Last week I was waiting for the Royal Ballet to begin a performance of George Balanchine’s plotless triptych Jewels when, behind me, a woman loudly bemoaned the theatre’s Friends scheme and its relation to the ticketing system. “I pay £1200 a year and still they keep good seats back for the public,” she spat to her companion. “I asked the person in charge about it and she says they have to appear to be egalitarian. Well, I don’t agree with egalitarian.” She repeated the last word with the sort of emphatic disgust usually reserved for talk of a seeping anal abscess rather than notions of social equality. Someone further along my row turned around nodding in agreement, eager to be complicit in these cut-glass assertions of privilege.
So, what a surprise – ballet has a class problem. The Covent Garden stalls are full of monied patrons, irradiated in the Algarve, clothed and shod on the Kings Road. And they always will be, lest the Revolution commences. That wealthy ballet-goers should so loudly espouse the kind of elitist, entitled attitudes that arts institutions struggle to dispel isn’t really much of a shock, but it has a certain piquancy given the ballet in question.
Created in 1967, when the New York City Ballet had recently moved into the Lincoln Center and funding was a concern, Jewels made clear the kind of patronage the choreographer sought for his company and his art. ‘Inspired’ by the wares on display at upmarket jeweller Van Cleef & Arpels, Jewels doesn’t actually have much to do with precious gemstones, despite the name of each section, the corresponding colours and attendant bling of the costumes. And while it’s possible to see references to jewellery in the intricate weaving patterns and harmonious arrangements of the choreography, Jewels isn’t just a mercenary medley, artistically compromised by the market forces that enabled it to be made. It’s a clever ode to the history of ballet itself, with Balanchine’s own brassy, jazzy style (egotistically) enshrined in the middle section, Rubies, set to Stravinksy’s giddy, jarring Capriccio for piano and orchestra.
The energy and excitement of 20th century New York’s skyscraper landscape is echoed not just in Stravinsky’s relentless rhythms, but in the shearing, daring extensions of the female leg and pointed foot. In the starry showgirl role, flanked by a leggy chorus line corps, Melissa Hamilton scythes the air with suggestive confidence, nonchalantly allowing an adoring quartet of men to raise her limbs aloft. Hamilton has the right hauteur for the role, but seems a touch underpowered in some of the more exposed sequences of balances. It’s Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae who steal the show, as you might expect, as the dazzling central couple. Their pas de deux is more competitive than companionate – they whiz through virtuosic turns, she propels herself into precipitous arabesques, punctuated by little capering jazz-trots.
The opening act, Emeralds, pays tribute to the French Romantic ballet. Set to music by Fauré, it evokes not simply the typical stylistic ideas of enchanted forests, hunting parties and ethereal femininity, but also a sense of the numinous. Laura Morera plays beautifully with the inward, mysterious, elliptical quality of the choreography – as she simply walks on pointe and pauses, there’s a weighted quality to her reveries. The jolting, clock-like jerks of an arabesque or port de bras seem to point to darker planes of existence beyond the fairytale whimsy. There’s a lush buoyancy to Beatriz Stix-Brunell’s solo and Helen Crawford and Emma Maguire are pitch-perfect in the pas de trois, with James Hay demonstrating landings of chinchilla softness.
Diamonds, the closing act, is Balanchine’s homage to classicism, to the era of Petipa and the Imperial ballet of St Petersburg, with music by – who else? – Tchaikovsky. The corps waltz their way through various decorative arrangements before heralding the arrival of Marianela Nunez and Thiago Soares as the presiding ballerina and her prince. Nunez has a remarkable, ineffable star quality that radiates both glitter and warmth – it’s all there in the opulent ease of her technique, her infectious smile and glorious rubato phrasing. It’s an entrancing end to a largely exquisite evening, even for someone who (hasn’t paid for their ticket and) likes their jewellery to be modestly priced, made of acrylic and mainly feature cats or badgers.
Jewels is at the Royal Opera House until April 21st. For more details, click here.