When George Balanchine’s “Jewels” first premiered at New York City Ballet in 1967 it was one of his boldest experiments yet—a full-length ballet without a narrative. The Boston Ballet is bringing the performance to life again, articulating every move with an infectious sense of energy and commitment to the art.
The ballet is divided into a triptych—“Emeralds,” “Rubies,” and “Diamonds”—with each segment evoking an aspect of Balanchine’s life and career. The dancers capture the spirit of each piece as Balanchine intended it to be perceived.
Balanchine’s career began in Russia’s St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet. After the Russian Revolution, he moved on to France in the twenties and thirties and finally to America where his artistic genius took off. In “Emeralds,” “Rubies” and “Diamonds,” Balanchine evokes each country that formed the basis of his career—their national spirit and the spirit of their ballet. “Jewels,” despite the obviousness of its eponymous theme, is a masterpiece, and the Boston Ballet Company rises to the challenge of presenting it as such.
“Emeralds,” set to Gabriel Faure’s “Pelleas et Melisande and Shylock,” employs the vocabulary of French classical ballet. The story of Pelleas et Melisande is a mysterious tale evoking the origins of the French national sensibility. It features pastoral and water imagery which is reflected in the fluid, symmetrical movement of the dancers, as well as the effective costume and design choices.
The curtain is drawn to reveal a stylized woodland scene. White curtains set off the deep emerald green background, and the cast of female dancers, in their long green tulle skirts, match their environment perfectly. The first half focuses on port de bras, with the dancers dividing into pairs and mirroring each other, again emphasizing the dreamy, aquatic nature of the piece. The formal nature of the movements is perfectly articulated, quietly mesmerizing the viewer.
The central piece, “Rubies,” represents the new American style of dance—namely jazz—that Balanchine discovered upon arrival his arrival in New York City. The dancers in this piece are predictably dressed in ruby-red, the women donning the skimpiest outfits of the production—perhaps a nod to the New York City jazz clubs. The salacious energy of jazz combined with ballet creates a fascinating, discordant form of dance reinforced by Igor Stravinsky’s slightly off-key “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra.”
The “Capriccio,” true to its name, changes tone and instrumental focus every minute or so, and at times seems to have two themes playing at once. Similarly, the dancing is playful and slightly confused; typically refined dancers swing their hips, men jog gracefully across the stage, and a couple circle one another, skipping imaginary jump ropes.
The curtain opened to a collective gasp in the last piece, “Diamonds,” revealing a stage that at first glance did in fact resemble the interior of a diamond; a pale blue backdrop contrasted with the white-gold curtains, setting the scene for female dancers dressed entirely in white. “Diamonds” is danced to the quintessential Russian composer Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 3.” The dance is in the classical Russian style, with much promenading and magnificence. The piece seemed to offer a glimpse into the interior of Balanchine’s mind, with its symmetry and playfulness.
“Jewels” is an ambitious piece, particularly because its emotional and artistic impact relies so much on the precision and perfection with which it is performed. The very fact that the Boston Ballet would undertake such a challenging piece symbolizes the organization’s progress to a more educated audience.
As the “Jewels” playbill notes, “in producing Jewels, Boston Ballet enters a league that includes such major international companies as The Royal Ballet/Covent Garden, the Paris Opera Ballet and the Maryinsky Theater’s Kirov Ballet.”
Whether all the Boston Ballet’s ambitions will be realized or not, this particular performance of “Jewels” was certainly successful, leading one audience member to remark with a note of pride, “The company has come so far.”