Truly Radical

Judith Mackrell on George Balanchine's „Jewels“

George Balanchine ranks as one of the transformative geniuses of 20th century ballet, he created over 450 works during his 60 year career and stamped his own indelible image on the art form. Yet he continually downplayed the mystery, the rich artifice of his work. “Choreography is like cooking or cabinet making” he liked to say, and just as he preferred to be designated as a craftsman rather an artist so he resisted attempts to interpret his creations as anything more than an assemblage of music and steps.

But there was surely an element of self protection in this modest self appraisal. Even though many of Balanchine’s works were superficially abstract, eschewing narrative or message; and even though his small oeuvre of story ballets tended to be more about choreography than plot, Balanchine was still an intensely personal artist. His works were saturated with meaning and emotion, much of it inspired by the people he loved the places he visited, the art he admired. There were layers of private experience embodied in the choreography and Jewels the masterly triptych that he created in 1967 was no exception. On the surface the work may read as decorative conceit, playing with the imagery of its three component sections – Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds; yet it’s a piece haunted by the past and in particular by Balanchine’s own very personal take on ballet history.


Balanchine was born in 1904 in St Petersburg and the world in which he was raised was still dominated by the Imperial court. He was a pupil of the Imperial Ballet School which was funded by the Tsar, and the ballet in which he made his debut, Sleeping Beauty, was an opulent reflection of the pomp and grandeur of the Tsar’s own household. Yet by the time Balanchine came to create his own first works, in 1920, that world had been ripped apart. The Bolshevik revolution had toppled the Romanovs and their privileged elite and ballet, like the rest of Russia, had to accommodate itself to a modern egalitarian future.

In some ways it was a period of tumultuous creativity; Balanchine and his chorographic peers were collaborating with Constructivist and Futurist artists, experimenting with the principles of Meyerhold’s theatre. But it was also a precarious moment for ballet in Russia; there was almost no state money and its legitimacy as a proletarian artform was continually under question.

In 1924 Balanchine was allowed to travel to the West with a small touring ensemble and when he had the chance to join Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, a company that had uniquely combined the shock of the new with the glamour and money of the European elite, he did not look back.

As ballet master for Diaghilev, Balanchine immersed himself in a repertory that had taken the western world by storm. During the last decade and a half Diaghilev had commissioned contributions from painters like Picasso and Matisse, composers like Stravinsky and choreographers like Nijinsky. These were giants of the modernist era, an inspiration for a young ambitious man and during his five years with Diaghilev Balanchine created no less than nine ballets of which one, Apollon musagète, remains an enduring classic. But when Diaghilev died in 1929 the company was forced to disband – and in 1933 Balanchine took the decision to emigrate to America.


Balanchine loved America; its blithely open embrace of high culture and popular entertainment, its energy and scale; above all the fact that the country had only a scattered history of ballet performance. It was a place where an ambitious young exile might make his mark and Balanchine wasted no time in setting up his own company and school. With his first generation of dancers he also began to forge his own distinctive style, combining the academic classicism in which he’d been trained, with the experimental rigour of Diaghilev’s modernists, and the sporty athleticism of his new compatriots. 

Balanchine is now considered to be the architect of American classical ballet and if there is one work that typifies his style it may be Agon. Created in 1957 this is a masterpiece of cool, clever and dangerous abstraction: minimally staged, with its twelve dancers dressed in plain leotards and tights its choreography is a 20th century re-write of Renaissance court dances, a controlled explosion of combatively playful, erotic moves reflecting the fractured dissonances of Stravinsky’s score.


Jewels, a decade later, was judged by certain critics to be a retreat from the brilliant stringency of Agon. Balanchine created the work a couple of years after his company, New York City Ballet, had moved into Manhattan’s Lincoln Center and needed to attract a larger audience and richer patrons in order to fill its 3,000 seats.

The story goes that the choreographer was walking down 5th Avenue when his eye and imagination were caught by the fabulous window displays of Van Cleef and Arpels. The acclaimed jewellers allowed Balanchine to make a close study of the jewels in their store and as a consequence the ballet he created became glitter – full of jewel inspired imagery. His choreography threaded the dancers into necklaces, tiaras, pendants and chains while Barbara Karinska’s gem-encrusted costumes were perfectly coloured to reflect the soft green of Emeralds, the brazen scarlet of Rubies and the silvery glitter of Diamonds.

