New York City Ballet
by Jerry Hochman
June 4, 2011 -- David Koch Theatre, New York, NY
Last year, as part of its “Architecture of Dance” theme, New York City Ballet used the phrase “See the Music” to describe a number of its specially-created programs (and still describes some of its programs this way). To this viewer the phrase seems superfluous – seeing a choreographer’s interpretation of a piece of music and application of that music to movement is something that one expects to happen in all ballets that are choreographed to music. That ‘seeing the music’ is nothing new is particularly evident in the ballets created by George Balanchine – whose ability to enhance, rather than mimic, whatever music he selected is unmatched.
One of the best of the Balanchine ballets that allows an audience to “see the music’ is “Jewels.”
Premiered in 1967, “Jewels” is a stunning evening-length program consisting of three separate plotless ballets unified by an overall theme that purportedly was inspired by Balanchine’s having seen certain jewelry in the window of Van Cleef & Arpels. I take Balanchine anecdotes, particularly those authored by him, with a grain of salt – but whether inspired by jewelry displayed in a high-end shop window or not, “Jewels” is a magnificent ballet, and magnificent theater in the sense of its marriage of choreography, music, sets, and costumes.
Precious gems lend themselves to emotional attributes: the rich green of an emerald suggests dreamily romantic old world elegance; the red of a ruby arouses the senses with its innate effervescent energy and sensuality; and a diamond, aside from being forever, evokes the brilliance and majesty of stars in the night sky. Well, truthfully, these qualities can be mixed and matched and reflected in any precious gem. But Balanchine selected these three precious gems on which to craft his dances, bestowed these emotional characteristics on them, selected music that perfectly reflects these ‘personalities,’ and choreographed dances that convert the incorporeal essences of the gems into movement. The jaw-droppingly beautiful sets (created by Peter Harvey) and the stunning costumes (by Karinska, of course) further amplify the character of each gem. Without any one of these components, the ballet wouldn’t be as glorious as it is. [Indeed, when the curtain rises on each dance, the audience is treated to a breathtaking visual representation, as reflected in the sets and costumes, of the essence of each gem. The audience gasps with pleasure – and always applauds – before a single choreographed step is taken.] But together, the whole is even greater than the sum of its individually incomparable parts.
With respect to Saturday’s performance the extraordinarily high quality of all of the dancers must be acknowledged and emphasized at the outset. [Actually, there really isn’t anything ‘extraordinary’ about it – as I’ve previously stated, the performance level of all of the NYCB dancers of late has been routinely extraordinary, from corps dancers to principals.] “Emeralds” was led by Abi Stafford and Sebastien Marcovici, and Jenifer Ringer and Jonathan Stafford, and also featured Ana Sophia Scheller, Antonio Carmena, and Erica Pereira; “Rubies” by Ashley Bouder, Gonzalo Garcia, and Teresa Reichlen; and “Diamonds” by Maria Kowroski and Charles Askegard. There was not a less than stellar performance from any of them, and although I may specifically note certain individual performances, this is not meant to suggest than any one performance was superior to another.
“Emeralds” is choreographed to music by Gabriel Faure (culled from “Pelleas et Melisande” and “Shylock”) that is neither Romantic nor Impressionist, but a combination of the two. The music sets a mood of French romanticism the way the Seine sets the mood for Paris – slow-moving but rich and sensual, and the equally rich and sensual set adds a hint of an enticing underwater grotto. To this music, Balanchine created dances evocative of French dances of the period – but also includes what to this viewer are repeated phrases that bring to mind Central European (Hungarian) images as well. Ms. Ringer’s solo was simply fabulous, and Ms. Pereira breathes fresh air into every performance she’s in. [At its premiere, “Emeralds” ended with the excerpt from “Shylock” titled “Final.” It was a ‘typically Balanchine’ emphatic visual climax involving the entire cast and corps that reflected the climax of the score (or, in this case, an ‘artificial’ climax applied to the selected musical excerpts). In 1976, Balanchine added two new sections to “Emeralds”: a pas de deux, and a pas de sept (limited to the seven lead dancers), choreographed to “La Mort de Melisande.” This pas de sept became the new closing section. Both the ‘endings’ are masterfully choreographed, of course, but “Emeralds” now seems to have two endings. In this viewer’s opinion the pas de sept, a sort of homage to the period, is the more appropriate way to conclude the piece, but the original ending now seems out of place, and it makes the pas de sept somewhat anti-climactic.]
Jazzy and sexy and a huge amount of fun to watch, “Rubies,” to Igor Sravinsky’s 1929 composition “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra,” is a sloe gin fizz of a ballet evocative of the time that its music was created (the ‘roaring twenties,’ and the palpable sensory indulgence and excess of the period). Where “Emeralds” transports the audience to a world of slow-paced lush romanticism, “Rubies” excites, entices and energizes. Both Ms. Bouder and Mr. Garcia provided enough sizzling speed and electricity to light the house, but to this viewer Ms. Reichlen’s stage presence dominates the piece. The choreography for her role in “Rubies” clearly was created to emphasize and exploit the physical allure of the dancer performing it, but Ms. Reichlen carries the intrinsic sensuality of “Rubies” to another level.
In “Diamonds,” Balanchine returns to his Russian roots, choreographing a section that is truly regal and evocative of Russian imperial ballet theater. It is said that “Diamonds” was a revisit to the tribute to Russian classicism that Balanchine had previously created in 1947 in Symphony in C (then entitled “Palais de Crystal”). But that’s only half of it – I saw sections of “Diamonds” that appeared to have been lifted practically verbatim from “Theme and Variations,” a work also created by Balanchine in 1947 to music by Tchaikovsky. But even if “Diamonds” is Balanchine’s restatement of, and further exploration of, his previous choreographic ideas, it is a superb piece, majestically danced by Ms. Kowroski and Mr. Askegard.
No piece in the repertoire of NYCB or any other company has the distilled magnificence of “Jewels.” The three sections can stand on their own, and “Rubies” has frequently been performed independently of its sister pieces. But seeing all three balletic gems in one evening is an awesome experience. “Jewels” is scheduled to be presented again during NYCB’s upcoming fall season, and it is an experience not to be missed.
Read related stories in the press and see what others are saying -- visit the forum.