DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition
There are as many facets to George Balanchine’s three-act plotless ballet, Jewels, as there are to a diamond. It’s a ballet about atmosphere, about music, about the countries and eras associated with that music, about styles of dance, about its dancers. Jewels illustrates perfectly Balanchine’s oft-repeated line: “You put a man and a woman on stage, how much story do you want?” because the ballet can be seen as a series of unspecified, unknowable conversations between a man and a woman, the corps in each act echoing the soloists’ moods and steps as unjudgmentally as the swans and sylphs in the 19th century ballets from which this one descends. Each ballet also suggests differences in public and private behavior, expressions of which are appropriate to the setting and atmosphere.
Each act is titled for a particular jewel, and the dancing suggests the qualities of each jewel as well as each ballet's perfectly chosen music: mysterious Emeralds (Fauré's incidental music composed for the theater: Shylock, The Merchant of Venice, and Pelléas et Mélisande); flashy Rubies (Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra); and grand and glistening Diamonds (Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3). There’s a French Romantic feel to Emeralds, a jazzy American edge to Rubies, and an imperial Old Russian pulse to Diamonds. Balanchine has created a dozen worlds in Jewels; pick which one you like.
Until this season, the sets for Jewels have been suggestive and spare; the ballet can take place anywhere, or wherever you want it to. I’ve always thought it was danced in a theater: Emeralds in the foyer de la danse (the green room); Rubies in the crush bar, or the most fashionable "in" spot for theater people, the one down the street; Diamonds in the grand foyer, turned into a ballroom for a special celebration. Unfortunately, Peter Harvey, who designed the original sets back in 1967, has provided new designs that not only clash with the costumes (especially in Emeralds), but are at war with Balanchine’s reductionist aesthetic, and place each act so squarely in Harvey’s imagination that they interfere with the viewer’s.
Emeralds now has a woodland setting. Nothing subtle or suggestive about it; it’s a Woodland Glade; the backdrop is bright green, different shades of green than those of Karinska’s costumes, and the leaves on the trees are so real they overpower the dangling baubles meant to suggest jewels. In prior sets, the dancers were perhaps courtiers, or contemporary people with Romantic souls at a very sophisticated cocktail party. Now they look like dancers wandering about in a lost Romantic ballet, or perhaps a more trendy, new updated version of one: "Women Who Want to be Naiads, and the Men Who Love Them.”
On Friday, the ballerinas (Miranda Weese in the famous, impossible Violette Verdy role and Jenifer Ringer in Mimi Paul’s equally famous walking solo) caught the soft, Romantic style of the piece beautifully. Almost no harsh lines here; Balanchine used the Romantics’ view of nature: that it was beautiful and that line was as curly as flowers and vines. Weese’s port de bras were exquisite in the Prologue; I haven’t seen arms as lovely as these since Verdy. Weese’s turns, which can be whiplash fast when called upon, were softened here as well, giving her dancing a dreamy, nearly slow-motion quality, as though she were walking on moss.
Emeralds might be seen as a comment on Romanticism; its dancers are in love with love and yearning for its own sake. Weese, with Stephen Hanna, and Ringer, with James Fayette, each have a pas de deux that suggests a love fulfilled, but these creatures are happier being alone, remembering love, perhaps fantasizing about future happiness, and doing so in the safety of solitude rather than loving a real person in the real world. At the end of the ballet, the women leave, and their cavaliers are left behind, gallantly kneeling and reaching up in a gesture that's both a salute to their lady loves and an indication of yearning. One supposes they’ll be in the glade the next night, and the next, ever unsatisfied, ever hopeful in a melancholy way.
Originally there was a marked contrast between the two ballerinas: Verdy, the experienced woman, with many conquests to remember; Paul, the ingénue walking expectantly into her future. There’s not enough of a contrast between Weese and Ringer for that idea to be carried through completely. Weese might be seen as a bit more sophisticated, Ringer more innocent, but the two are close in age. That aside, this was a lovely performance. The corps shimmered, and the pas de trios (Jennifer Tinsley and Pascale van Kipnis with Antonio Carmeno substituting for Arch Higgins, who was ill) providing an ironic contrast: two women quite happy with one man, yearning for nothing.
