"It is open to doubt whether even George Balanchine has ever created a work in which the inspiration was so sustained, the invention so imaginative or the concept so magnificent as in the three-act ballet that had its world premiere at the New York State Theater last night." (Clive Barnes, The New York Times April 14, 1967)
Jewels premiered on April 13, 1967 to rave reviews and a bit of confusion. What had been billed as the first full-length abstract ballet was actually three separate ballets, to music by three different composers, joined loosely by a suggestion of gemstones. In fact, the ballet went officially untitled at the premiere. The evening's working title, which consisted of acts named Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds, was The Jewels.
According to critic Clive Barnes, the idea for a ballet based on gems is credited to jeweler Claude Arpels, although it is well documented that Balanchine had already toyed with using jewel-inspired costumes for his 1947 ballet Le Palais de Cristal. For his new ballet, Balanchine chose to focus on the beauty of the finished stones, with their color and brilliance reflected in the shining technique of his dancers and the costumes they wore. He shared Arpels' love for the polished gemstones. "Of course I have always liked jewels," he said "after all, I am an oriental, from Georgia in the Caucasus. I like the color of gems, the beauty of stone."
So, what is the ballet about? Rather than being about any one thing in particular, the ballet, in each of its three parts, evokes a different mood and transports audiences to different point on ballet's historical timeline. It is said that Jewels makes a passably good tutorial on the many styles of Balanchine, showing the audience the depth and breadth of his choreographic work.
The first section, Emeralds, evokes Paris, particularly the fluid, wafting choreography of the Romantic era ballerinas and the stateliness of France's academic training system known as the danse d'école. For Balanchine, Emeralds is the "France of elegance, comfort, dress, perfume." It is danced to musical selections from Gabriel Fauré's Pelléas et Mélisande and Shylock by a corps de ballet of eight women, three soloists and two leading couples.
Fauré is known for the poetic songs he wrote and his music for the mass, which he composed and performed in his capacity as choirmaster and organist at the Madeleine, a church catering to the wealthier Catholics of Paris. The music he composed for the theater, most notably the selections Balanchine chose for Emeralds is much less well known, but spoke of Faure's interest in pursuing opportunities outside the church and his desire to make a bit more money. Both Pelléas et Mélisande and Shylock were composed in the 1890's, at the end of the Golden Age of ballet in Paris, but at the highpoint of the Imperial Russian Ballet led by French ballet master Marius Petipa.
Fauré's sensuous music seems at times to fill the air like the perfume Balanchine mentions. The dancers flow through it with floating bourrées and walk with it in deliberate, yet delicate, steps. Deborah Jowitt noted in her review of a 1983 performance that "Balanchine not only conjured up romance, but a glade for it to happen in."
The section consists of an opening pas de deux, with the first lead couple threading its way through ever-shifting patterns of corps dancers. Then each of the lead ballerinas has her own solo variation, the second more sinuous than the first. According to critic Clive Barnes, the next part, the Emeralds' pas de trois "must rank with Balanchine's most imaginative choreography…with the dancers doing surprising things, musically and physically." In it the dancers fill the space with more attack than the previous sections, yet maintain their sense of politeness.
All the dancers clear the stage to make way for the second lead couple and their pas de deux that lightly paces in soft circles. Their dance patiently crosses the stage in some sort of lonely journey punctuated with lengthened limbs and soft off-balance faints. They might be a couple in love if not for their bejeweled costumes and regal attitude. The end of Emeralds brings the dancers back for a finale that softly halts with the three danseurs on one knee, gazing offstage.
While Emeralds evokes nineteenth century France, Rubies jumps ahead to the jazz age in America when hips were looser and skirts were shorter. Edward Villella, who danced the principal male role in the original cast also draws parallels to "Astaire, … and show dancing, the brashness and confidence of Broadway nightclubs." For Balanchine though, it was "simply Stravinsky's music."
