I am a Crazy Czarist Russian, Who Knew?: Balanchine's "Jewels" at NYCB


Whew, am so busy with work (law work, that is), writing stuff, and ballet-going, I’m badly behind on blogging… I’ve seen so many things over the past few days at New York City Ballet — after suddenly realizing that, between ABT‘s Met season and the Blackpool Dance Festival, NYCB’s spring season is practically over and I’ve seen hardly anything but Martins’s ROMEO AND JULIET, so am trying to make up for lost time… I plan to blog on everything I’ve seen as soon as I can catch up, but for now, I’ll start with JEWELS, the most breathtaking ballet I’ve seen in a while, and one that really drove home to me like nothing else George Balanchine’s magic. This was my first time seeing it and as a result I now want to devour everything written about that man, and plan, as soon as I get time, to run to the store for the biographies by Terry Teachout and Robert Gottlieb.

JEWELS is divided into three “acts,” or parts, each one representing a specific period and style of classical ballet. Of course the ballet’s not literally about precious stones; the jewels are a metaphor for each period, each of which, near and dear to Balanchine’s heart, is its own unique kind of gem. Premiering in 1967, the ballet was considered a radical departure from the long-dominant big story ballets and is recognized as the first full-length abstract (ie: narrative-less) ballet.

Part I, Emeralds, is Balanchine’s celebration of French classical dance, and is choreographed to Gabriel Faure’s concert suites from 1889, used in that year to accompany French adaptations of Shakespeare plays. This first piece is, to me, characterized by quietness (at least in contrast to the latter two!), fluidity, elegance, the beauty and charm of simplicity, and by subtle expressiveness. Rachel Rutherford captured my attention with her gorgeously expressive wrists. (She also captivated me yesterday in CONCERTO BAROCCO, but more on that in a later post…) With those beautiful wrists — ahhh, I wanna see HER do BAYADERE now! Also entrancing me was a certain R. Fairchild … Robert Fairchild aka “Romeo” Fairchild :) Seriously, where did this kid come from? Was he seen onstage before Martins cast him earlier this season for the world premiere of his R&J? He’s spectacular — everything he does — turns, jumps, everything is marked with amazing precision. And he has that extra something that is undefinable that makes him stand far out in a crowd. (I saw him yesterday in BRANDENBERG and TRIBUTE looking very charmingly James Dean-esque … but more on that later… methinks he may be the Angel Corella of NYCB?…) Well, Peter Martins surely has a knack for uncovering talent, of that I am sure!

As Philip rightly noted, (and part of the charm and the fun of this ballet is, I think) everyone has their favorite part. Philip’s is this first part, and I can why with its soft, elegant beauty and quiet, subtle charm.

Going into the ballet and knowing as little as I did about it, I was sure the second part, Rubies, would be my favorite. This is Balanchine’s panegyric to America, his adopted country. Choreographed to lively, late 1920s piano music by Igor Stravinsky and using spicy red short-skirted costumes, this is Balanchine’s vision of what American dance, of what America, the New World, is — high-spirited, fast and energetic, jazzy with jutting hips, showy, full of zest and flavor, fun, cheery, endlessly upbeat, overflowing with youthful optimism. This part is the one most often performed when companies use it in mixed repertories, and you can see why — it is the most “Balanchine-esque” — this vision of America, this combination of classical ballet with what we already had here, with what was uniquely American, was the stylistic hallmark of his oeuvre, and, since he is the father of American ballet, it is in turn our national style…

Yvonne Borree, looking, to me, physically not like herself (has she perhaps dyed her hair darker?), was super fun to watch– she was cute, sassy, charming — she was PERFECT for the American part! As was Theresa Reichlen, who looked very Firebird-y. And is there any NYCB male dancer more perfectly suited for the all-American guy-role than Mr. AMERICAN IN PARIS, Damian Woetzel?!

I was so excited by Rubies, I thought the third section, Diamonds, would bore me in contrast. Boy was I wrong. It completely blew me away to such an extent I almost cried at the end, which I haven’t done since nearly a year ago when Jose Manuel Carreno‘s Romeo woke up thinking Alessandra Ferri‘s Juliet dead at the Met… Diamonds is Balanchine’s homage to his homeland, to the grand, sweeping, large-scaled classical tradition of the Russian Ballet. Returning to 1875 and using Tschiakovsky’s Symphony No. 3 in D Major — anyone who has ever been to the ballet more than once instantly recognizes Tschiakovsky music, even if they’ve never heard the exact score before, as THE quintessential classical ballet music. The choreography here, a tribute to the great Russian story ballets of the 19th Century, with its dramatic lifts accompanying the orchestra as the music builds to a climax, the many men dashingly courting their ballerinas around the stage at once narrowly missing sideswiping each other as their paths criss-cross, the large ensemble dancing in perfect unison, the gorgeous pas de deux and the solos for that most pristine and celebrated of creatures — the Russian ballerina, is equally instantly recognizable.

