San Francisco Ballet
Jewels – Emeralds, Rubies, Diamonds
San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
Performances captured 28 January 2021, 2 February 2016 & 12 March 2017
Available to stream through 21 April 2021
For the fourth program of San Francisco Ballet’s spring digital season, it’s streaming a performance of Jewels, George Balanchine’s iconic “abstract” ballet from 1967, viewable until April 21. It’s a bit of a bashed-together, Frankensteinish thing, with a shiny new, COVID era recording of Emeralds, made in January of this year, teamed up with a Rubies from 2016, and Diamonds from 2017. Not quite yet ubiquitous in the international repertory, any performance of Jewels is a delight until it isn’t. As with most Balanchine these days, the proportion to which SFB’s show was (a delight), or wasn’t, or was again, is as dependent, as much as anything onscreen, on the viewer’s history, acuity, charity, fondness for nostalgia, and level of curmudgeonliness. I shall let the reader determine how successfully this viewer attained the first few qualities and avoided the last. After all, it’s your dime.
Emeralds was recorded in in the War Memorial Opera House in January, the end product of COVID complications which saw the orchestra pre-record the Faure score in small diverse groups, and the ballet performed before a nearly empty house. Only one camera was used for this filming, giving it a bit of an archival quality, although I appreciated the thoughtful, unobtrusive camera work, zoomed out to display the entire stage, or zooming in on and tracking various lead dancers at appropriate moments. This was more than merely planting a mostly stationary camera at the back of the house, which make for the archival and dry view of the earlier-recorded Rubies and Diamonds.
On to the curmudgeonliness. On first look, this Emeralds looked pretty and wan, and felt slow (get used to that word, you’ll be seeing it again). It is brutally unfair to compare any lead ballerina in Emeralds with one’s doubtless well-burnished memories of Violette Verdy, but here we are. So quiet was Misa Kuranaga’s affect (all the dancers, actually), that I wasn’t sure if she’d been given much of a handle on the role by Sandra Jennings and Judith Fugate, who staged this ballet. In this role often performed by dancers with punch and pizzazz, I didn’t have much of a handle on Kuranaga, either. Angelo Greco, on the other hand, practically glowed with quiet satisfaction, whether doing partner things with Kuranaga, or happily advancing his toe to tendu back, while facing Kuranaga across the oceanic width of the Opera House’s stage. Feeling a little sad and disappointed, I called it a night.
Having fretted much of the night about whether I was being fair to this Emeralds, I awoke and rewound with the optimistic resolve of seeing what these dancers were doing, instead of bemoaning what they weren’t. With closeups closing the apparent distance to the dancers, perhaps what looked wan to me might just as well be understated and refined? Perhaps the corps women’s arms, rather than evoking the plainest undersea tendrils ever, expressed them as simply delicate fronds being delicately roiled in a calm (but not stagnant) grotto? (Have I mentioned Balanchine likes to use underwater-evoking imagery in Emeralds?) So, not wan. Subtle. Works great in close-ups.
Though not quite dreamlike, I also noticed a refined dreaminess in Kuranaga, both with the impeccable Greco, and her happy “see my pretty bangles” solo. The corps de ballet was exquisite and elegant if somewhat understated, I wished they’d inserted a bit more drama into the “waves crashing against the shore” with Greco lifting Kuranaga again and again not-quite-over a frieze of corps dancers arms, but perhaps it was enough that they showed us the drama inherent in Balanchine’s imagery. Like the lead couple, Sasha Mukhamedov and Aaron Robison danced purely, and cleanly, if with an occasional want of inflection. They didn’t embody the beauty of their celebrated Walking Pas de deux, but they let us see it, and sometimes that’s enough. I was hard-pressed to tell if the absence of a live orchestra and conductor had much to do with the overall light affect; it’s impressive enough that they were able to create this new recording.
Going from the sublime to the, well, less so, the ensuing Rubies was slow. Very slow. Old videos of City Ballet from the fifties and sixties show blistering speeds which the company of today rarely approach, and most other companies today, like SFB here, even less so. At least the corps dancers didn’t turn Rubies into an advertisement for sexual services that one sometimes sees today. Cheerleaders, not working girls.
I had even less of an idea of what Mathilde Froustey was up to in the acute angles of Rubies celebrated pas de deux than Kuranaga before her, and she’s not the first French ballerina to leave me metaphorically scratching my head here. It’s not much of a stretch to take this pas’ sharp and perky angles from playful to vampish, and in places Froustey cranked her vamp all the way to Odile. It was an interesting interpretation which may have been almost charming (French, remember?), had Pascal Molat been on the same page. She was selling, Molat was doing the steps. Overall it looked like the Rubies pas, and maybe that’s enough. However accomplished this facsimile may have been, it was a slow one, and I particularly missed the snappy pizzicato which comes through on even silent videos of early casts which might be found in the usual places. If Music Director’s Martin West’s baton made for a placid Emeralds, Rubies’ distressing down-tempo moments affected the intent of the choreography. Onstage with four men from the corps, Molat looked to be neither chasing or being chased by them, as is so very much there in the steps, but coexisting. With the slower tempo, Molat had to make bigger preparations for necessarily bigger jumps and while all parties were fine leapers, there was little of this section’s usual playful spontaneity.
Blame perhaps Tchaikovsky more than Balanchine, but, for all Diamonds’ brilliant moments (the pas de deux is among the choreographer’s finest), there’s more than a little filler (conductor Ming Luke’s also slow tempi didn’t help). In the leisure and privacy of my own home, I must confess that my attention strayed to my cat more than a few times during the lengthy run up to the pas de deux which worked much better paired with Luke’s monumental pacing than the preceding waltz. For the most part, Sasha De Sola and Tiit Helimets were monumental themselves, dancing grandly and, well, big, and giving full weight to most moments. At times they looked so gleamingly-alabaster statuesque that I wondered where the City of San Francisco might place their pedestal, and found myself resolving to change my life. While, for the most part, Sola danced with amplitude and passion, even in her retires and port de bras, there were moments when, nestled in Helimets’ capable arms, she’d strike a pose, freezing for an instant at the fulfillment of an arabesque or such, staring straight down the house, en face even when the rest of her wasn’t, looking blank and, for the tiniest instant, dead, yet still perhaps expecting Mr. DeMille to take that closeup. In all else, the pair often moved me to tears, although I wish they hadn’t beamed such chummy-conspiratorial smiles at each other towards the end. There have been many assertions over the years as to who the Diamonds ballerina is (she’s not Odette or Raymonda either, despite callbacks, and questionably noble), and her relationship to her cavalier. They’re not romantic or even friends, as implied here; that final kiss doesn’t work so well without a hint of incongruence. I’ll join Arlene Croce in calling her “the freest woman alive,” and let it go at that.
At the heart of Diamonds is this brilliant, romantic pas de deux.💎
Stream the entire triptych of Balanchine’s Jewels through 4/21 → https://t.co/84cpu1bstc
🎥: Sasha De Sola and Tiit Helimets in Balanchine's Diamonds // Choreography by George Balanchine © The Balanchine Trust pic.twitter.com/fw1vRBDyeU
— San Francisco Ballet (@sfballet) April 14, 2021
Watch it? Sure, if you’re dying to see a new Jewels, would enjoy the remarkably clean rendition of Emeralds, or are, perhaps, a fan of the charismatically wonderful De Sola and Helimets.