For this section of Jewels, Balanchine chose Igor Stravinsky's 1929 composition Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, which he wrote while still actively performing as a concert pianist. The piece evokes the complex rhythms found in American jazz as well as the tonal experiments of twentieth-century avant-garde composers. Balanchine had been using Stravinsky's music since he was a young choreographer, newly hired by Serge Diaghilev to create work for his company, The Ballets Russes. The two men came to admire each other's work and continued their artistic collaboration throughout their careers.
Dance writers talk about Rubies as if it was Balanchine's love letter to America with its high-energy rhythms and unexpected twists and turns. The choreography almost goes out of its way to confound all expectations, using flexed feet, jutting hips, angular shapes and non-stop movement. The dancers prance like horses, chase each other like children, flirt, and capture each other in flashes of possibility. All of this is accomplished with a sense of humor credited to Balanchine's ability to layer emotionless gesture with unconventional classicism.
Rubies was choreographed for a lead couple and a solo female who each take turns leading a corps of men and women. The variation for the female dancer includes a moment when the men surround her on the stage, almost as if they are all vying for her attention. At a different point in the section, these same men chase the lead man prompting several writers and dancer to make a connection to horses and children. Their physical drive is unmatched yet they maintain an air of playfulness that softens the edge of competition. The pas de deux is non-stop action and energy with dancers driving each other as the music drives them. Legs slice the air and torsos twitch and change directions as the entire stage is lit with sparks.
The final jewel to be presented in the trilogy is Diamonds, originally offered to ballerina Suzanne Farrell as a ballet inspired by the unicorn tapestries housed in Paris's Cluny Museum. However, more than functioning as a showpiece for Farrell, Diamonds is Balanchine's trip back to the Imperial Russian Ballet where Marius Petipa created some of the most recognizable masterpieces of the classical canon.
Petipa's classicism was marked by increased technical difficulty, especially for his ballerinas, who were decked out in the latest ballet fashion: a skirt that not only showed the ballerina's knees, but verged on giving the audience a peek at her middle thigh. In the twentieth century, the classical tutu has morphed into the flat-as-a-pancake collection of tulle that fully exposes the ballerina's legs, thus calling greater attention to her ever-growing repertoire of complex movements.
Petipa was also known for his extravagant story ballets that often celebrated the grandeur of Imperial Russia. His stories told of princes and princesses who conducted themselves with the greatest civility and physical presence. Some of his best known ballets such as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, are also celebrated because of his collaboration with Russian composer Piotr Tchaikovsky. When they first heard his ballet music, audiences rejected it as too emotional, but soon Tchaikovsky's ballet scores became famous in their own right.
"And then for the finale, Diamonds, I move to Tchaikovsky-always Tchaikovsky for dancing."
Balanchine chose to use Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 3 in D major, gracefully cutting the first movement of the piece (by some accounts because it was too long, and by others because he felt it just wasn't suitable for dancing). The other four movements have stayed in tact. Tchaikovsky wrote his Third Symphony over a summer in 1875. It was inspired by the music of Russia, Germany and Poland, the last of which prompted an English conductor to name this symphony "Polish."
Diamonds opens with a waltz danced by a corps de ballet of 12 women and two soloists. It shows the corps's beautiful fluidity, long lines and its ability to weave intricate shapes in space. Next is a pas de deux for the principal couple. Here Balanchine shows off the fine control of his dancers and their impeccable attention to detail. Every position is placed just so -- down to the simple walk at the beginning in which the dancers methodically move towards each other with excruciatingly deliberate steps. The dance ends with a grand gesture as the danseur drops to one knee, kissing the hand of his ballerina. The principals return in the next section to dance their variations flanked by an ensemble, but the final section is described as being the most spectacular.
In addition to being the finale of this section of Jewels, the final polonaise also serves as the finale that brings the entire evening to a close. Lincoln Kirstein describes it as "one of the best examples of Balanchine's applause-machines." The stage fills with what seems to be the entire company of dancers (in reality only 34) who swirl around each other, winding into complicated patterns and hoping not to run into each other. Ballerina Merrill Ashley remembers the experience as a young corps dancer as "overwhelming. It felt claustrophobic, and the patterns changed so quickly that I had trouble keeping track of where I was, where I was supposed to be, and who was next to me as I tried to stay in line."
