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Jewellery

George Balanchine’s 1967 ballet “Jewels”—in which each act is inspired by a different semi-precious gemhas proven a touring warhorse. In 2013, the Bolshoi Ballet came to London with the Balanchine classic. In 2017, the Lincoln Center Festival made history by inviting the Paris Opera Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, and the New York City Ballet (the company on which the work was originally made) to share the stage and perform an act each. And on last Saturday night, it was the Australian Ballet’s turn, dancing “Jewels” at the Royal Opera House on their first tour to London since 1988.

Performance

The Australian Ballet: “Jewels” by George Balanchine

Place

The Royal Opera House, London, UK, July 2023

Words

Phoebe Roberts

The Australian Ballet in “Emeralds” from George Balanchine's “Jewels.” Photograph by Tristram Kenton

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“Jewels” lends itself particularly well to this kind of cultural crossover; in fact, it is built into the ballet’s very DNA. While the work is known to portray emeralds in the first act, rubies in the second, and diamonds in the third, it is a hardly concealed secret that the three parts better represent the different periods of Balanchine’s life. “Emeralds”, with a lush, romantic score by Fauré, is a stand-in for the choreographer’s years spent in France; “Rubies”, with jazzy moves and heart-racing Stravinsky music, is pure New York; and “Diamonds”, utilizing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3 in D Major, is the Imperial Russia of Balanchine’s youth. 

It’s a plotless ballet, sure, but there’s plenty to read into here. “Emeralds” and “Diamonds” seem particularly refracted through the lens of loss and worlds which will never appear again, except onstage and in the pages of certain books. Watching “Jewels”, I’m always reminded of Nabokov, another Russian émigré who fled to the West and who was only five years older than Balanchine. In his 1969 novel Ada, the author describes his desire to “caress time”; there’s something to that effect happening here, especially as Balanchine enlivens decades past and empires crumbled. “Jewels” is dazzling, but in this sense, it’s also haunting. 

Given the ballet’s multiple national and temporal hues, there’s plenty of opportunity for a company to showcase a breadth of styles in one evening. The Australian Ballet handled some of these styles better than others. “Emeralds”, a notoriously difficult ballet to perform well— it’s so fragile, like a vintage garment which must not be yanked at— was for the most part successful. The two principal couples, Sharni Spencer with Callum Linnane and Valerie Tereshchenko with Mason Lovegrove, danced their solos and pas de deuxs with care, if not totally coming to embody the delicacy and charm needed to effect the aforementioned “garment.”

 

Callum Linnane in “Emeralds” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Tristram Kenton

“Emeralds” really came alive, however, with the buoyant pas de trois performed by Larissa Kiyoto-Ward, Katherine Sonnekus, and Drew Hedditch. The three sprung about the stage with equal parts vigor and grace, etching the ballet’s old-world glamour in plain view. Kiyoto-Ward and Sonnekus in particular made me gasp; the bravery of their balances pared with the delicacy of their port de bras struck a strong chord. Above all, the women’s exits stood out. Each time they disappeared into the wings, they took with them a bit of the past which “Emeralds” permits us to experience once more. It was painful to watch them go. 

“Rubies”, unfortunately, fared less well. The ballet begins with the dancers standing in a V formation (like a jewel) and balancing en pointe. Meant to be an exhilarating opening followed by even more thrilling dancing, it proved the apex of the act. Once the tableau sprung into motion, the dancers looked oddly stiff and, at times, downright awkward. Many of “Rubies” signature moves- thrusting pelvises, kicks which could impale you- were so subdued as to be almost absent. In the previous intermission, I had run into the effervescent New York City Ballet soloist Emma Von Enck; I couldn’t help but wish she would jump onstage and liven things up.

The third act, “Diamonds”, is both the grandest and the most widely performed as a stand-alone ballet. At its center is a pas de deux originated by Suzanne Farrell and Jacques D’Amboise, two iconic Balanchine dancers who will forever inspire comparisons in the roles. Farrell in particular is impossible not to miss. Even for those of us too young to have caught her performances, her mark is everywhere — as is Balanchine’s well-documented romantic obsession with her. The pas de deux reflects the ultimate unrequitedness of this love: the ballerina continually evades her partner’s grasp, running from him and putting large swathes of distance between them.

Ako Kondo and Brett Cynoweth in “Rubies” from George Balanchine's “Jewels.” Photograph by Tristram Kenton

Towards the close of the pas de deux, in a moment of apparent acquiescence, she folds her torso over his outstretched arm. As the oboe of Tchaikovsky’s symphony sounds, she walks forward, slowly standing upright and leaning back into the support of his embrace. It all ends with the male on his knee, kissing her hand. As far as pas de deuxs go, it is arguably one of the most beautiful and touching in all of ballet. It also projects the kind of womanhood— elusive but ultimately relenting, independent but controllable— which both Balanchine and ballet have oft been criticized for promoting.

These criticisms are just (Balanchine called Farrell his “alabaster princess” and fired her when she dared marry someone besides him) and reflect a necessary discourse surrounding ballet in a post-pandemic, post-#MeToo world. On Saturday, Benedicte Bemet and Joseph Caley as the principal couple offered a different kind of interpretation. In the central pas de deux, they functioned more as equal partners rather than struggling lovers. While this was a novel approach, it lacked the intensity and grandiosity which is found in Tchaikovsky’s score. Often, it seemed as if this ballerina and her cavalier were just friends: even the kiss on the hand seemed a bit understated. 

Benedicte Bemet and Joseph Caley in “Diamonds” from George Balanchine's “Jewels.” Photograph by Tristram Kenton

In the solos, Bemet again presented a different kind of femininity than the one usually glimpsed. Delicate and petite but with a steely strength, particularly in her lower body, Bemet performed the développés (an unfolding of the leg in an extension) and manège (a series of turns in a circle) all perfectly on balance. While beautiful, what makes these steps interesting in “Diamonds” is that they are typically performed off-balance, with the ballerina catching her weight at the last moment and launching herself impossibly into the next position. Bemet, however, remained dead on her center: this ballerina was not at all unstable, nor was she running from any over-zealous cavalier.

 Whether one prefers this interpretation or the more traditional one, it didn’t matter by the polonaise, when the entire cast of “Diamonds” marches onstage in a glorious, rousing finale. Here, the sheer force of the dance is thrilling, and the technically brilliant, beautiful dancers of the Australian Ballet were more than up for the challenge. At this moment, the Aussies in London made me feel like I was ten in New York watching “Jewels” for the first time; like Nabokov might say, dance’s ability to “caress time” was on full display. Let us just hope it is not another thirty-five years before they grace us with their presence again.

Phoebe Roberts


Phoebe Roberts is originally from New York where she trained with American Ballet Theatre and Leslie Browne. She danced with Béjart Ballet Lausanne before studying Russian at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. She is currently pursuing a master’s in Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge. Her writing has previously appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Good Press, Glasgow, and Spectra Poets.

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