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Alina Cojocaru and Rupert Pennefather in Diamonds. Copyright belongs to its respective owners. Source: via The Telegraph

Alina Cojocaru and Rupert Pennefather in Diamonds. Copyright belongs to its respective owners. Source: via The Telegraph

Last week saw Balanchine’s Jewels return to the Royal Opera House to send off the 2008/2009 ballet season in glittering style. A few things have changed since its premiere in 2007: gone the lavish frocks and sizeable jewels to match those onstage, as worn by first night audiences the other side of the credit crunch; present lots of cast changes and regrettable absences due to injury, most notably leading ladies Zenaida Yanowsky and Sarah Lamb who could not reprise their roles in Rubies and Edward Watson  who, sadly, did not partner Tamara Rojo in Emeralds this time.

Diamonds

Thankfully at least one thing has remained the same: Alina Cojocaru’s radiance in Diamonds. If anything, Cojocaru’s reading of this grand ballerina role has become even better second time around. She is more shrouded in mystery, less the fairy tale princess, more the multifaceted precious stone. Alongside her noble partner Rupert Pennefather she puts on a dazzling display of delicacy in her dance, she is a vision that Rupert pursues and tries to enfold and lock in his arms as if worried she could vanish at any moment. If her first performance last week – more careful – made me admire the beauty of her regal line, her musical phrasing and her lush backbends, the second made my heart skip quite a few beats in its technical precision:  back after one year were Alina’s sharp turns, her lightning speed chaînés combined with that delicate, heart melting quality which makes Cojocaru’s dancing seem as rare as a precious stone and so uniquely endearing. Rupert Pennefather was more than an able partner, generating some unforgettable moments from his own solo work. As he turns in his grande pirouette during the Scherzo (the 3rd movement in this arrangement of the symphony) he advocates to us what Balanchine aimed for, he makes us see clearly all the respective turns in Tchaikovsky’s music. This physical translation of the music is evident in both dancers and in this respect I find them here – as I did in 2007 – very well matched.

So eloquent is the choreography in Diamonds you could think Tchaikovsky’s music would have been especially commissioned for the ballet and not the other way round, revealing to us just how far the genius of Balanchine went. Beginning with patterns formed by the corps, with two soloists later cutting through the lines with delicate pas de chats as they were diamond dust, or even snowflakes on loan from The Nutcraker, these soloists are joined by two further women who seem to trace the choreographic motifs and music box paths for the lead couple to dance on. Their own cavaliers join in later and the whole ensemble present a truly majestic finale, gloved women et al., in a grand ballroom. Composed of the final four movements of Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, Diamonds is in itself, the third and final movement within the symphony of dance formed by Balanchine’s Jewels, where Emeralds is the adagio and Rubies the allegro.

Emeralds

While I am, as you would have guessed, very much a “Diamonds girl” I also take delight in the dreamy and elegiac qualities of Emeralds, particularly as executed by Tamara Rojo, Leanne Benjamin, Roberta Marquez, Valeri Hristov, Bennet Gartside and Steven McRae (in the pas de trois) who seem lost in their own reveries or playing an eternal game of “Romantic tag”, which is suggested by the way the first male (Hristov, befuddled but elegant) touches his ballerina, like winding her with a magic wand – a leitmotif which is also seen in the other sections of Jewels. And as four ballerinas, interlinked with their partners, plunge into simultaneous arabesques penchés we see multiple visions of Giselle captured in a delicate bracelet. A real luxury.

