Little bears are back at QPAC to see Bolshoi Ballet’s production of Jewels. After a cocktail, of course 🙂
In 2017, George Balanchine’s pure-dance triptych Jewels had its 50th anniversary. It remains a perfect introduction to ballet: Few full-length story ballets are as satisfying as this storyless one, created for New York City Ballet.
The 1967 triptych may not have any characters or plot, yet it’s one of the most enduringly popular pieces in the repertory, offering what many ballet fans have come to regard as the ideal balance of entertainment.
When the work was first premiered in New York it took a while for the astuteness of its format to be acknowledged. Back in 1967, the choreographer and his company, New York City Ballet, had just moved into the challengingly large space of the Lincoln Center, and they needed to attract a larger, more moneyed crowd. Balanchine told journalists that he had been inspired by a visit to Van Cleef & Arpels, where he had been especially impressed by the emeralds, rubies and diamonds. So those became the names, and colours, of his three new ballets. “What a dreadful idea,” Lincoln Kirstein, New York City Ballet’s co-founder, said when he heard what Balanchine was up to. Never mind. Balanchine had been raised on ballets with dancing candies, dancing rivers, and the like, and he didn’t see anything wrong with this sort of thing.
Furthermore, because his gems had no stories to tell, Jewels could be marketed as the world’s first full-evening abstract ballet. This was a very important innovation. All the full-evening ballets that people were familiar with had complicated plots, with swans and princesses and broken hearts, and that fact helped to stamp ballet in people’s minds as a quaint, fairy-tale business. But here, now, was a three-act ballet shorn of all that old-fashioned stuff, and therefore worthy to stand alongside the most prized art of the period, which was abstract art: Jackson Pollock, Henry Moore.
If early detractors regarded Jewels as a sophisticated but compromised form of product placement, those quibbles have long been superseded by a recognition of the ballet’s superb craft. It’s accepted now that the work’s imaginative logic goes far deeper than the surface metaphor of its title. There may be interlacing patterns of movement that form necklaces, bracelets and pendants; there may be a scarlet coloured swagger to the choreography of Rubies, and a pale and bevelled brilliance to Diamonds. But a far more resonant way of looking at Jewels is to read it as Balanchine’s own very personal account of ballet history.
The three acts of the ballet represent the three countries most vital to his long career. He learned to dance and to make ballets in Russia, where he lived until 1924; he reached an early maturity in France, in particular working under the aegis of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes; and New York is where he, with Lincoln Kirstein, founded the School of American Ballet, in 1933, and City Ballet, in 1948.
Each of the three ballets – Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds – comes with its own richly orchestrated score; each has its own distinctively coloured decor and its own bravura style of dancing. Yet because Jewels is essentially an abstract work, these pleasures also come free of the narrative quirks and longueurs associated with the traditional classic. There are no heel-clicking hussars or fairytale characters performing lengthily tangential divertissements; no ladies-in-waiting or bewigged courtiers promenading the stage; no quaint conversations in mime. What Balanchine has given the repertory is a straight two and a half hours of pure, grownup choreography and music.
Nobody can miss how vividly different the three stage worlds are.
Emeralds has long been seen as French.
In Emeralds, Balanchine works with the fine-spun nostalgia of Gabriel Fauré’s music (taken from Pélleas et Mélisande and Shylock) to conjure the Romanticism of early 19th century ballet. The green of the dancers’ costumes is evocative of enchanted forests, hunting scenes and fleeting courtships; the dynamics of the choreography are uncharacteristically soft for Balanchine, as the phrasing breathes with unusual moments of stillness. And while there is a sweetly youthful virtuosity in the dancing of the principals (two princesses and their boyish suitors), what’s equally memorable is the subtle mysterious magic with which, at moments, Balanchine winds these principals back into the corps de ballet. They seem to fade away from the limelight into the texture of history, like figures from a tapestry.
Hundreds of ballet devotees will tell you that it’s the poetically mysterious Emeralds they love the most.
Rubies is quintessentially New York — its speed, density and jazzy modernity characterize this city rather than the US.
With Rubies, set to Stravinsky’s jazzy Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, Balanchine is impersonating no period other than his own. He choreographs this act as a naturalised, mid-20th century New Yorker, fully at ease with the city’s stridency, its sexual tensions and competitiveness. The central duet is not so much a courtship as a duel of wits and wills. A man and a woman pit their strength and stamina against each other, while the lone siren ballerina (a recurrent favourite of Balanchine) is a teasingly expert dominatrix, her legs slicing over the heads of her male admirers, her hips swivelling with a flaunting irony.
