“Jewels” Three Ways: Balanchine’s Tri-National Ballet
There’s nothing in the balletgoing culture that I dislike quite as much as the you-should-have-seen formula. You say how much you liked the Giselle you just saw. Somebody else says, “Oh, but did you see So-and-So? Now, thatwas a Giselle.” So you’re left standing there with your enthusiasm in your hand like an ill-considered purchase. You were wrong to make a fuss over your Giselle. She wasn’t so marvellous. She was second best, or maybe fifth best, but—here’s the kicker—you will never know why, because you weren’t there to see the paragon. This is a nasty trick, a revenge of the old on the young.
Nevertheless, there are certain ballets where you’re almost inevitably going to hear the you-should-have-seen formula echoing up and down the lobby, and one of them is “Jewels.” When Balanchine made “Jewels,” in 1967, he had recently moved his company into the big, white-marble New York State Theatre (today the David H. Koch Theatre), built to his specifications at Lincoln Center, and he wanted to crown the occasion with something grand. So, it seems, he turned his mind to the three countries where his idea of ballet had been forged: Russia, where he was trained; France, where, with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, he had his first successes; and America, where he landed at age twenty-nine and went on to create our national ballet. For each of these countries, he picked, or fashioned, an appropriate score: for Russia, Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony; for America, Stravinsky’s “Capriccio,” which, though it was written some years before the composer moved to the United States, seemed to bespeak the brash spirit of American show dancing; and finally, for France, a patchwork of Gabriel Fauré’s incidental music for two plays, “Shylock” and “Pelléas et Mélisande.” Then he told journalists that he had been inspired by a visit to Van Cleef & Arpels, where he had been especially impressed by the emeralds, rubies, and diamonds. So those became the names, and colors, of his three new ballets. “What a dreadful idea,” Lincoln Kirstein, City Ballet’s co-founder, said when he heard what Balanchine was up to. Never mind. Balanchine had been raised on ballets with dancing candies, dancing rivers, and the like, and he didn’t see anything wrong with this sort of thing. Furthermore, because his gems had no stories to tell, “Jewels” could be marketed as the world’s first full-evening abstract ballet. This was a very important innovation. All the full-evening ballets that people were familiar with had complicated plots, with swans and princesses and broken hearts, and that fact helped to stamp ballet in people’s minds as a quaint, fairy-tale business. But here, now, was a three-act ballet shorn of all that old-fashioned stuff, and therefore worthy to stand alongside the most prized art of the period, which was abstract art: Jackson Pollock, Henry Moore.
Predictably, it was an enormous hit. Every balletgoer had to see it. Soon, every ballet company wanted to acquire it. Over the years, nearly a hundred companies and schools have performed single ballets from “Jewels,” or the whole three-acter. But the transfer didn’t always work, because, in addition to everything else that Balanchine lavished on this piece, he staffed it with many of his finest dancers: Violette Verdy and Mimi Paul in “Emeralds,” Patricia McBride and Edward Villella in “Rubies,” Suzanne Farrell and Jacques d’Amboise in “Diamonds.” And some of these people, as it turned out, could not be replaced. Or, to put it more accurately, the roles that Balanchine had created for them—often, it seemed, pulling the choreography out of the dancers’ personalities (Conrad Ludlow, one of the two male leads in “Emeralds,” said that Balanchine was uncharacteristically willing to take suggestions from the cast as to what steps they should do)—could not be absorbed by new people in the space of a couple of weeks’ rehearsal.
Some, actually, could be replicated, and not necessarily the ones you’d expect. Farrell, who, in “Diamonds,” did a sort of ne-plus-ultra Farrell act—more magisterial than she had ever been before—found a number of worthy successors. But certain other latecomers proved hopeless, notably a lot of the men who tried to take over Villella’s role in “Rubies.” This role was something that, to my knowledge, Balanchine never did before or after: a combination of extreme classical virtuosity with an equally advanced street cool, as if Prince Siegfried had dropped down in Astoria. I don’t know why this formula was so hard for later occupants of the role. If a dancer can be a pirate and a classical technician, or a rose and a classical technician, why can’t he be James Dean and a classical technician? But most of the people whom I saw after Villella reminded me of the “wild and crazy Czechoslovakian guys” skit on “Saturday Night Live.” Europeans imitating what they see as American hipness: there’s nothing more embarrassing.
But, as I think most longtime Balanchine-watchers would agree, the hardest problem in transferring “Jewels” has always been “Emeralds,” and not just one role in it but the whole thing. It’s fairly easy to see what “Diamonds” is about (majesty, Russia), and “Rubies” (snazz, jazz, America), but “Emeralds” is ambiguous. It has a marvellous sort of relaxation. Steps often sneak in behind the beat, and then it is only after another beat that the long tutus swish into place. The music sometimes surges in a big wave, but the choreography will be reticent, even sweet: fluffy little lifts, or developpé lifts. There are many images of lushness and self-enjoyment, “like a cat licking its hair,” as Violette Verdy, the ballet’s foremost star, put it. Verdy, in her solo, snakes her arms into the air and gazes at them admiringly. Later, she hikes her skirts up a bit and looks down happily at her bourrée-ing feet, like a child in new shoes.