Rubies

The most successful of the three Jewels is, conversely, the one that appeals the least to my personal taste. But that’s not to say I do not enjoy a modern cut Ruby sandwiched between an Emerald and a Diamond. Rubies is supposed to showcase three technically brilliant dancers (2 women and 1 man) but now with Laura McCulloch not particularly tall and not particularly dominating (though much more secure in later performances), I feel as if all the action is left in the hands of Alexandra Ansanelli and Carlos Acosta. But at least those are competent hands. Stravinsky’s “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra” seems to musically suggest a capricious woman and her rakish man and the way this central couple communicate is almost the antithesis of the regal couple in Diamonds: playful, flirty, naughty, temperamental.  At one point Carlos keeps Alexandra waiting as he goes on a dance tangent. Her exasperated looks seem to say “Oh, enough with the waiting already!”. The piano throws a fit while Alexandra fittingly (and carelessly) throws her leg and her whole body in all compass directions. At times she feigns collapsing in Acosta’s arms as a rebellious child lost in a tantrum, whilst in the audience we rebel against her decision to retire from ballet so early (she is only 28 years old). Throughout their duet, Acosta plays with Alexandra’s body as if it were a musical instrument, while her solo dancing speed dazzles us. I may be team Diamonds all the way but this Ruby I shall dearly miss.

See also: Linda’s review of first & second nights of Jewels

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Balanchine‘s first full-length abstract ballet is a celebration of styles and his tribute to the tradition that had shaped ballet during the 19th and 20th centuries. One can only marvel at his achievement while admiring the complexity of the choreography, the richness of the steps and the inclusion of novelty movement and geometry between the dancers. Jewels is a crowd pleasing ballet that will always touch us in a particular way, even more if it is danced with complete command of both technique and artistry.

The programme notes alert us to the natural associations one may draw between the ballet’s name and “a formal kaleidoscope”. When first approaching Jewels, it might seem that this is the case: the designs, costumes and music are all beautiful in every sense of the word, one can only stare in disbelief when the curtain opens to reveal the dancers in Emeralds. Never having seen it live before, I came to the opening performance with two missions: first to see how would I react to  each different ballet and second to try to understand how Rubies became more popular  on its own than Diamonds or Emeralds.

On the first account, it surprised me to discover that although Balanchine is a master of the abstract, with a firm purpose to make us “see the music”, the possibilities of adding personal layers of interpretation to this ballet are endless. I found myself building a story for every single piece, creating characters out of the dancers’ portrayals (I wished I could query the dancers as to their particular ideas and stories when learning the choreography). I also realised, after a second view, that these “stories” changed with every cast, and depended on how they personally approached their roles, who they were partnering, the chemistry, how they presented themselves, physical proportions, etc. In some ways, an abstract ballet gives more interpretive freedom to the dancers while the audience has an  opportunity to draw their own impressions from the proverbial “put a man and a woman together and you get a story”.

Emeralds

The first night Emeralds brought us Tamara Rojo in the role that Violette Verdy made famous. She was partnered by Valeri Hristov replacing the “irreplaceable” (and sadly injured) Edward Watson, whom we missed deeply, since Tamara did not seem to have the same level of complicity with Valeri as she has with Edward. Tamara made use of her expressive arms and amazing acting ability to show us a young girl in love: smiley, flirty and sometimes shy, evading the looks of her suitor, running between the other Emerald ladies. Valeri was the man in love trying to conquer the object of his affection while Tamara tip-toed and twirled through her variation like a maiden who daydreams of her knight in a meadow full of flowers with a stream nearby, with added touches of butterflies and songbirds for good measure. All innocence and young love. Pure joy. Hristov’s variation was ably performed, though less eloquent in Romantic imagery: up to that point, it was all about Tamara.

Leanne Benjamin in Emeralds. Photo: Johan Persson. Source: Danceviewtimes

Leanne Benjamin in Emeralds. Photo: Johan Persson. Source: Danceviewtimes

That is, until Leanne Benjamin appeared on stage. It is quite hard for anyone to steal Tamara’s thunder, but we feel that Leanne achieved this in the way she wove so much drama into the Emeralds “Walking pas de deux“. Here was a mature dancer on top of her game, giving us darkness after the sun, like an older woman saying to the world – here I am, I am still beautiful, still full of things to give, just look at me! – Piqué turns and grand battements made her vaporous tutu ethereal, and even though the movements were strong there was a sense of underlying sadness. This interpretation came full circle when a moody looking Bennet Gartside (replacing an injured Ivan Putrov) brought into the same pas de deux the feel of a mature married couple, struggling with the realisation that time is passing them by, that they are not what they used to be (suggested by the emphasis on arms and legs as clock hands). Registering every nuance of her interpretation I couldn’t stop wondering why Leanne is not as popular as some of the other Royal Ballet younger ballerinas.

