‘When most men visit Van Cleef & Arpels, the result is likely to be an overdrawn bank account. When Balanchine visits, the result is a – gem dandy – ballet’. That was Time magazine’s take on George Balanchine’s Jewels in 1967. With each of the evening’s three ballets focusing on a different jewel, the piece was publicised as the first ever abstract three-act ballet, and Balanchine even declared that ‘the ballet had nothing to do with jewels. The dancers are just dressed like jewels’. It is hard to take this comment at its face value, however, as the tone of each piece seems to reflect the nature and properties of the stone in question.
The widespread appeal of Jewels is easy to understand, given its ability to combine sparkle and stage magic with timeless ballet. The opening piece, Emeralds, which is set to music by Fauré, sees the curtain rise on ten ballerinas and two soloists (Tamara Rojo and Ryoichi Hirano). Like every other female dancer on stage, Rojo sports a light green tutu, and yet there is something in her and Hirano’s personae, not to mention movement, that marks them out. As they dance together there is an effortless chemistry between the two: their bodies almost meld, a single pulse running from the fingertip and down the arm of one to the other without pause. With Rojo, in particular, the graceful overall curve of her arm is made up of a series of smaller actions at the wrist, elbow and shoulder, and her solo appears elegant and effortless. The same terms could be used to describe Leanne Benjamin’s performance, and yet there’s a quality about it which is quite different. The music here is more melancholic and her performance conveys a slight sense of agitation. Of the three stones, emeralds are the most fragile, and this is reflected in the relatively subdued nature of the work.
Rubies is a very different piece. The music is Stravinsky at his most ‘jazzy’ , namely his Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra. Whereas Emeralds featured Art Nouveau lampshades, here the curtain rises on a rich Art Deco set, and the ballet’s initial sense, though not its detail, feels similar to that of Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations. The corps de ballet of twelve, all decked out in red, are joined by soloists Sarah Lamb, Steven McRae and Zenaida Yanowsky. In keeping with the perceived nature of the ruby, Yanowsky performs with real fire. There is great technical accomplishment in her dancing (her leg rises in absolute harmony with her arm, and she maintains wonderful visual balance as she shifts weight to her forward leg), and yet she executes every step with a sensuous and seductive edge. Lamb and McRae are equally fine, executing tumultuous steps, limbs swinging forward and back, bodies twisting, with a chemistry that generates its own smoothness.
The final piece of the evening is Diamonds and the dominant colour of the set and costumes this time is white. The corps de ballet glitter and gleam and the final series of tableaux leave perhaps the greatest impression of the evening. One striking formation follows another as ballerinas rise, turn or flick into their new position in an instant. The music employed is Tchaikovsky’s ‘Polish’ Symphony No. 3 and, in practical terms, it establishes a halfway house between the reserve of Emeralds and the exuberance of Rubies. In an evening of superb solo performances, Alina Cojocaru and Rupert Pennefather also shine. Their sure command of expression and almost spiritual connection is evident in every turn; Cojocaru in particular stands out, her movements full of emotion and power.