This is actually what confuses me about my own reaction to the ballet: I’m really not a Petipa-head — I don’t really go for those huge-scale, five-hour-long ballets like SWAN LAKE and SLEEPING BEAUTY just drenched with pomp and circumstance so overwrought you can’t enjoy the basic beauty of the actual dancing. But then, I had to remind myself that this is Balanchine’s version of Petipa, of the grand tradition of Russian ballet — scaled down and with all of the elements he didn’t care for so much taken out, with only what he truly loved left in. Oftentimes the tribute shines far brighter than the original. And this is a most endearing encomium, a diamond obviously being the most valuable of all stones and that enjoying never-ending life…

Ballerina Maria Kowroski (who danced the principal female role in Diamonds the night I went) wrote a little blurb in the Playbill about the ballet:

Jewels is undoubtedly one of Balanchine’s greatest masterpieces, and, during my career, I’ve been lucky enough to dance in each of the ballet’s parts…

“The first of the ballets I danced was Emeralds. This ballet has a very specific quality, a real perfume, and it has a fluid and effortless style…

“When I saw Rubies for the first time, I knew right away I wanted to do the soloist part. It’s so daring and fast — its flashiness appealed to me…

“But Diamonds is my favorite. I don’t even know how to describe it, except to say that it’s heavenly. First of all, that costume, with the beautiful headpiece, makes you feel like a million bucks. Then the ballet starts off very slowly, with a beautiful pas de deux, and the music takes you to a different place, as if you’re just floating along. When I dance Diamonds, I feel like royalty, like I’m in a beautiful palace of music and movement. Near the end, there’s a thrilling moment when the music slows down almost to a stop, and then it starts up again for the big finish, with the stage filled with dancers all moving in unison — I always get chills, and sometimes, I come close to crying. It’s just so gorgeous.”

I can assure you, it feels the same exact way watching it! The season is, horribly, nearly over, but hopefully, hopefully please please NYCB will perform this gem again, many times — and not just the Rubies section, but the ballet in its entirety. I feel that each section informs the others and that each part reveals its true beauty and magic only in contrast to the others, so I strongly feel the ballet should be put on in whole and not split up. You have only a few more opportunitities to see this masterpiece next week — on Thursday, Saturday night and next Sunday’s matinee, when NYCB will end its season with it. Visit their website for tickets. Do not miss it!!!

7 Comments

  1. I loved Diamonds the best as well…I actually prefer Devin Alberda as the “young fresh blood” at NYCB to Robert Fairchild…but maybe I need to see both dance more before making my final decision :).

  2. Oh I think I saw him (Alberda) in Tribute, by D’Amboise, which I hope to blog about soon… I know, he was beautiful (as the woman who sat next to me, who is a dance teacher, remarked as well!)

  3. Just got back from a wonderful vacation week at a very private island resort in the Grenadines, which was a touch of paradise, but the only drawback was missing a full week of ballet so it helped to read your comments on Jewels to help me get back into the flow just in time for the big weekend ahead. I’m so glad you finally have discovered and experienced Jewels. I have seen it countless times over the years but never tire of it – I continue to discover new beauty in it every time I see it. Which is my favorite part? That’s a tough question – I have always leaned towards Diamonds, especially when the female lead is danced by Maria Kowroski or in the past, Kyra Nichols or Darci Kistler or Suzanne Farrell. But at any given performance, I can find myself leaning more towards Rubies, especially when it is danced by a trio such as Ashley Bouder, Ben Millipied and Tess Reichlen, as will be the case this coming Sunday. When I first saw the ballet, Emeralds was definitely my least favorite part – I found it at first too bland, too polite, too reserved, almost boring. But over the years, my appreciation for Emeralds has grown by leaps and bounds. It’s still not my favorite, but I do love it now and on Sunday there will be some wonderful dancers performing it, including along with the two main couples, the trio of Rob Fairchild, Ana Sophia Scheller and Tiler Peck (the Fairchild vs. Alberda question raised by Jennifer is a good one – Alberda is marvelous in his solo in Tribute but for the moment, I would still have to go with Rob, and of course, with his promotion this season to soloist, he is one up on the depth chart).

    So I look forward with great anticipation to this Sunday – to once again experience the genius of Balanchine in creating this extraordinary work and of course, to Friday evening, when we will say goodbye to one of the great ballerina of our (or anyone’s) lifetime – Kyra, and there will almost certainly not be a dry eye in the house.

    I can’t bear the thought of the season being over – which is why I will be going up to Saratoga Springs the first week in July to see a few performances there before the long, long wait for the winter season.

  4. Some further thoughts. Don’t worry about NYCB performing Jewels again in the future. It’s been a very regular staple in their repertory since it was first choreographed and it will almost certainly be brought back frequently in the years to come. And I guarantee that you will continue to enjoy and discover new treasures in it with each viewing.

    I also noticed that you inquired about Suzanne Farrell on Philip’s blog. Like Philip, I have seen Suzanne dance the lead in Diamonds on quite a few occasions and she was, as he noted, truly magical – it was as if Balanchine himself had miraculously taken on a ballerina’s body and danced his own choreography. There is, in fact, a video of Suzanne and Peter dancing in Diamonds that is part of the Dance in America series and you would be well advised to buy or rent it in order to get some sense of what she was like in this ballet. But be warned that as wonderful as the video is, it still doesn’t come close to capturing the experience of seeing her live on stage. She was totally unique, in the very best sense of the word. I always used to say that she could come on stage with a bag over her head and you would still immediately know it was Suzanne. In my opinion, the only one of the current principals who comes even close to coomunicating what she did in the role is, of course, the divine Miss M – Maria Kowroski, and so I’m a little disappointed that she will in fact not be dancing the role on Sunday. Such are the hazards of multiple casting – but hey, Wendy does have her fans too and besides, we get to see Ashley Bouder in Rubies and that should be something truly special.

  5. Thanks, Bob. I know they often perform Rubies, I just didn’t know if they often performed the entire ballet — but it’s good to know that they do! And thanks for your impressions of Farrell! I am definitely going to look at that video — I know it’s never the same as seeing it live, but I guess after someone stops dancing, that’s all we have…

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