Friday, June 17, 2011

Jewels at the New York City Ballet

By Mary Sheeran
         There’s an apocryphal story, repeated so many times it may as well be true and maybe it is, a little, that George Balanchine visited Van Cleef and Arpels and was inspired by the gems on display to create what became the first full-length plotless ballet, Jewels. Don’t try this yourself. Inspiration like this only works if you happen to be George Balanchine. As jewels take years to form and be finished, this ballet represents the enormous range, style, musicality, and resources Balanchine had accumulated in his own jewelbox by 1967.
         For resources, he had the dancers of the New York City Ballet, the company he’d been making dances on since 1948, and the theater he’d designed for dance, the New York State Theatre at Lincoln Center. As for stylistic range, one could divide the ballets of his vast repertory into categories of Emeralds (romanticism), Rubies (brassy, jazz, Stravinsky), and Diamonds (distillation of Russian imperial style – a typical Balanchine approach that looks forward even while looking back. There’s a reason he was born in January.)
         For the record, Balanchine did say of Jewels, “The ballet had nothing to do with jewels. The dancers are just dressed like jewels.” (They are, and beautifully, thanks to the brilliance of costume designer Karinska.)
         Jewels may be considered a three-act ballet, but each section is performed separately, and there is no “mix and match” finale. It begins subtly, with Emeralds. The more you see this piece, the more you grow to love it and the more its music (from Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Shylock) haunts for days after its hearing. Some may feel this section is too slow (company ads refer to the music as being at a “mesmerizing pace,” whatever that means), but it seems to me an essay about time, love and loss, its subject being an aspect of woman that cannot be captured in the other two sections. Some of Emeralds appears to be youthful frolicking, especially that impish pas de trios (Erica Pereira, Anthony Huxley, and Ana Sophia Schiller at Saturday’s matinee performance). There are two delightful solos for women: Rachel Rutherford danced my favorite of the two, delightfully discovering her arms and feet; the applause from her colleagues and her solo curtain call confirmed that this lovely dancer is leaving the company.
         In watching Balanchine’s work, one needs to interact with music and dance more than usual. In Emeralds, the music is slow, but the dancers move fast, capturing the music’s inner pulse. The result is an innocence mixed with longing that permeates the piece, a sense of the fleeting nature of time even when it seems to move slowly. In the final moments, as the women disappear, the three men are left reaching after them into the empty air.
         Bam. That would be Rubies. The piano shoots out Stravinsky’s jazzy “wake ‘em up” chords from his Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, banishing the ethereal green forest (a little too green, I’d say) of Emeralds, and we have eight women, brassily flashing in red. (Susan Walters was the jazzy pianist.) The women’s legs seem to have grown longer, certainly they become powerful weapons; you wonder if they let Teresa Reichlin take hers on airplanes. The music insists on her centrality; and she is central.  Whereas we had three men reaching for their ideal in Emeralds, now we have four men who leap forward, each taking a very real leg or arm. They proceed to (take your pick) a) attempt to manipulate her, moving her limbs – a frequently used Balanchine motif; b) be the four partners she has picked to dance with. Whichever you choose, their suggested capture doesn’t last long. This section is a brilliant blend of the Siren from The Prodigal Son and the Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty. And by the way, Gonzalo Garcia, while admirably understated here, proved a dynamic gem when he needed to be. Watching him, I was reminded that the role was made on Edward Villella.
         And, speaking of The Sleeping Beauty, the final segment is its sophisticated distillation, Diamonds, an extended pas de deux (interrupted by other dances), whose lead couple are generally considered to be the company’s royalty (here the marvelous Maria Kowroski and Charles Askegard). The man must be strong alone and as a support for his partner, who doesn’t seem to need him much. However romantic this section seems, and however it may appear to be a “wedding” pas de deux  from The Sleeping Beauty (implied by the diamonds and white costumes), the man here is as longing for the ideal, elusive woman as his earlier companions at the end of Emeralds. The finale here, a lively processional that fills the stage with dancers, followed by a solemn and courtly reverence, pays homage to the land of Petipa and Tchaikovsky, and certainly to the woman who rules over all at the end, but also to the men of Jewels, with their arms outstretched, reaching for her. Taking his place among them is Mr. Balanchine himself.

Jewels. Choreography by George Balanchine; Scenery by Peter Harvey; Costumes by Karinska. Emeralds: Music by Gabriel Fauré (from Pelléas et Mélisande and Shylock); Rubies: Music by Igor Stravinsky (Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra; Diamonds: Music by Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky (from Symphony No. 3 in D major). Premiere: April 13, 1967, New York State Theater, with additions to Emeralds in 1976). For  information about New York City Ballet, go to

Mary Sheeran is the author of Quest of the Sleeping Princess, a novel set during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet, and Who Have the Power, a historical novel set during the Comstock Lode era about a pianist discovering that her mother was a healing woman of the Washo tribe.

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