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SCRUTINY | The National Ballet Makes Balanchine’s Jewels Sparkle

By Paula Citron on June 18, 2024

Dancers Monika Haczkiewicz with Artists of the Ballet in the ballet Rubies from George Balanchine’s Jewels (Photo: Karolina Kuras)
Monika Haczkiewicz with Artists of the Ballet in Rubies from George Balanchine’s Jewels (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

The National Ballet of Canada/Jewels, choreographed by George Balanchine, Four Seasons Centre, closes June 22. Tickets here.

The three-act Jewels, created for New York City Ballet in 1967, is considered one of revered choreographer George Balanchine’s masterpieces. The last time the National mounted the complete ballet was 2006, so Jewels is making a long overdue return.

The ballet is one of Balanchine’s plotless works, where the symbiosis between movement and music is at the heart of the piece. Interestingly, it was jewellery designer Claude Arpels, of the famous firm Van Cleef & Arpels, who suggested to Balanchine the idea of creating a ballet inspired by gemstones.

While the ballet is called Jewels, Balanchine always said that the piece was not actually about gemstones. Rather, as he pointed out, it is Barbara Karinska’s legendary costumes that transform the dancers into jewels, and indeed, the dancers do sparkle adorned in costumes that emulate the precious stones.

Balanchine’s point of departure for the piece was a representation of ballet styles. Emeralds is an evocation of French romanticism, Rubies features Balanchine’s own rule-breaking neoclassicism, while Diamonds is an homage to Russian imperial grandeur. For all three acts, the choreographer chose extant music that he felt supported the dance style.

While each act is self-contained and has often been performed on its own, the beauty of seeing the three all together is like watching a history of ballet parade before your eyes. More to the point, Jewels certainly tests the technical mettle of any company, and the National has come up trumps. The dancers simply look wonderful.

The three acts are performed on the same set designed by Peter Harvey which represents the stage of a theatre, equipped with swagged beige drapes at each side, and an overhead frill curtain. This deliberate sparseness allows Karinska’s bejewelled costumes to dazzle the eye all the more.

Balanchine is on record as saying that he created Jewels as a way to show off his dancers, and there are many roles throughout the three acts that do exactly that.

Each act begins with an eye-catching frozen tableau that always brings applause.

Dancers Tina Pereira and Donald Thom in Emeralds from George Balanchine’s Jewels (Photo: Karolina Kuras)
Dancers Svetlana Lunkina and Spencer Hack with Artists of the Ballet in Emeralds from George Balanchine’s Jewels (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

Emeralds

To understand the essence of the French Romantic Style, think Giselle (1841) or La Sylphide (1832). The dancers perform movement that is graceful and flowing, employing willowy arms in the air, delicate footwork, and gentle turns. The feeling here is dainty and elegant. The men do execute jumps, but they are straight up in the air, with a very refined look. The technique is hidden within the lyricism.

To accompany this French romantic style, Balanchine chose excerpts from Gabriel Fauré’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1898) and his orchestral suite Shylock (1889). This is the only mistake Balanchine made in Jewels. While the music may be well-appreciated in an opera house or concert hall, for a ballet it is dreary. Why or why didn’t the choreographer choose music from rarely performed period romantic ballets? These pieces are too modern for the genre.

The structure of the piece includes two couples, (principal dancers Svetlana Lunkina and Spencer Hack, and principal dancer Tina Pereira and first soloist Donald Thom). There is also a trio (second soloists Miyoko Koyasu, Hannah Galway and Kota Sato), supported by a small female corps de ballet.

In Lunkina and Pereira, you have grace personified whether in duets or performing delicate solos. Hack and Thom proved to be good partners, and tossed off their jumps and turns in a suitably restrained manner. The trio, which executes slightly more energetic movement, were charming, while the corps in their ever-changing patterns seemed to float on air.

Dancers Siphesihle November and Koto Ishara in Rubies from George Balanchine’s Jewels (Photo: Karolina Kuras)
Dancers Siphesihle November and Koto Ishara in Rubies from George Balanchine’s Jewels (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

Rubies

Rubies is in a perfect position between two classical ballet acts because the choreography is brash and flashy. Balanchine wanted to capture the bright lights and heated energy of New York City, along with all the buzz and hustle that the Big Apple represents, and he definitely succeeded.

