There are so many reasons to covet “Jewels.”
The expensive-sounding stage spectacle, one of choreographer George Balanchine’s signature works, is coming to Northrop auditorium this week, brought to life by 55 dancers from Salt Lake City’s Ballet West.
“Jewels” is the umbrella title for a trio of ballets — “Emeralds,” “Rubies” and “Diamonds” — and for anyone looking for a primer into the vast catalog of the 20th century’s most influential dancemaker, this masterpiece might be the ticket.
Eminently practical, Balanchine made “Jewels” to draw ticket buyers into his New York City Ballet’s enormous new Lincoln Center home, as well as showcase the prodigious talents of the top-flight dancers then at his disposal. A clever marketer, he spread the story that he found inspiration after gazing upon the sparkling merchandise of jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels. That sense of glamour became catnip to audiences.
Every facet of Balanchine’s style — musicality, speed, energy, a mathematician’s grasp of geometry — is on full display in “Jewels,” although its three segments, all plotless, differ markedly in temperament. That’s why they’re often performed on their own.
“Emeralds” is sigh-inducingly romantic, “Rubies” is a swig of Red Bull and “Diamonds,” with its echoes of “Swan Lake,” refracts the majesty of classical Russian ballet.
Still, Balanchine deftly employs a variety of stylistic connective tissue to weave the disparate trio into a cohesive whole.
Walking, for instance. The languid stroll of “Emeralds” becomes a frisky racehorse-like prance in “Rubies,” only to turn into a regal promenade in “Diamonds.”
The jewel theme is taken literally in the twinkling settings and the glittering, extravagantly ornamented costumes. For the latter, Ballet West replicates the original designs created by Barbara Karinska, Balanchine’s devoted couturier and fellow Russian émigré.
Geography is another leitmotif. Each of the evening’s three segments calls upon a different composer: Fauré for “Emeralds” (selections from “Pelléas et Mélisande” and “Shylock”), Stravinsky for “Rubies” (Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra), and Tchaikovsky for “Diamonds” (Symphony No. 3 in D major, Op. 29, minus the first movement), and the music conjures up three radically disparate worlds.
“I just love how Balanchine creates this evocative mood of a different country for each section,” said Ballet West Artistic Director Adam Sklute. “With its beautiful French music, ‘Emeralds’ has a mystery and a magic and a wonderful ambience that I just adore. ‘Rubies’ has the craziness and freedom of the Jazz Age in America. And ‘Diamonds’ is an evocation of the elegance and grandeur of 19th-century Imperial Russia. You finish with this almost overwhelming splendor.”
That mix makes “Jewels” a prime intro-to-Balanchine experience, said Ellen Sorrin, director of the Balanchine Trust in New York City, which preserves and protects the choreographer’s creative works.
“The advantage of seeing ‘Jewels’ is that it gives you a full range of his taste in music and his understanding of choreography and technique,” she said. “It was choreographed in 1967, and Balanchine was really in his prime at the time. I don’t think that you can ever go wrong with Balanchine, especially with three ballets in a single evening.”
In February 1975, Arlene Croce, then the dance critic for the New Yorker and perhaps history’s pre-eminent writer on all things Balanchine, devoted her magazine real estate to a deep dive into “Jewels.” At that point, the ballet had firmly planted itself as a top box office attraction at New York City Ballet, second only to “The Nutcracker.”
Forty-five years later, Croce’s observations remain right on the money.
“If George Balanchine were a novelist or a playwright or a movie director instead of a choreographer, his studies of women would be among the most discussed and most influential artistic achievements of our time,” she wrote. “But because Balanchine works without words, and customarily without a libretto, and because the position of women in ballet has long been a dominant one, we take his extraordinary creations for granted, much as if they were natural happenings.”
She’s right: The female roles Balanchine created for “Jewels” are novellas unto themselves.
Balanchine clearly tailored “Jewels” to reflect the idiosyncratic talents and personalities of its original cast. Some might see those deeply embedded characteristics as a roadblock, but not Sklute.
“The ballet is strong enough to sustain itself,” he said. “That’s what’s so vital about Balanchine, and why ballet is such a unique art form. It really is one of the only performing arts that’s handed down, from generation to generation. That’s how we keep the flavor and the stylistic backbones alive.”
It helped that several longtime Balanchine acolytes coached the company’s dancers, including Mimi Paul, an original “Emeralds” lead.
“We’re very fortunate to work with them,” Sklute said. “They were able to share ideas about qualities, styles and even specific steps.”
Dazzling principal roles aside, “Jewels,” with its wall-to-wall movement, requires a fully engaged corps.
“There’s so much dancing, and so much challenging dancing, for the entire company,” Sklute said. “It gives so many people in the company an opportunity to shine. That’s why they love doing it.”
Making (live) music
Once the exclusive property of New York City Ballet, the past two decades have seen “Jewels” spreading, like the Gospel According to Balanchine, into the repertoires of the world’s top troupes. Ballet West first embraced the “Jewels” juggernaut seven years ago.
“By 2013, I finally felt that the company was ready to perform it,” said Sklute, who has led Ballet West since 2007.
It helped that Ballet West enjoys a long, fruitful history of dancing Balanchine’s neoclassical works.
“It’s part of the backbone of the company,” Sklute said. “[Ballet West founder] William Christensen trained under Balanchine.”
Minnesota hasn’t seen “Jewels” since a Miami City Ballet production played Northrop in 2000. This time around, there’s a difference, and it’s major: Unlike Miami’s use of recorded music, Ballet West will have nearly 50 musicians in the orchestra pit.
“I can’t imagine this ballet being done to a recording,” Sklute said. “Balanchine was a great musician, and a lot of his choreography reflects that deep musical knowledge and the connection that he had to music. Live music is what keeps the dancers in the moment. It keeps the ballet alive. It makes the entire theater experience.”