If Jewels can be looked at as three contrasting pictures of love, Alexandra Ansanelli and Damian Woetzel were a Manhattan couple out to paint the town RED, the color of the sets (stunning streaks of red defining the wings; here Harvey’s sets aren’t at odds with Balanchine’s world) as well as the costumes. This role suits Ansanelli better than any in which I have yet seen her. She can be her own age here, a young dancer out for a good time. She and Woetzel look well together on stage, and have a similar, easy approach to dancing. Ansanelli’s dancing was a welcome flashback to McBride’s sweet and daring approach to Rubies for me; only a few pretzel twist moments left over from the Heather Watts era remain. Woetzel had the right devil-may-care charm and danced up a storm, his pirouettes-into-the-wings exit electrifying the audience. Teresa Reichlen, a tall, leggy young dancer just starting to get soloist parts, danced the second ballerina role. She has an effortless high extension and a strong technique, and if she doesn't quite relish in the sexual by-play with her four eager suitors as much as some of her predecessors, these are early days.
Diamonds is grand and formal love, and it’s hard for me to watch another company dance it after seeing the Kirov take to this Tchaikovsky ballet as though it were a long-ago-lost part of Swan Lake, or, perhaps, what the Snow Queen and Prince were dancing while everyone else was the Stahlbaum's Christmas party. Its version, especially in Daria Pavlenko’s dancing, delineated public from private quite clearly. The pas de deux's conversation was the working out of matters of state and heart between two nobles; a quiet, deadly earnest power struggle carried on under cover of perfect court manners. At the end of the pas de deux, the scherzo was a burst of celebration of an agreement consummated, but still a private one, in the private quarters. It wasn’t until the corps entered, the women now wearing gloves, that the public celebration, one of Balanchine’s grand and eloquent finales, began. The Kirov corps wore real gloves; the NYCB has gauzy suggestions of that now-unfashionable item. Harvey's sets here are blue and white, and, when the curtain goes up, the stage looks like something from Hollywood, circa 1953.
Maria Kowroski has the long legs and high extension, but not, as yet, the confidence or the mystery to be the queen, but she’s a lovely Princess Royal. Philip Neal, tall and strong and handsome as a prince, not only supported her in the difficult pas de deux, but was an active participant in its dialogue, and both flew through the Scherzo. The finale was a bit of a let down; the corps isn’t grand enough or stylish enough, even though both Balanchine and Tchaikovsky are whipping things into a frenzy: legs, legs, and more legs. But more power and more of a sense of freedom in the dancing are needed for the finale to have its full effect.
Aside from individual dancers, what I miss most about the company, judged by these performances, is not yesterday's stars, but yesterday's corps. In the mid- and late 1970s and early 80s there were a number of accomplished senior corps dancers—the group for which Balanchine made Tombeau de couperin—who were effectively senior soloists; they could, and many did, perform soloist parts, but they made up a corps of interesting individuals who, as a group, danced with sophistication and a real force. There are excellent corps dancers today, too, but quite a few who look very young, unformed in body and in style. Several of these young women are frighteningly thin, with legs like pencils. Perhaps that’s why they don’t have the power of a generation ago; they simply lack the physical strength. More importantly, they don’t dance with the same edge, the same freedom. I think what is missing is that they’re not dancing for anyone now. In Balanchine’s day, you could sense they were dancing for him, to please him, to be noticed. "Bigger," "sharper," "more fulfillment of every step," "dancing full out": those are the words and phrases that those who danced for Balanchine constantly use, and that was missing here. It's not that they need to be dancing for Balanchine, of course, but they need to be dancing for someone.
NYCB in DC reviews:
To read our coverage of the New York Season, click here; you'll be taken to the last review in the series, with links at the bottom of the page to the other reviews.
To read a series of articles by Leigh Witchel on the George Balanchine Foundation's Interpreters Archive Project sessions, in which the creators of many of Balanchine's leading roles coach young dancers in those roles, click here.
by Paul Kolnik:
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