It was a concept tailored to the glamorous Manhattan elite yet Jewels was, in its own way, a radical creation. Virtually no other choreographer had attempted to create a full evening ballet without the support of characters and plot – in fact so unusual was the whole venture that the management dithered over what to call the work and it was still untitled, even on its opening night. And despite the surface sparkle of its imagery there was a rich and mysterious undertow of drama in the ballet, which was inspired by the three very different scores which accompany it.


Emeralds, the opening section, is set to incidental music that Gabriel Fauré composed for Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Melisande and Edmond Haraucourt's verse drama Shylock. This late 19th century French music, written between 1889 and 1898, provided a wash of dreamy somnambulist sound which for Balanchine evoked the enchanted forests of early Romantic ballets like Giselle, La Sylphide and Undine. His choreography was itself a homage to that period, unusually soft, yielding and lyrical in style, and the two ballerinas who led his cast were typical of the enigmatic, unattainable heroines of the first half of the 19th century, dressed in the calf length tulle skirts characteristic of that period.Each ballerina has her own solo in this section, dancing in a slightly fantastical world of her own. The first is elegant, a little bit coquettish, with shimmeringly extravagant use of épaulement in the shoulders and arms. This ballerina is not only a nostalgic sister of the Romantic heroines whom Balanchine saw dance in his early years, but an embodiment of Paris the city where Romantic ballet was born. Violette Verdy, the ballerina who first danced this role, was herself a product of the Paris Opera Ballet, steeped in the glamour of the Parisian style and Balanchine, in an unusually candid statement, admitted that in some ways Emeralds was “an evocation of France—the France of elegance, comfort, dress, and perfume.” 

The second ballerina is more simply reminiscent of early 19th century heroines; a little more eldritch and whimsical, her solo is a dreamy reverie that is danced to the Sicilienne music from Pelléas et Mélisande. Both women however remain essentially remote from the two men who partner them, dancing with them yet always retreating back into the sisterhood of the female corps de ballet.

The romantic perfume of Emeralds is distilled in the haunting pas de deux near the end of the ballet in which the ballerina walks a winding path on pointe, tracked by her hopefully gallant but ultimately hopeless knight. Yet as drenched as the work is in history, Emeralds is unmistakably the work of a mid 20th century choreographer. Folk steps reminiscent of Giselle are given a sharp, almost jazzy accent, a flurry of turns in which the ballerina’s body is titled ecstatically to catch the moonlight is revved up to modern speeds. Like a great couturier returning to an antique design, Balanchine gives us the essence of an old style re-stated through idiosyncratic contemporary means.

Prisca Zeisel and Henry Grey in „Emeralds“
Ensemble in „Emeralds“

In Rubies, however, the choreography is entirely in and of the 20th century. Balanchine’s music is Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, a nervy, brash, voracious score that suggests the honk and clamour of contemporary New York, the thrust of skyscrapers and the bright lights of Broadway. There are no princesses here but chorus girls, leggy in their high cut tunics; their suitors are sporty jocks and the style of the ballet is pure Americana, a love letter from an exiled Russian to his adopted home.

Once again there are two ballerinas on stage, each in her own way as elusive as her early Romantic sisters. The first is a combative flirt, engaged in a duel of wits with her partner. He’s a firecracker presence on stage – athletic, funny and smart – but she is always a step ahead of him as she dares him to ever more virtuoso jumps and spins; teases him with her cute, pin-up poses, and dances unpredictable rings around him. In one signature move, she balances high on her pointes then falls suddenly backwards, dropping neatly into his lap. Audacious and minxy she’s the cat who’s got the cream and Balanchine makes a sly reference to that by giving her the White Cat’s ‘miaow’ gesture from the final act of Sleeping Beauty.

The second ballerina has no partner but she is a siren force who holds the entire male corps in her thrall. Her choreography, first created on the tall, leggy Patricia Neary, is all long lines and slicing attack. Her pointes stab at the floor and her hips swivel with a flaunting irony as she high kicks her way around the stage. There’s a section in which four men try to partner her, taking hold of her wrists and ankles as they manipulate her body into deep arabesques penchés and split extensions, yet even while they think they are playing her, she is actually playing them.The ruby red of the ballet’s title is the red of seduction and sex but as blatant as some of the imagery might appear it is as multi layered as Emeralds. Balanchine mixes tango, tap, jazz into the academic language of ballet, and his choreography engages in its own witty duel with Stravinsky’s music, playing on and off the beat, mining comic gold from its syncopated accents.