But all of this has a reverse side, a melancholy aspect. Those notes of childlikeness can seem a memento mori. Likewise the arm dance. Balanchine appears to be showing us young women taking pleasure in their own beauty, unmindful (as he isn’t) that it won’t last. Another ballet in which he dealt with this matter was “La Valse,” in 1951. There, the woman died. Nothing so drastic happens in “Emeralds,” but, in 1976, nine years after the ballet’s première, Balanchine did weigh it down further, in a new section, four minutes long, that he tacked onto the original ending. The seven leading dancers entwine in a kind of reverie, and then the women vanish into the wings while the men, in unison, kneel and point forward. We don’t know what they’re pointing at, but in Balanchine’s ballets pointing usually means something serious. This sombre coda was darkened even further in 1986, when Joseph Duell, the lovely soloist who had often stood at the apex of the triangle of mourners, killed himself—he jumped out of his apartment window—at the age of twenty-nine.
Yet none of this undid the ravishments, or even the tenderness, of the ballet. It was both beautiful and also strange, cobwebby, even a little sinister—a memory, a dream. And it was this ambiguity that often disappeared from “Emeralds” when it was transferred to other companies—indeed, when it was transferred to new casts within New York City Ballet. Once, at an open rehearsal, I watched Balanchine trying to get the second ballerina, at the end of her pas de deux, to swoosh her arm up just right as she and her partner exited into the wing. He tried a second time, then a third. Then he gave up and went on to the next section of the ballet.
Festivals love ideas: circuses combined with dances, dances combined with water sports, and so on. This year, Nigel Redden, the director of the Lincoln Center Festival, got the idea of presenting “Jewels” with the French section danced by French people (the Paris Opera Ballet), the American section by Americans (New York City Ballet), and the Russian section by Russians (the Bolshoi Ballet). This stratagem—one could even call it a stunt—had a wonderful effect on the ballet. N.Y.C.B.’s Teresa Reichlen, normally a reticent dancer (sometimes even cold), was thrillingly extroverted as the leggy demi-soloist in “Rubies.” Actually, she has been performing that ballet very well for years, but at the festival she seems to have felt that she was representing the American team, and she really tore up the place. Likewise, Olga Smirnova as the ballerina in “Diamonds”: she had danced that role many times, but on this occasion she apparently decided that she was going to become everything that anyone could ever want from a great Russian ballerina. (Meanwhile, her partner, Semyon Chudin, showed a perfection of placement—that is, the positioning of the body parts in relation to each other—that I have rarely seen outside a textbook.) Conversely, some of the non-nationals were at a loss. Joaquín de Luz, a Spaniard, and since 2003 a member of City Ballet, took Villella’s role in “Rubies” and worked so frenetically to show you what an American hipster he was that you felt like running up onstage and giving him a Valium.
But the greatest demonstration of native instinct in this “Jewels” was unquestionably the Paris Opera Ballet’s “Emeralds.” All the nuances, the beautiful smudge of emotion that seemed to have fled from the ballet, returned. (And on newcomers! At the festival, three out of four of the lead ballerinas were performing the piece for the first time.) Nothing was too blunt; nothing was too pointed. In her solo, Léonore Baulac peeked out at us from behind her raised arms. She seemed surprised to see us; she thought she was doing something private. In the famous walking pas de deux—most of which the ballerina spends, yes, just walking on pointe as she holds her partner’s arm—Myriam Ould-Braham put those feet forward, one by one, softly, but still with decision, as if, going to her doom, she didn’t really mind. Here it is hard not to see French subtlety, French chic.
I hate nationalism, and therefore I am a little ashamed to be saying that this show succeeded by making use of national characteristics. That didn’t happen consistently. Laëtitia Pujol, a Frenchwoman, wore a big smile through “Emeralds”—not a good idea. Contrariwise, the Americans, Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle, turned in a splendid “Diamonds.” (N.Y.C.B. and the Bolshoi alternated in “Rubies” and “Diamonds.”) Coming onstage for the final section, the polonaise, Angle calmly stepped into fifth position and put his hand out to the side, as if to say, Here it comes. Get ready. This is not the edge that the Bolshoi’s Chudin put on it—Angle was more relaxed, more American—but it was very touching. As was Chudin’s formality. Let a thousand flowers bloom, I guess. But, meanwhile, one of those French girls should fly over and help our American girls in “Emeralds.”
This content was originally posted on The New Yorker.