The Australian Ballet: Jewels

Royal Opera House, London
August 2, 2023

George Balanchine’s Jewels, to coin a phrase, is a gem. OK, three gems. Each of the three acts or three ballets, depending how you want to see them, is distinct in style, mood and music. With the choreography emphasising technique all the way, each is exposing too.

In their way, all three pay homage to a time long gone. There’s the soft old world, 19th-century Romanticism of Emeralds, to Fauré; the provocatively jazzy, racy Rubies, to perky Stravinsky; and the glittering spectacle that is Diamonds, the essence of the Imperial Russian classicism that Balanchine grew up with, to glorious Tchaikovsky. The only real link comes from the fact all three are gemstones, and the splendid opulence of Barbara Karinska’s costumes and Peter Harvey’s sets, which the company has acquired.

The Australian Ballet in Emeralds from Jewels by George Balanchine
Photo Royal Opera House/Tristram Kenton

Emeralds always seems the most difficult to get just right. Sharni Spencer and Callum Linnane were all elegant modesty in the slow and rather dreamy first pas de deux, although there were a couple of shaky moments towards the beginning. Valerie Tereshenko and Mason Lovegrove brought the slightly more showy second pas de deux out well. The best comes in the rather more alive pas de trois, however. Larissa Kiyoto-Ward, Katherine Sonnekus and Drew Hedditch danced with perfect playful spirit. Hedditch stood out especially for his lightness and so softly landed jumps.

Danced to Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, Rubies is the perfect antidote to the somnolence Emeralds mostly induces. Even before anyone moves, it has wow factor. The backdrop of red gemstones against black looks like a cascade of red hot lava trails; and that’s before we get to the brilliant red costumes. The dancing was red hot too; one of the most enjoyable performances of it I’ve ever seen.

Ako Kondo and Brett Chynoweth in Rubies from George Balanchine’s Jewels
Photo Royal Opera House/Tristram Kenton

Rubies is often said to represent the jazz age. A little bit sassy, it does to some extent, but I’ve always seen it more as part Hollywood glamour, part Broadway Follies. Of all the three parts to the evening, you can’t help feeling that this is really where Balanchine was most comfortable when he made it; certainly the closest to where he was in time.

The choreography comes with a fair dash of irreverence. The long pas de deux was fabulously danced by Ako Kondo and Brett Chynoweth who imbued everything with just the right cheeky abandon. They sizzled, sparking off each other superbly. The synchronicity was pretty striking too. Elsewhere, the tall Isabelle Dashwood impressed in the famous solo.

In gleaming white, Bendict Bemet and Joseph Caley were all old world manners in the glamourous Diamonds. Caley reminded is what a wonderful classicist he is. Indeed, both were quite superb, although the main pas de deux does feel a little too reverential at times. Around them, the corps of 32 moved majestically in beautiful, intricate patterns. But while it sparkled, it never really sparked. The climax, with everyone on stage makes for a spectacular end, though.

Benedicte Bemet and Joseph Caley in Diamonds,
part of Jewels by George Balanchine
Photo Royal Opera House/Tristram Kenton

It was a fine evening. As softly spoken artistic director David Hallberg reminded everyone at the beginning, the first time the company had danced at The Royal Opera House since 1988, although they have been to the Coliseum a couple of times in the intervening years. But while the company danced well, and at times very well indeed, it only really burst into vivid life in Rubies. It didn’t feel that special. Perhaps that has something to with the fact that, while Jewels has not been seen in London for quite a time, and though it certainly highlights the technical level and classicism of The Australian Ballet’s dancers, it doesn’t really say anything new.

It wasn’t going to be Jewels, of course. It should have been the probably less audience-friendly Kunstkamer, the joint creation of Paul Lightfoot and Sol León, Marco Goecke, and Crystal Pite, originally created for the 60th anniversary of Nederlands Dans Theater; and rather appropriate given The Australian Ballet are presently celebrating the same milestone. But then news of Goeke’s totally unacceptable altercation with, assault on, German critic Wiebke Hüster broke. So, a very quick change, and this three-act abstract evening by George Balanchine (rightly or wrongly, these days the subject of some criticism of his approach to women in particular), it was.

Going back to Goecke, it’s worth noting that, while no-one even remotely condones what he did, no German company has cancelled him in the same way. Even the Staatsoper Hannover, where he was fired as ballet director, has confirmed his choreography will still be danced.

The Australian Ballet present Jewels at The Royal Opera House to August 5, 2023. On August 6, they will dance a special 60th Anniversary Celebration.