The Emeralds pas de trois was danced by the fantastic trio of Steven McRae, Deirdre Chapman (back from maternity leave) and Laura Morera, in what it looked to me like the “hot young guy” surrounded by two enamoured girls. Their execution was flawless and of course, Steven made ample use of this opportunity to show off his fantastic split jetés and perfect tours en l’air.

The second cast of Emeralds had Roberta Marquez and Mara Galeazzi partnered by each of Valeri Hristov (in the same role as opening night) and David Makhateli. These interpretations were a complete constrast to Tamara and Leanne’s rich narratives, with Roberta a more straightforward Emerald who was just enjoying her dancing (and indeed, her smile was infectious). Personally I did not feel Emeralds was a good fit for Mara, since she didn’t convey the innate romanticism in the music and air. As the two leading men were not outstanding, I took the opportunity to observe here some of the girls who are starting to stand-out from the corps (and I wished the ROH included portraits of the artists and first artists in their programmes). The highlight of this performance was the pas de Trois, in which Helen Crawford and Samantha Raine shone, accompanied by an efficient José Martín.

From left to right: Tamara Rojo, Leanne Benjamin, Steven McRae and Roberta Marquez. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

From left to right: Tamara Rojo, Leanne Benjamin, Steven McRae and Roberta Marquez. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

In both performances, the finale was well executed and the members of the corps looked sharp and well-rehearsed, all the way to the final pose where the three men, in grand reverence, stare at the horizon.

Rubies

The Royal Ballet in Rubies. Photo: Johan Persson ©. Source: Voice of Dance.

The Royal Ballet in Rubies. Photo: Johan Persson ©. Source: Voice of Dance.

Next stop was sizzling, fun and jazzy Rubies, or should I rename it the A&A Show after the main duo of “Alexandra Ansanelli and Carlos Acosta“. For Alexandra owned the role. I wondered whether this was due to her long history with NYCB and Balanchine choreography, combined with the fact that she has been outstanding this season or  simply that she is enjoying her very last performances before retirement from dance. She played and flirted with Carlos, swaying effortlessly, charmingly and elegantly through her steps. Carlos kept up the dialogue onstage and answered every single stroke, lest he be outshined by this leading lady. They were like the couple everyone stares at on the dance floor, nothing else seemed to matter for them. Here was an amazing newly discovered chemistry between them, which felt fresher than his  own longstanding (and famous) partnership with Tamara. If only Alexandra and Carlos could have been paired up more often, they might have really complemented each other in various ways.

Moving from pas de deux to solo, Carlos and Alexandra showcased their technical abilities while keeping up with the demanding pace, Carlos in particular relishing the opportunity to prove to the audience that he could soar through the stage at least as dazzlingly as Steven McRae from the previous section (plenty of grand jetés and ballon – daring to pause in the air -). Alexandra kept pushing the limits of the choreography, to the point of being in danger of falling. When a missing step called her bluff she just squealed and shrugged it off, which made the performance even more real and endearing.

Less secure was Laura McCulloch in both Rubies casts, covering both Zenaida Yanowsky and Lauren Cuthbertson as the “Tall Girl”.  She seemed eager to eat the stage but wobbled through a few of her arabesques and although much calmer (yet equally enthusiastic) on second performance, I ended up with the impression that she lacks some of the agility and speed to launch her ruby off the ground (though her extensions were amazing, particularly on the second night) and to keep up with the frantic pace of the corps. While I give Laura full marks for being able to pull a two-nighter on a main role at short notice & to stand her ground in a starry cast, I suspect her inner jewel is not really a ruby.

