is never allowed to touch her, not even the hem of her dress. He performs tiny sharp passing steps as though driven by clockwork, while she, her face like a china doll, makes no eye contact but is aware of his presence as she glides around him.

Some of the male dancers had swords that clanked and clashed, sending sparks into the air or dancers spinning furiously and hurling daggers into the floor.

The show ended with a competition between the men for the fastest, most daring, and most courageous steps, with plenty of sustained toe-hopping and breathtaking knee-landings. -- 30 --{et

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