In the beginning, there was also talk of a "sapphire" section of the ballet to music by Schoenberg, but the idea was put aside after a while. "After all," Balanchine remarked in an interview, "what is the colour of sapphires?" Some dance writers have also concluded that the sapphire section was also problematic because blue is a difficult color to translate into stage lighting. There may have also been a fear that the red, white and blue of rubies, diamonds and sapphires would have come dangerously close to the patriotic theme seen in Balanchine's 1958 ballet Stars and Stripes.
With the absence of sapphires, ballet audiences are left with an evening of three seemingly independent ballets. In fact, Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds are often danced by themselves on programs with other ballets, but there are elements that draw the three together making the whole greater than its parts. Besides the obvious link among the three titles and Karinska's costumes, the choreography serves to draw the sections together into a complete whole. Those who have seen and have written about the ballet talk of a crescendo of energy from the opening fluidity of Emeralds to the final polonaise in Diamonds. Balanchine sets the pace masterfully so that the building momentum carries the audience. By the time the stage is filled at the end of the evening, there is a feeling that everything has lead up to this moment.
There is also the "walking connection" in which dance writers point out that each section has its own style of putting one foot in front of the other. The walking directly reflects the mood and the energy of the section in which it appears. In Emeralds, the dancers are almost floating with the corps' bourrées and the ballerina's rhythmic steps en pointe during the second pas de deux. It turns into an energetic prancing in Rubies when dancers in a sort of "chase scene" gallop around the stage like trained thoroughbreds. Finally, in Diamonds, it is the regal, full-footed, unhurried walk of ballerina and danseur during their pas de deux.
"…how exciting it is to see our companies together, a huge mass of gorgeous dancers, and to witness the sizzle of energy churning in the rehearsal room as they reveal their skills and artistry to each other." Victoria Morgan, Artistic Director, Cincinnati Ballet
This production of Jewels is being brought to audiences through the combined efforts of BalletMet Columbus and Cincinnati Ballet. After a successful artistic exchange two seasons ago, in which BalletMet traveled to Cincinnati to perform Dracula and Cincinnati Ballet brought Peter Pan to Columbus, their directors were looking for a way to collaborate further. Jewels, and the 100th year anniversary of Balanchine's birth in 2003, provided the perfect opportunity.
In 1996, Cincinnati Ballet was the first company outside New York City Ballet to perform Jewels. They painstakingly recreated the costumes from Karinska's designs and brought in former NYCB dancers Elyse Borne and Suzanne Farrell to set the ballet on their dancers. The production was cited by dance critic Janet Light as "one of the most beautifully mounted efforts in the company's history" and brought in Cincinnati Ballet's largest audience for any non-story ballet program.
For this production, repetiteurs Elyse Borne and Bart Cook have been working closely with both companies. They spend their time in rehearsals setting the choreography and ironing out the details of Balanchine's precise technical style. Both Borne and Cook have extensive relationships with Balanchine's work as students, dancers and coaches.
The collaboration between BalletMet and Cincinnati Ballet has many advantages including offering both Cincinnati and Columbus audiences the opportunity to see dancers from another one of Ohio's major regional ballet companies. For the performances, Cincinnati Ballet will fill the corps de ballet in Emeralds and BalletMet will do the same for Rubies. The two companies join forces to make the stage come alive in Diamonds. Each city will also get to see soloists from both companies as they will be changed from one performance to another. BalletMet corps dancers will support Cincinnati Ballet soloists and vice versa. With their combined efforts, over 60 dancers will be participating in the performances.
The companies' artistic directors also speak of the chance to bring the dancers together, not just to see each other perform, but to interact in the studios, share facilities and compare notes. When BalletMet left for a week to rehearse in Cincinnati, there was a distinct emptiness in the studios, an energy that was transplanted to the south. Logistically, the process has been a stressful one, but well worth any difficulties scheduling and travel have caused.
This performance is also extraordinary because it brings a Balanchine masterpiece, in its entirety, to Ohio. Balanchine is literally in our own backyards and each city has her own capable artists to bring this amazing ballet to life.