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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 17 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 42
Pacific Northwest Ballet stages a brilliant production of George Balanchine's 'Jewels'
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Pacific Northwest Ballet stages a brilliant production of George Balanchine's 'Jewels'

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN Contributing Writer

'JEWELS' (1967)
PACIFIC NORTHWEST BALLET
MCCAW HALL
October 4


'Emeralds,' the first section in George Balanchine's full-length ballet 'Jewels,' is a dance that floats. The entire corps de ballet is en pointe, taking tiny-tippy-toe steps called pas de bourreé that cause each lovely girl to skim along the ground like a rippling wave on a green lake. Karinska's gorgeous costumes add to this effect in an important way: the tea-length skirts of pink and green tulle are so light that they follow the dancers an eighth note behind each step, causing every gesture of arm or foot to sigh along with Fauré's dreamy music. My favorite moment in this dance came when the semi-circle of girls raised their arms together in fifth position, the classic 'ballerina' arms with hands overhead, making each one look like a cameo inside a locket. Balanchine uses this device to frame principal dancers performing duets and trios in center stage, but it's so beautiful in itself that my lasting impression of 'Emeralds' is of the delicate, frothy corps de ballet.

Though 'Jewels' is almost fifty years old, its appeal has never diminished from the time 'Mr. B.' created it in 1967. It is steadily performed all over the world, either complete or in sections. 'Jewels' premièred at Pacific Northwest Ballet under the tutelage of Francia Russell, Balanchine's former dancer and ballet mistress, who mounted 'Rubies' in 1988 and the complete ballet in 2006. Seattle audiences are fortunate to have another New York City Ballet principal dancer, Peter Boal, at the helm of PNB so that Balanchine ballets can be brought to the stage with the authority of one of the choreographer's own company heirs. Director Boal connected the present revival to the original work by bringing four of the dancers on whom the works were originally built - Jaques D'Ambois, Violette Verdy, Mimi Paul, and Edward Villella - to Seattle to educate the PNB dancers and to share memories of how Mr. B. created the work. Two principal dancers also flew to Washington, D.C. to study with the great Suzanne Farrell, Balanchine's prima ballerina assoluta for whom the role of 'Diamonds' was created.

These special efforts to revive the spirit as well as the mechanics of the dance bring 'Jewels' alive as Balanchine would have wanted. I can make that claim because I'm one of the fortunate former New Yorkers who saw 'Jewels' at the New York State Theater when Balanchine was still alive. I remember Suzanne Farrell, Jacques D'Amboise, and Patricia McBride in principal roles, though the other original dancers had been replaced (fabulously) by dancers like Peter Martins, Gelsey Kirkland, and Kevin McKenzie. When I was a balletomane in the 1980s, the New York City Ballet was the sine qua non of dance, without which ballet remained a throwback to fairytale Europe - full of dancing swans and muscular princes who carried glittering princesses around on their shoulders. Though ballet was beautifully and historically preserved by companies like the American Ballet Theatre and the Royal Ballet on tour from Covent Garden, the art form itself was re-invented for American dancers and audiences by Balanchine's innovative choreography. Every season his New York City Ballet company presented a thrilling selection of new works that modernized the vocabulary of classical dance, and challenged audiences to forget the surface story and connect with the emotional drama.

The wonder of it was that Balanchine, trained at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, reinvigorated the old art form while maintaining its best qualities: the classical training of young bodies to produce turned-out flexibility and strength; the grace, speed, and altitude of spectacular movement; the seamless patterns of multiple dancers moving through complex shapes; and the matching of movement to the best music in the world. Though Mr. B. presented his version of traditional story ballets, such as Mendelssohn's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' and Tschaikovsky's 'The Nutcracker,' he challenged his dancers and his audience to understand and accept the 'storyless' ballet - works that abandoned literal narrative and went straight for the emotional subtext. In the process, he was determined to educate dance lovers in contemporary music - Stravinsky more than others, but also Hindemith, Fauré, Poulenc, Mayuzumi, and Gershwin. [EDITOR'S NOTE: PNB used the eccentric spelling of Tschaikovsky's last name throughout the program for their brilliant and historically informed performance of 'Jewels.']

'Jewels' is his iconic 'storyless' ballet, a work that is not about gems, or girls wanting or wearing gems, but about the feelings they suggest: the dreamy, organic longing of green 'Emeralds,' the sexy, frolicking joy suggested by red 'Rubies,' and the stately grandeur of glittering white 'Diamonds.'

Since its creation the audience favorite is 'Rubies,' in which a playful couple dance to Stravinsky's percussive music, performing moves so acrobatic, and suggestive, that it left the original audiences gasping - both with fear for the ballerina's dangerous plunges and with scandalized surprise at the erotic subtext of the couple's 'coupling.' In the PNB performance, Angelica Generosa and James Moore captured perfectly the catch-and-release playfulness of the central couple, whose jolly intimacy is enhanced by the short, crenellated skirt and peplum vest of their costumes (though Karinska's Shakespearean sleeves on the man seem a bit odd to me now, for such a modern ballet). At another point, four men manipulate the arms and feet of the ballerina, Carrie Imler, causing the viewer to wonder if she's a doll in their control or a dominatrix making them dance to her music. This impression is heightened by the head-down arm-swinging posture the male corps uses at certain points to march off and on the stage - as if to say 'We're real guys! (but we know how to bend).'

The final and most classical section of 'Jewels' - and for me the least interesting - is the aristocratic 'Diamonds,' performed in glittering white tutus under a crystal chandelier. The entire corps of sixteen couples, led by Carla Körbes and Batkhurel Bold, are amassed to perform waltz and polonaise dances in the grand manner of Marius Petipa, legendary choreographer of the Maryinski Theatre and creator of the Imperial tradition in which Balanchine was trained. The contrast of this dance with the preceding two is startling, as if Balanchine is showing us - both in Tschaikovsky's music and in the elegant, restrained patterns - foundational qualities we should continue to value as ballet evolves. Yet as beautifully as PNB performed this dance, my thought is that we may as well have a story if we are to have a story-style ballet. 'Diamonds' is, after all, in a court, with a prince and princess, and a gorgeous troop of courtiers dancing attendance. Perhaps the tinge of melancholy that pervades 'Diamonds' is not due to its chilly, diamantine restraint, but to its lack of narrative. In this case, the 'storyless' ballet seems like a dance in search of a story.

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