New York City Ballet has always been known as the house of Stravinsky since Balanchine worked so often with this lionized master composer, so, not surprisingly, the score for Rubies is his Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra (1929), performed with brio by soloist Zhenya Vitort.

Stravinsky’s quirky, sly, modernist, and at times discordant music, perfectly emulates Balanchine’s eccentric neoclassicism. Rubies is awash in bent knees, flat foot pliés, thrust hips, swivel midriffs, heel stands, and flexed feet and wrists, not to mention gallops, skips, hops, waddles, along with deliberately awkward partnering, and Balanchine’s famous wave effect. The technique of Rubies is in your face.

The forces for this love letter to New York include a principal couple, a solo woman, and a corps de ballet of eight women and four men. All the dancers have to move like charged demons and the energetic Rubies was perhaps the most evenly performed act of the evening.

Principal dancer Siphesihle November was not unexpected in the leading male role given his technical prowess, and he did not disappoint, particularly when he tossed off his wickedly fast turns as he exited the stage at one point in the piece.

The surprise for me was principal dancer Koto Ishihara, she of exquisite grace, whom I would have cast in Emeralds. Nonetheless, here she was using her superb technique to execute all the Balanchineisms that come hurtling a mile a minute at the dancers. Precision is the key, which Ishihara has in spades.

Had Rubies been a story ballet, November and Ishihara would not be cast together, but in a plotless ballet like this one, November being too short for Ishihara doesn’t matter. In fact, the height differential added to the quirkiness. They also had real chemistry together which made for a Rubies pairing that really worked.

The solo role, or Tall Girl, as Balanchine called her, was corps de ballet member Monika Haczkiewicz who is new to me, although she’s been getting a fair bit of play of late. She is definitely another talent to watch. As well as exhibiting precise technique, Haczkiewicz delightfully projected all the cheeky flirtatiousness that the character demands.

As for the 12-member corps, they were given lots of opportunities to strut their stuff which they did with gusto.

Dancers Heather Ogden and Ben Rudisin in Diamond from George Balanchine’s Jewels (Photo: Karolina Kuras)
Dancers Heather Ogden and Ben Rudisin in Diamond from George Balanchine’s Jewels (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

Diamonds

The absolutely weird part of Diamonds is that it looks so familiar. Balanchine choreographed solos, duets, and ensembles that look like they were lifted straight out of Swan Lake (1877), but are absolutely original.

Showy choreography, both fast and slow, the epitome of Russian imperial style, is on full display, and as such, is the perfect ending to Jewels. Needless to say, the music is, of course, by P.I. Tchaikowsky, specifically, movements 2 to 5 of his Symphony No. 3 in D Major (1875).

Meticulous exactitude is needed for both the men and women as Balanchine alternates between exciting technical tricks and dangerous holds, to poignant moments that call for controlled adagio.

Principal dancer Heather Ogden was incandescent in the lead role. She was absolutely pitch-perfect in her execution and I have never seen her dance better. She brought down the house with her brilliance. Her partner, principal dancer Ben Rudisin, performed well enough, but didn’t have quite the fire to match Ogden’s performance.

Diamonds also includes four secondary couples, and they certainly deserve a mention for their vim and vigour. The ensemble represents some of the best young classicists in the company, and included first soloists Jeannine Haller, Calley Skalnik and Donald Thom, second soloists Kota Sato, Larkin Miller, and Peng-Fei Jiang, and corps members Nio Hirano, and Ayano Haneishi.

This act also includes a large female corps de ballet who have to negotiate all manner of shifting patterns and they bordered on perfection in their execution.

The rousing coda finale of Diamonds got the cheers it deserved.

Final Thoughts

Is it my imagination or is the company becoming more musical? By that I mean, the dancers are showing more synchronicity as partners or in ensembles. It is something you can both see and sense. They are feeling the music in their bodies.

Jewels is also a big demand for the ballet orchestra who perform three important scores, each radically different one from the other. They were right on the mark, under Maestro David Briskin.

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Paula Citron
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