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San Francisco Ballet - 'Jewels'

The secret life of stones

by Jeff Kuo

April 5, 2003 matinee -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

The story of how the idea for a gemstone themed ballet suggested itself to Balanchine during a visit to Van Cleef & Arpels’ New York salon has become by now so nigh universal as to not bear further repetition. Balanchine, the story goes, needed a block buster ballet and what better to capture the imagination of the audience than a full evening, storyless work of three sections, each based on a precious gemstone. “Emeralds,” set to music by Gabriel Faure, is a sensuous, utterly feminine reverie with hints of sublimated passion, nostalgia and even regret. Jazzy, sexy, and saucy “Rubies” is set to the “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra” of Balanchine’s friend and long time collaborator, Igor Stravinsky. The evening concludes with the regal and formal pageantry of “Diamonds” set to movements 2 through 5 of Tschaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3 “Polish.”

The selection of precious stones was particularly astute. Other ballets have of course been concerned with the symbolism of precious minerals and other decorative materiel—there is, for instance, the pas de quatre of gold, silver, diamonds, and sapphires from “Sleeping Beauty,” Act III, and also something golden in the Soviet era “L’Age d’Or” to music by Shostakovich (... so I imagine since I haven’t seen this one myself). Balanchine’s “Symphony in C” was originally choreographed as “Le Palais de Cristal” for the Paris Opera Ballet. “Ballo della Regina” seen recently on the Opera House stage was, I think, based upon a tiny episode from the opera “Don Carlo” concerning a pearl fisherman.

But, what do precious stones mean? What does it mean when a ballet is made “about” emeralds, rubies, and diamonds?

A gemstone in the rough looks pretty unassuming—a little shiny, perhaps with a little color, but essentially an uninspiring rock. But, cleaned, cut, and faceted to a lapidary shine—a step cut emerald, a ruby baguette, a diamond brilliant is something else entirely—marks of wealth and power. But, not just wealth and power—poor bronze, iron, and steel can do that just as well.

Gemstones—particularly diamonds—signify power in ways not available to lesser ornamental materiel. Look at the Koh-I-Noor, the Cullinans, the Orloff, the Moonstone. These are stones that signify not just wealth and power, but imperial wealth and modern state power in the most spectacular way imaginable. In gemstones, issues of memory, power, and spectacle become inseparable from their artistic function—and I think Balachine is at his most genius recognizing this.

The ballet’s first part, “Emeralds,” I think remembers most clearly that jewels have what I shall call a “secret life” (after Arjun Appadurai’s phrase, the “social life” of commodities). Jewels have always been surrounded by exoticism and legend—the Grand Condé , the Hope Diamond, the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. The world of “Emeralds” is a private reverie of courtiers and ladies in waiting. There is a princess but her dances are filled with images of the most transient of touches and the lingering regrets of parting. Lorena Feijoo and Yuri Possokhov’s dances are smoother and silkier than last year’s. In my favorite section, the “Epithalame” Grand Pas de Deux, are there hints of not only nostalgia and regret but also tragedy – never shown but only hinted at in the way the ballerina so seldom looks at her partner? ... a meaning to their exit not very commonly seen in a ballet--stepping backwards from our view?

Muriel Maffre chooses more rounded, legato arms for “Sicilienne.” I wonder if I don't actually prefer Julie Diana’s more regal forms. The "Entr'act Andante moderato" pas de trois for Catherine Winfield, Sergio Torrado, and Leslie Young is pretty much “on.” If Julie Diana and Damain Smith last year were sleepwalkers, sonnambulisti, today we see Muriel Maffre as the sleepwalker and Benjamin Pierce her attendant (or confidante?). Does this remind me of the mesmerism pas de deux for Astaire and Rogers from "Carefree"? Pierce's conception is a wonder -- he guides, supplements, extends, protects the sleep walking girl. Sighs and pauses.