From left to right: Alexandra Ansanelli, Carlos Acosta, Laura McCulloch and Ricardo Cervera. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

From left to right: Alexandra Ansanelli, Carlos Acosta, Laura McCulloch and Ricardo Cervera. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

The second cast of Rubies was led by Yuhui Choe (debuting) and Ricardo Cervera. They brought something different than the previous pair, acing the technical demands whilst looking like teenagers fooling around. The casting of Yuhui  – a dancer with the softest arms, who looks in my opinion more Emeralds or Diamonds than Broadway – exemplifies the importance  of giving dancers the opportunity to explore roles not immediately associated with them, to avoid “typecasting”. Important yes, but not necessarily always a good fit. Ricardo didn’t match Acosta’s performance but showed us again that he can jump like the best of them, and he definitely “popped out” when surrounded by the corps in the finale.

With Rubies over, I finally understood its appeal and own success story. It is such an infectious audience-pleaser, filled with continuous surprises, twists and turns. The choreography is so strikingly different. While Emeralds is a thing of pure beauty, Rubies is the one people cheer for & laugh at. It is box office friendly,  and its upbeat, full of spark atmosphere immediately grabs the occasional ballet goers’ attention and takes them along for a wild ride.

Diamonds

The regal Diamonds, the last ballet of the evening, is full of Imperial Russian grandeur and nods to the classics (the hand in the hair from Raymonda, the balances on attitude from Sleeping Beauty‘s Rose Adagio, the arched back on retiré position from Act III Swan Lake, etc). The opening waltz for the corps de ballet immediately reminded me of Sleeping Beauty and Petipa in the beautiful classical lines displayed everywhere and its almost overwhelming grandeur. Still, this serves just as an aperitif to what follows next, the “grand pas de deux.” Opening night saw the beautiful Alina Cojocaru, continuing her comeback from injury, and Rupert Pennefather (who despite being quite tall has been dancing the lead role with tiny Alina since 2007, when he stood in at the premiere for an injured Federico Bonelli) looking picture perfect as prince and princess (again, think Aurora). This opening performance had quite a special “aura” that could be felt in the auditorium, as if we were all collectively gauging how Alina might have changed post her prolonged absence from the stage. She performed carefully and given the difference in height there were also slight complications and miniminal issues in Rupert’s partnering (as on the aided pirouettes). All this didn’t matter since it was more her artistry that shone through her dancing, her arms expressing every single note of the music, her face full of emotion, but with an underlying melodramatic tone that permeated the pas de deux. In some wonderful balances on attitude you could feel her full commitment to the steps, as if there was no tomorrow and this was the last time she could do this. It was not Aurora on stage, or any other of the Petipa heroines, but a more womanly princess, completely aware of her emotions and transparent to everyone to see. Suffice to say that her performance affected me in such a way that I still need some time to think about it.

Alina Cojocaru and Rupert Pennefather in Diamonds. Photo: Tristram Kenton ©. Source: The Guardian.

Alina Cojocaru and Rupert Pennefather in Diamonds. Photo: Tristram Kenton ©. Source: The Guardian.

Rupert was a handsome prince and his dancing was sharp and precise, showing all the dividends he has accumulated this season as a dancer. His variation was elegant and noble. I thought he complimented Alina’s performance in a subdued way, and it was very sweet of him to thank her at the end, as if it had been his privilege to dance with her. He might not be my favourite partner for Alina, but he is definitely a dancer who is getting better and better.