Ensemble in „Rubies“
Ensemble in „Rubies“

With Diamonds however he goes back in time, to the Russia of his childhood; to the splendours of the Imperial Ballet and to the palatial grandeur of its style. His score is Tchaikovsky’s 3rd Symphony, music that captures both the grandeur and the elegiac fragility of this lost age; and his choreography openly references that of Marius Petipa, the French ballet master who created the great classics of the Russian repertory, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Raymonda, La Bayadère and many others.

In Diamonds Balanchine pays unmistakable homage to the master who shaped his own formative years. The ballet’s opening waltz, danced by a female corps in sparkling white tutus, could almost have been lifted straight from a Petipa ballet: the steps are purely classical, with their formal ports de bras, their close-knit footwork and decorous carriage; and seen from above they move through the intricate floor patterns beloved by Petipa, tracing their own jewel like configurations.

The heart of the ballet, however, is its long,unfolding pas de deux. There is only one ballerina in Diamonds and many like to see her as Balanchine’s version of Odette, the tragically spellbound heroine of Petipa and Ivanov’s Swan Lake. He created this role for Suzanne Farrell, the 21 year old principal of New York City Ballet who was his muse at this period and also the woman with whom he was deeply in love. Farrell had a beautiful quality of stillness, she was able to sustain extraordinarily long balances even when her body was tilted in drastically off kilter positions, and it was this quality that Balanchine embodied in her choreography for Diamonds.

During the first half of her long pas de deux the ballerina’s kinship to Odette is evident in her trancelike state: under some enchantment of her own she appears only half conscious of the man who partners her. Even though she has to trust in his strength and his timing as he supports her in a plunging arabesque or a deep back bend she is never entirely present in his embrace. It’s as though she has to wait, like Odette for her prince to pledge his eternal love before she can be released from her imprisoning spell.

In Swan Lake of course, Odette’s prince fails her, but in Diamonds Balanchine allows his ballerina a happy ending. As she awakes from her trance her dancing becomes animated with a joyous alertness, and her whole demeanour seems to blossom. Around the couple the corps de ballet dance bright shards of choreography that refract their happiness and the ballet ends with the entire cast united in a spirited polonaise.It’s a jubilant finale, which echoes the wedding celebrations of Aurora (another princess awakened with a kiss) and perhaps Balanchine was imagining a happy ending of his own…Real life however would not prove so compliant and neither would Farrell. Two years after the premiere of Jewels she married a much younger man, a fellow dancer, and the wounded Balanchine banished them both from his company.

Ksenia Ryzhkova und Jinhao Zhang in „Diamonds“
Ensemble in „Diamonds“

Back in 1967 the reviews of Jewels were mixed: if some critics were impressed by its inventiveness and the scale others were more wary of its glitter. Today however it is recognised as a masterwork and is performed by companies around the world. With its five ballerina roles, its virtuoso male solos and its challenging variety of styles it is a work that showcases the depth and diversity of talent of any company who attempts it. But like any enduring classic it also allows individual dancers to leave the stamp of their own personalities on its choreography.

The first ballerina role in Emeralds, for instance, might have been created for Violette Verdy and her bred-in-the-bone Parisian glamour but a dancer like Tamara Rojo, performing for the Royal Ballet in London, has brought a lusher sensuality, a more cushioned kind of lyricism to the choreography. The coquette in Rubies can equally be played in several ways, as a kittenish tease, a sassy tomboy or a slightly slutty vamp, although Patricia McBride who first danced the role was said to embody all these qualities, flipping from silky seductiveness to acerbic snap with an ease that has never been equalled.

As for Diamonds, there are those who say that no ballerina could ever match the exquisite strangeness and remoteness of Suzanne Farrell’s interpretation. But others have still made the choreography their own: Marianela Nunez of the Royal Ballet has irradiated the role with her own peculiar warmth and authority, while the Bolshoi’s Olga Smirnova, together with her partner Semyon Chudon has attempted an almost maverick reading, edging the courtship rituals of the pas de deux with a slightly combative energy, as if the two lovers were having to battle their way towards fairy tale bliss.

In one of the most fascinating performances of recent times, however, the stars of Jewels were not so much the dancers as the three different companies who united to perform it. In 2017, the year of the ballet’s 50th anniversary, a historic season was staged at the Lincoln Center in which the Paris Opera Ballet danced Emeralds, New York City Ballet danced Rubies and the Mariinsky Ballet, from St Petersburg, danced Diamonds. For this one commemorative event Jewels may perhaps have been as Balanchine first imagined it – a celebration of the three cities, the three companies and the three schools of dance which had not only shaped the history of ballet but his own career as a choreographer.


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