The ending is a bang up job for the entire “Emeralds” cast but ends with a coda for the seven principals. Why the coda, the “Mort d’ Melisande”? One by one the four ballerinas leave the stage to the three men, kneeling on the stage with one arm in a gesture somewhere between supplication and resignation -- the funerary theme, I think, may well remind us that the secret lives of jewels signifies not not only the exotic in life but its brevity.

If “Emeralds” hinted at the older jewelry narratives of Nadir Shah, Tavernier, and Louis XIV, “Rubies” is of a different, newer order. Instead of intrigue in the courts of Europe, “Rubies” is all bright lights and pizzazz. Technophiles may recall a modern day jewelry narrative not of state war and diplomacy, but of Bell Laboratories, Hughes Aircraft, and the development of laser technology. Synthetic rubies were at the heart of the first laser (which is actually an acronym for Light Amplification Stimulated Emission of Radiation), which could emit 694nm coherent radiation as the result of pulses of light directing onto rubies as the lasing material.

“Rubies” is indeed full of bright flashes and pulses of energy—of dance energy. Kristin Long -- wow! She is so on -- especially fast and clean turns. Joan Boada looks just a little short for her but he puts such energy into his solo variations. Elana Altman is in the corps but gets the soloists role. Tall and thin -- she doesn't seem to quite fill the outsize jesterish role of the "Rubies" soloist. Over the years, I have gotten used to Leslie Young or Muriel Maffre here. But I am more than willing to learn new things in Altman.

In the semiotics of jewelry, the association of diamonds with spectacle and power are unmistakable. Theatrical spectacle and artistic power are ballet’s prerogative as well. But, like a real diamond, the ballet lives a kind of paradox. They compress into one potent symbol the public and the private, the juridical and the individual (as Marcia Pointon says in her discussion of jewels and luxurious consumption).

In this sense, “Diamonds” the ballet shares traits in common with its namesake. Both the gemstone and the choreography it has inspired are virtually indestructible—both meant to outlive their possessors. A dancer or a company may be privileged to “own” it during their lifetime, but in a metaphorical sense, the ballet belongs to no one individual but to the art of ballet. Of the “Diamonds” pas de deux, I read that Suzanne Farrell imagined the moment where she gestures one hand behind her head, the other extended forward, as like shooting an arrow. She wrote tha Balanchine didn’t give her those movements but trusted the choreography to her instictive artistry. Her energy, her hyperextensions and plunges made the image of the shooting arrow her “Diamonds.”

For Yuan Yuan Tan, I see Raymonda’s exoticism in the same hand behind the head gesture. Her other arm isn’t shooting energy but is for a reaching and possibly a salute. This is Tan’s “Diamonds”—a bridging with ballet’s imperial past. As with last year, her performance is a revelation – confident and understated but epic on scope and conception. When Zachary Hench, Tan’s subtle and sympathetic partner, closes the pas de deux by kissing her hand, he only repeats the tribute I believe the audience feels.

The four soloists, Kathleen Martuza, Nicole Starbuck, Courtney Wright, and Leslie Young, and a bright and clean corps set off the principals well. The concluding "Polonaise" is the big finish—loud and bright, perhaps, a little too busy. Suzanne Farrell had pointed out the ways in which the fast and furious movement of the corps surrounds the stillness of the principals. The ballerina might be simply promenaded in an arabesque pose but all is glamour and brilliant cut gemstones when set off against the corps like a brilliant cut in a setting.

In her discussion of the semiotics of jewelry, Art historian Marcia Pointon lists a few of the "great jewelry narratives"of history -- the story of Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi, Pliny's account of Cleopatra swallowing the pearl, John Donne's poem "The Relique," Bizet's opera "The Pearl Fishers," Anita Loos' "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," and Ian Fleming's "Diamonds Are Forever."

I wonder if we shouldn't add Balanchine's "Jewels" to that list.

I can’t find my cast list now, so I can’t tell you for sure, but I believe Michael McGraw played the piano soloist in “Rubies” and Guest Conductor, Mark Stringer conducted.

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