The second cast was led by sunny Marianela Nuñez and her real life prince Thiago Soares. Given the season Marianela has had, it would be difficult to think she wouldn’t ace this role, and indeed she did. As usual, her technique came across strongly and Thiago was more than an accommodating partner (his variation featured slightly different jumps than Rupert’s, but all cleanly executed). However, I couldn’t help feeling as if I was watching a reprisal of the Wedding festivities of Sleeping Beauty. There was not as much depth as in Alina’s and Rupert’s performance, but this might be just my personal take on it, as underneath it all, this is an abstract ballet.

From left to right: Rupert Pennefather, Alina Cojocaru, Thiago Soares and Marianela Nuñez. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

From left to right: Rupert Pennefather, Alina Cojocaru, Thiago Soares and Marianela Nuñez. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

I should also add honorary mentions to the corps in the polonaise (although they offered a much better and coordinated performance on second night) and to Thomas Whitehead, Yohei Sasaki and Yuhui Choe on the first night, and Brian Maloney, Sergei Polunin, Helen Crawford and Samantha Raine (on double duty together with Emeralds), all of whom noticeably good in their soloist roles.

In short, Diamonds stands as a great closing piece, one that evokes and pays tribute to the classics, while also serving as a rich frame to the central couple and in particular the main ballerina. It is the dance equivalent of a decadent dessert, a celebration of dance which is best enjoyed and appreciated alongside first courses of Emeralds and Rubies. In any case, the Royal Ballet did well to acquire the three ballets for its repertoire. It is the ideal vehicle for showcasing the jewel-like ballerinas in its ranks. I am quite sure I will be going back to Covent Garden anytime it is revived.

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Go if: You like to mix & match different ballet styles or you want to take a crash course on Balanchine’s work: this particular piece covers all his styles and influences.

Skip if: You do not fancy abstract, plotless ballets. Though that would be your loss, between Emeralds, Rubies & Diamonds there might be at least one rock that is right for you!

Ballerina Pin by Van Cleef and Arpels ©

Ballerina Pin by Van Cleef & Arpels ©

Dream Casts:

Emeralds with the Royal Ballet (Tamara Rojo or Alina Cojocaru) or the Paris Opera Ballet

Rubies with NYCB (Ashley Bouder please!)

Diamonds with the Mariinsky (Uliana Lopatkina or Viktoria Tereshkina!)

Background:

Jewels is said to be the first full-length abstract ballet, although in reality its three acts, while sharing a common theme of gemstones (as represented in the costumes), are independent from each other, with music by different composers and choreographed in various styles. There are also several versions of the story as to how Balanchine came up with the inspiration for Jewels: according to one, jeweler Claude Arpels would have suggested it after inviting Balanchine to his showroom. In another, the idea came when Balanchine was trying to buy a ring for his muse & beloved Suzanne Farrell.

Despite having claimed that the ballet had nothing to do with actual jewels, Balanchine did evoke the colour and glitter of jewels in dancing – watch for the elaborate floor patterns and shaping of groups, reminiscent of necklaces and chains – and on the dancers themselves. For this, Barbara Karinska, his long time collaborator, created distinct, matching looks for each section of the ballet. The costumes were also designed so that the dancers could move freely, to meet the demands of Balanchine’s choreography.

Given that most of the glitter would come from the reproduction of the stone colours and their shine in the costuming and dancing, the settings were left bare with only minimal jewels reflecting the light. Perhaps for this reason, ballet companies around the world have certain artistic freedom when choosing stage settings for Jewels, whilst the costumes have to remain 100% true to Karinska’s original creations. The Royal Ballet’s staging for instance has set designs specifically created by London based Jean-Marc Puissant.

Emeralds

The opening piece, Emeralds, is set to music by Gabriel Fauré. This is Balanchine’s ode to Romantic ballets, which is hinted at not only in the long (aka Romantic) tutus but also in the choreography: fluid, wafting and delicate, full of floating bourrées, Giselle-like balances and sinuous steps. It evokes 19th century Paris and French ballerinas of that era. Composed of a small corps of ballet of ten women, three soloists and two leading couples, the piece starts with an opening Pas de Deux from the first couple, two solo variations for the ballerinas, a vivid Pas de Trois (one of the highlights of Emeralds), a Pas de Deux for the second leading couple and an ensemble finale.