The big ovations go to Rubies and Diamonds with their spectacle and virtuosity.
Diamonds suggests Russia’s vast rural landscapes and its grand imperial cities.
Tchaikovsky’s 1875 Symphony No 3 in D Major (‘Polish’) takes the closing Diamonds act back to the imperial ballet of Balanchine’s childhood, and to a world he saw shattered by the Russian revolution.
The grandeur and pomp of the imperial ballet are qualities with which the choreographer played quite regularly in his work – and from the unusually dull opening waltz in Diamonds, which veers towards a very generic homage to Petipa, you might think he had nothing more to add. But the long unfolding pas de deux at the heart of this act becomes utterly enthralling, a distillation of the rituals and conventions of ballet courtship, a referencing of Swan Lake, Raymonda and Sleeping Beauty that turns into its own absorbing story.
The imagery of jewelry runs through each of the ballets: the patterns of the female corps de ballet in Diamonds show us — inevitably — diamonds; Rubies opens (sensationally) with a tense, semicircular group tiara; and a necklace-like corps chain occurs in Emeralds. In all three ballets, women stretch one leg and both arms upward in lines that suggest the refraction of light from a jewel.
Since Balanchine’s death in 1983, Jewels has become a boom industry. Today it’s danced by the chief ballet companies of Russia, France, US as well as by companies all over the world. But the transfer didn’t always work, because, in addition to everything else that Balanchine lavished on this piece, he staffed it with many of his finest dancers: Violette Verdy and Mimi Paul in Emeralds, Patricia McBride and Edward Villella in Rubies, Suzanne Farrell and Jacques d’Amboise in Diamonds. And some of these people, as it turned out, could not be replaced. Or, to put it more accurately, the roles that Balanchine had created for them — often, it seemed, pulling the choreography out of the dancers’ personalities — could not be absorbed by new people in the space of a couple of weeks’ rehearsal or any length of rehearsal.
Suzanne Farrell, in Diamonds, did a sort of ne-plus-ultra Farrell act — more magisterial than she had ever been before. In her 1990 autobiography Holding on to the Air, Farrell writes that Balanchine had originally planned to make a fourth act inspired by sapphires, but the evening would have been very long and anyway, Farrell conjectures, Balanchine perhaps couldn’t decide on the right “blue” music.
Edward Villella’s role in Rubies was something that Balanchine never did before or after: a combination of extreme classical virtuosity with an equally advanced street cool, as if Prince Siegfried had dropped down in Astoria. Most Europeans male dancers playing the role imitate what they see as American hipness, entirely missing the point.
The hardest problem in transferring Jewels has always been Emeralds, and not just one role in it but the whole thing. It’s fairly easy to see what Diamonds is about (majesty, Russia), and Rubies (snazz, jazz, America), but Emeralds is ambiguous. It has a marvellous sort of relaxation. Steps often sneak in behind the beat, and then it is only after another beat that the long tutus swish into place. The music sometimes surges in a big wave, but the choreography will be reticent, even sweet: fluffy little lifts, or developpé lifts. There are many images of lushness and self-enjoyment, “like a cat licking its hair,” as Violette Verdy, the ballet’s foremost star, put it. Verdy, in her solo, snakes her arms into the air and gazes at them admiringly. Later, she hikes her skirts up a bit and looks down happily at her bourrée-ing feet, like a child in new shoes.
Emeralds is both beautiful and also strange, cobwebby, even a little sinister — a memory, a dream. And it was this ambiguity that often disappeared from Emeralds when it was transferred to other companies — indeed, when it was transferred to new casts within New York City Ballet.
The Bolshoi has performed Jewels since 2012. And in 2017, they participated in the Lincoln Center Festival celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jewels. Nigel Redden, the director of the Lincoln Center Festival, got the idea of presenting Jewels with the French, American, and Russian sections danced by their respective national ballet companies.
The festival showed that the native French instinct for Emeralds is unquestionable. All the nuances, the beautiful smudge of emotion that seemed to have fled from the ballet since the original production, are present again when the Paris Opera Ballet performs. It turns out only the French can do authentic French subtlety, French chic.
Balanchine and the Bolshoi are not a predictable fit, and in the three contrasting sections of Jewels, the company reacts very differently to the challenges of the choreography. As expected, Diamonds was the highlight of the three part Jewels. Watching Olga Smirnova’s perfection, her long lines, beautiful port de bras and exactitude in Diamonds was one of those magical moments in the theatre.
With no blue music or dancing, little bears finished off the day with a little Spanish tapas and sangria 🙂