One of choreographer George Balanchine’s many virtues was a real flair for showmanship. He knew how to create an event, and also — no less important — that a popular work can, simultaneously, be a great work of art. In 1967, when it was announced that Balanchine would create an evening-length ballet inspired by the glamour of gemstones, New York City Ballet had just moved to a new, purpose-built theater at the Lincoln Center. The company needed a hit that would look suitably imposing on its vast stage and fill the theater’s many seats. And it worked — people came in droves.
Canny marketing touted “Jewels” as the “first three-act plotless ballet,” a summation of Balanchine’s revolutionary approach, which allowed movement and music to speak for themselves without the need of a story or fairytale characters. In press photographs, Balanchine was shown peering down at expensive parures in the window of Van Cleef & Arpels, or surrounded by the comely ballerinas who would lead each of the ballet’s three sections. And what ballerinas they were — Violette Verdy and Mimi Paul in “Emeralds,” Patricia McBride in “Rubies,” Suzanne Farrell in “Diamonds.” Each a jewel in her own right.
Jewels has continued to be immensely popular and is performed by companies around the world, including the Bolshoi, the Mariinsky and the Paris Opera. In the U.S., it has been staged at Miami City Ballet, Boston Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet, just to name a few. Pennsylvania Ballet has performed it since 2013. Each troupe infuses it with its own style, and, more importantly, with the unique and inimitable perfume of its own ballerinas.
Romantic, modernist, classical
But what is “Jewels” about, really? In a way, the title is a feint. There are certainly allusions to jewels in the choreography — prismatic formations, necklace-like garlands and diamond-like rhombi of dancers. One could argue that the ballet captures certain qualities of each stone — the soft glow of emeralds, the fiery glint of rubies, the shimmer of diamonds. But there are deeper layers of meaning at play.
Each ballet reveals a world of music and cultural allusions. The composers selected by Balanchine for each panel of his triptych set the tone: for “Emeralds,” Gabriel Faurees diaphanous incidental music for Pelleas et Melisande and Shylock; Stravinsky’s syncopated, spiky Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra for “Rubies.” And for “Diamonds,” music by the greatest ballet composer of them all, Tchaikovsky, in this case four movements from his Third Symphony.
Each section is also an exploration of a particular style of ballet — romantic, modernist, classical — all of them dear to the choreographer. By delving into the music of Faure, Balanchine evoked the Romanticism and mystery of France. As Verdy has said, “It is his homage to Impressionism, to Degas, to French art.” “Rubies” is Balanchine’s America (or more specifically, New York): brash and sophisticated, unconventional, even, at times, vulgar. None of which prepares us for the epic sweep of “Diamonds.” Here, inevitably, we are reminded of Petipa’s ballets, especially “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty,” both of which are alluded to in the choreography.
Balanchine’s aesthetic geography
“Jewels” may have been plotless, but it is not difficult to discern some underlying themes and situations. “Emeralds” seems to take place in an enchanted forest filled with nymphs and the echoes of hunting horns. One ballerina dips her hands into an invisible spring; another plays a private game of hopscotch. Two lovers walk, reverently, side by side. In the epilogue, which was added in 1976, a trio of men advances slowly toward an unknown destiny, like knights in a chivalric romance.
In dramatic contrast, “Rubies” appears to take place in an exciting setting that combines the sex appeal of an art-deco jazz club and the high spirits of the racetrack. Frisky cigarette girls in short skirts ply their wares; an Amazonian femme fatale towers over four men who circle around her like moths drawn to a bright light. A young couple frolics and does the tango. An impish young man — originally, Edward Villella — leads a group of charming hooligans on a race around the stage. “It was like Balanchine had tapped into my memory,” Villella wrote in his memoir, referring to his childhood in Queens; “there was always a leader of the pack in those days, always a chain of kids behind him.”
After this mad romp, the melancholy grandeur of “Diamonds” becomes all the more stirring. The ballet opens with a lilting, leisurely waltz and ends with a magnificent finale in which the stage is flooded with glistening lines of spinning, kicking, parading dancers. (Lincoln Kirstein described this finale as “one of the prime examples of Balanchine’s applause machine.”) And in the middle, an extraordinary pas de deux. The ballerina is an enigma: remote but gentle, majestic and yet vulnerable. The role was created for Suzanne Farrell, a dancer who possessed all these qualities. She is pulled between two poles: On the one hand, the blind devotion of her noble cavalier; on the other, an unseen force that calls out to her from beyond the edges of the stage.
The audience was treated to a full performance of “Rubies” on Sunday, opening night of the festival. Excerpts from all three sections of “Jewels” will be on display as part of the UpClose: Jewels program tonight, when dancers from four companies — New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet — will explore facets of this groundbreaking ballet. If one looks very closely, one will begin to make out certain threads that run through the three seemingly unrelated parts: an Orphic belief in the unattainability of women, but also a walking theme, treated differently in each ballet. Most of all, though, “Jewels” is a kind of map of Balanchine’s aesthetic geography: his Paris in “Emeralds,” his New York in “Rubies” and his St. Petersburg in “Diamonds.”