Rubies

If Emeralds is about 19th century Romantic Paris, Rubies brings us nearer to 1930’s jazzy America, thanks to Igor Stravinsky‘s extremely energetic and syncopated “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra”. Here the girls’ costumes are short, “Ballet-on-Broadway” looking skirts. The choreography attempts to display all the different twists in the music, so one sees angular shapes, high extensions, jutting hips, flexed feet and more. Due to its “wow factor” Rubies has been the most successful of the three sections and can be seen staged on its own in certain occasions. Dancers usually compare performing in Rubies to running a marathon, given the stamina required. The ballet involves a leading couple, together with a female soloist and a corps of eight women and four men. After an opening  introducing the dancers, a solo role for a tall typical-Balanchine ballerina, we see a very sparkly Pas de Deux for the leading couple and a real marathon of a finale  where the dancers prance and chase each other, like “running horses”, full of fun, energy and intensity.

Balanchines Rubies. Photo by Paul Kolnik ©. Copyright belongs to its respective authors.

Balanchine's "Rubies". Photo by Paul Kolnik ©. Source via ArtsJournal.

Diamonds

This final section is Balanchine’s homage to both his grand ballerina Suzanne Farrell and to Russian balletic tradition, in all its choreographic nods to the Imperial Russian Ballet schooling and to Petipa‘s classical masterpieces. Unsurprisingly, Balanchine chose a Russian score (Tchaikovsky‘s Symphony No. 3) and dressed his ballerinas in wonderful classical white tutus. The ballet opens with a waltz for a corps de ballet of twelve women and two soloists. The next movement is a remarkably regal Pas de Deux for the principal couple, structured in the classical way with an extended adagio and variations – think Sleeping Beauty, Raymonda, Swan Lake and La Bayadere all rolled into one – followed by an even more spectacular final polonaise (a crowd-pleasing, applause-generator essentially), in which all the dancers return to the stage forming intricate swirling patterns, as if replicating Diamond chains in their dancing.

Balanchines Diamonds. Photo: Erik Tomasson © SF Ballet ©. Source: Voiceofdance.com

Balanchine's Diamonds. Photo: Erik Tomasson © SF Ballet ©. Source: Voiceofdance.com

In short, even though Jewels has no underlying story and may look on paper like detached sections unified by the overall “gemstone” theme, on stage the mix of dancing styles and music honours ballet’s roots and wraps up mood, excitement and drama in one dazzling, vibrant package.

Playlist for your Ipods

Emeralds:
Gabriel Fauré. Pelléas et Mélisande (op. 80) and Shylock (op. 57).

Rubies:
Igor Stravinsky. Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra.

Diamonds:
Pieter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Symphony No. 3 in D major op. 29 (omit first movement).

Mini-Biography

Original Choreography: George Balanchine
Premiere: NYCB at New York State Theatre, April 13 1976.
Original Cast:
Emeralds: Violette Verdy and Conrad Ludlow, Mimi Paul and Francisco Moncion,
Sara Leland, Suki Schorer and John Prinz
Rubies: Patricia McBride and Edward Villela, Patricia Neary
Diamonds: Suzanne Farrell and Jacques D’Amboise
Original Designs: Peter Harvey with lighting by Ronald Bates and costumes by Barbara Karinska

Sources and Further information

  1. Wikipedia entry for Jewels
  2. Ballet Notes from BalletMet Colombus by Jeannine Potter [link]
  3. The Balanchine Trust
  4. The Balanchine Foundation
  5. Patricia Neary speaks for the ROH Podcast. Available to download free from iTunes.
  6. How brightly shining? Jewels review by John Percival at danceviewtimes [link]

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