April 1, 2021
Inspired by the designs of jeweller Claude Arpels of Van Cleef & Arpels, the three acts of George Balanchine’s Jewels are often danced separately. Here a chance to see them all together, however; the choreographer’s tribute to the ballet traditions of France (Emeralds) set to Fauré, the United States (Rubies) set to Stravinsky, and Russia (Diamonds) set to Tchaikovsky. He also originally considered including sapphires, which may have corrected the omission of the great Italian tradition.
Emeralds provides a gentle introduction to the work, the quiet beauty of the classical dance mirrored by Faurè at his most contemplative. The shapes of the corps and soloists mirror the emerald chandelier suspended above the stage, arms linked and feet bouréeing delicately. The soloists execute soft pencheés and supported adagio turns, with plenty of opportunity to luxuriate in the line.
Misa Kuranaga solo is full of melting ports de bras, each extension danced to the fingertips. Sasha Mukhamedova dances as if she is made of thistledown, with a freshness and joy. When Kuranga returns with Angelo Greco for a pas de deux, Balanchine allows himself a hint of grandeur without losing any of the filigrée feeling, accentuated by layers of tulle in the skirts and sensitive partnering. In her pas de deux with Aaron Robison, Mukhamedova is rarely off pointe as if born wearing blocked shoes and achieving an other-world ethereality usually aimed for by sylphs and Giselles.
Mathilde Froustey, Pascal Molat and Wanting Zhao bring us Rubies and a very different evocation of womanhood. Brash, staccato and discordant, it embraces the USA with the eyes of immigrants Balanchine and Stravinsky who forged a new culture from old beginnings.
The girls stand en pointe and tip fore and aft knowingly, the men weave in and out, to show their prowess all the more. This is ‘look at me’ dancing, eyes front, teeth flashing in perma-grins. The dancers evoke skipping games, jazz and ever-present unchaperoned flirting. There’s also an underlying sense of danger, both in the scoring and the choreography; the men manipulate their woman, holding arms and positioning legs to extreme extensions while others look on. This is sexuality that perhaps isn’t entirely consensual.
In the pas de deux, a reference to a minuet is entirely ironic. Legs swing en cloche, eyes glare daggers, feet are flexed, bodies shimmy. This is the choreography of the dance hall not the ballroom. These rubies dazzle but what, you wonder, lies behind the lustre?
For Diamonds, Sasha de Sola and Tiit Helimets take us back, spiritually at least, to mid-19th-century St Petersburg and Balanchine’s professional origins. First, the corps de ballet scintillate like flakes of frost in snow: tiny, neat footwork contributing to an understated whole.
When de Sola and Helimets appear, their grand pas de deux echoes Emeralds in that it displays not the overt panache beloved of the big gala favourites but rather a calm classicism reflecting the perfection of the art that surely reached its zenith in Russia, and which another pair of emigrants made their own: Petipa and Cecchetti.
When the corps re-appear, it’s in a flurry of woodwind. Multiple notes strike the ear like the sparks of fiery light that hit the eyes when diamonds are illuminated. Helimets’ solo is so light-footed that he seems inhuman. De Sola follows on with razor-sharp feet and assured balances.
Finally, Balanchine builds to a subtle climax in the polonaise, layer upon layer creating the ultimate, glittering picture of the ballet.
This programme is dedicated to the memory of Elyse Borne, former New York City Ballet soloist and one of the foremost George Balanchine repetiteurs, who passed away in late 2019, shortly after setting Emeralds and Rubies on the company.
Jewels is available on line until April 21, 2021. Visit www.sfballet.org for details and to purchase streaming access.