When the New York City Ballet staged a world premier of a Balanchine three-act plotless ballet on April 13, 1967 at the New York State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater), the new piece didn’t have a name. There was a blank space in the program in place of the ballet’s title.
“I can only presume that Mr. Balanchine must have taken one look at the extraordinary thing he created and at once found himself at a loss for words,” wrote Clive Barnes in the New York Times the next day, praising Balanchine’s new creation as “too beautiful for words” to describe. Puzzled by the choreographer’s hesitation to christen his new baby, the dance critic suggested: “…why doesn’t Mr. Balanchine either revert to his original working title, ‘The Jewels,’ or just call it ‘Ballet in Three Acts.’ Or come to that, why not just call it ‘Wonderful!’ – because it is.”
The choreographer did revert to the ballet’s working title, trimming it along the way. More than 45 years later, Balanchine’s Jewels still retains its wonderful appeal and luster. To watch the performance of this seminal masterpiece by New York City Ballet during the company’s recent six-day sojourn at the Kennedy Center Opera House was to experience and admire anew Balanchine’s unique ability to entertain, astonish and inspire.
In many ways, Jewels is Balanchine’s choreographic résumé – a retrospective and a vivid showcase of his aesthetics and creative genius, all stylishly packaged in one evening-long performance. The three sections of the ballet – Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds – are united by a gemstone motif of opulent costumes by Karinska and the appropriately colored and bejeweled stage décor by Peter Harvey. The choreography of the triptych, on the other hand, has little to do with the precious stones of the title, even if the architecture of dance patterns for the corps de ballet throughout the piece evokes elaborate designs of earnings, necklaces, and diadems.
The three sections of Jewels contrast each other in energy, atmosphere and choreographic idiom. These visual, emotional and stylistic differences are shaped solely by Balanchine’s musical choices – music is a driving impetus and a prime source of creative ideas for each of the three acts.
Dreamy and contemplative, Emeralds, the opening act of Jewels, is inspired by the melancholic music of French composer Gabriel Fauré (derived from his two concert suites of incidental music, “Pelléas et Mélisande” and “Shylock”). This is the neo-romantic part of the ballet, with distinctive images of romantic longing and love thwarted by fate – themes that laced Balanchine’s works from his Serenade (1934) to Davidsbündlertänze (1980).
The choreography of Emeralds is exquisite – soft, fluid, and mesmerizing in its intricate complexity. The dancers drift and whirl about the stage like a flock of beautiful birds in a green summer garden. This is the most enchanting segment of Jewels.
The ten dancers of the female corps de ballet, clad in dresses with light green tulle skirts and dark green bodices adorned with green-colored glass, envelop the stage and frame the principals in the beginning and near the end of the piece, assembling and breaking apart elaborate choreographic formations. Yet Emeralds centers on the seven dancers – two principal ballerinas and their cavaliers and a trio of soloists. It’s a small-scale ballet with a big heart.
On opening night, Abi Stafford, in the first ballerina role, ably supported by her partner, Jared Angle, created a world of rapt serenity in the first pas de deux, seamlessly moving onstage with tiny, quicksilver bourrées as if flowing on a cloud. In her subsequent solo, she spun and whirled with elegance and flair, turning her liquid, silky-smooth arm movements into a tapestry of stunning designs.
Sara Mearns brought a surprising sense of quirky playfulness to the second solo, her eloquent steps and gestures shimmering with ingenuous charm. She looked transformed in her duet. There was something fairy-like in her dreamy, pensive walk, which unfurled in one hypnotic flow of movement. She glided onstage softly and delicately, as if in trance, holding the audience in quiet awe. A thoughtful and courteous Jonathan Stafford was her gallant cavalier.
Ashley Laracey, Antonio Carmena and Erica Pereira performed the sparkling trio with lighthearted vigor and panache, giving the somber and muted atmosphere of Emeralds a welcome glimpse of sunshine.
Set to Igor Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra (1929), the propulsive Rubies is hot, playful and sporty – a striking contrast with the ballet’s previous act. The scenery is unfussy and quietly effective. In fact, Rubies boasts the most eye-catching, even if somewhat tacky, décor of the triptych – a black-and-red backdrop and a giant red brooch-like ornament above the stage.
In Rubies, Balanchine matches Stravinsky’s rhythmic intricacies with spiky and witty choreographic language. It’s the neo-classical part of the ballet done in a pure Balanchine-Stravinsky’s style. This is Balanchine’s homage to his compatriot, friend and life-long collaborator.
The choreographer creatively expressed the music’s upbeat, jazzy nature with athletic, sharp-angled movements, conjuring a series of tantalizing dances, humorous and feisty at the same time. The superb cast expertly negotiated Balanchine’s stringently difficult yet utterly amusing steps. It was a celebration of blazing, pulsing energy in all its glory and abandon.
Megan Fairchild and Gonzalo Garcia zipped through the central pas de deux with unflustered cool and the unwavering determination of Olympic champions. Yet it was the impressive Teresa Reichlen, in the second ballerina role, who commanded the stage as she merrily kicked her legs high into the air in a sassy showgirl style, capturing like no other the burlesque imagery of the choreography.
Diamonds is a pure classical ballet set to the final four movements of Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony in D Major. It’s a nod to Balanchine’s dancing roots and a celebration of the grand traditions of the Imperial Russian Ballet. (It followed the same theme Balanchine explored in works such as Theme and Variations and Piano Concerto No. 2.)
The ballet begins with a lovely waltz for the ballerinas of the corps. As they spin around the stage in a windswept motion, imitating a dizzy swirl of snow, the Waltz of the Snowflakes from The Nutcracker immediately comes to mind. The centerpiece of Diamonds is a stately pas de deux for the principal dancers (the statuesque Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle), filled with imagery that suggests the love and heartbreak of Odette and Siegfried in Swan Lake. At the end of the piece, the triumphant Polonaise invites onstage the entire cast of 34 dancers, bringing this dazzling Diamonds – and the trilogy – to a grand, festive conclusion.
The Opera House orchestra led by NYCB’s interim music director, Andrews Sill, gave a capable rendition of the three scores. Special praise goes to Cameron Grant, pianist of the NYCB orchestra, for his rousing solo performance in the Stravinsky’s Capriccio.
The major drawback of this production is its unattractive scenery. It was particularly disappointing to see dull-looking drapes and trivial glass decorations in the ballet’s final act. This Diamonds deserves a new and far better setting.