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Sparkling Celebration

I descend the stairs of the State Theatre, for that is where the emeralds are, beneath the Earth’s surface. Follow the sounds of Gabriel Fauré’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” and “Shylock,” for when entwined these musical elements chime the properties of emeralds as they refract the light. This is the Romantic era, they herald. A nineteenth-century reverie, in long green tunics. A memory of France. This is the opening night of the Melbourne season of The Australian Ballet’s performance of George Balanchine’s “Jewels.”[1]

Performance

The Australian Ballet: “Jewels” by George Balanchine

Place

State Theatre, Melbourne, June 29, 2023

Words

Gracia Haby

Ako Kondo and Brett Chynoweth in “Rubies” from George Balanchine's “Jewels.” Photograph by Rainee Lantry

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Of course, equally, I could be in the soft green of the Fontainebleau Forest, beneath the dappled light of the oak trees of a Camille Corot painting. Or nose-to-glass peering at the jewellery on display in the Fifth Avenue windows of Van Cleef & Arpels. This is, after all, Balanchine’s “plotless” ballet upon which many images are encouraged to sparkle. For Violette Verdy, “Emeralds” was a silky, subaqueous affair “all those girls, like algae, or mermaids.”[2] And now, in the continuation of Verdy, and all those who have shone in “Emeralds” since its premiere in 1967 at the Lincoln Centre, New York, Sharni Spencer and Callum Linnane (first principal couple) softly come into focus together with the elongated lines of Imogen Chapman and Maxim Zenin (second principal couple), and Larissa Kiyoto-Ward, Katherine Sonnekus, and Drew Hedditch (pas de trois) and the lyrical ebb and flow of the cast as a whole. The premiere of “Jewels” in the company’s 60th year is fitting, as the Australian Ballet’s artistic director, David Hallberg, describes, “some ballets, over the course of their time, create an aura of elegance and myth that holds up to our expectation of it. That is true with one of George Balanchine’s greatest masterpieces, ‘Jewels.’”

Callum Linnane and Sharni Spencer in “Emeralds” from George Balanchine's “Jewels.” Photograph by Rainee Lantry

In costumes of perfect fit, re-created by the Australian Ballet wardrobe department, and with volunteers from the Country Women’s Association and Embroidery Guild, 18,000 jewels have been hand-sewn in place so as to twinkle as brightly as if it were 1967, or the perfumed cloud of the nineteenth century, or wherever it is that the triptych of “Emeralds,” “Rubies”, and “Diamonds” transports you. Balanchine calls for precision, both on stage and off, with each flower within “Emeralds” consisting of 52 beads. With two flowers per costume, comprised of 104 beads, which take around two hours to sew, the click-clack lustre of jewels is quite the mathematical sum. “The ‘Emeralds’ corps has 36 dancers and The Australian Ballet makes two sets of these costumes for understudies and alternates. 72 costumes x 104 beads = 7,488 beads just on the shoulders for ‘Emeralds!’”[3]

“Jewels,” a ballet in three parts, though you’ll also find “Rubies” and “Diamonds”, and “Emeralds” less so, presented in their own right, must be performed as was, as is. It is nothing if not specific adherence. And yet it is also free in the flickering flow of images it presents and thoughts it encourages to the surface. There is the emphasis upon technical brilliance but suffused with emotion, and, in the case of “Emeralds,” green-leaf tendrilled mystery.

Benedicte Bemet in “Diamonds” from George Balanchine's “Jewels.” Photograph by Rainee Lantry

Composed of chromium, emeralds are greenest green, and rubies, reddest red, and so to Igor Stravinsky’s “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra” the dancefloor swings after interval. Verdy may have described movements within “Emeralds” as akin to “a cat licking its hair,” but in “Rubies,” the cool cat licks the cream. In the quick athleticism and wit of “Rubies” Ako Kondo and Brett Chynoweth, and soloist Isobelle Dashwood snap-crack New York modernism. With something soft held in contrast to something sharp, and lines wonderfully off-kilter, with each virtuosic leg slice they show that you can cut a ruby in the blink of an eye. All of which is glorious.

Ako Kondo and Brett Chynoweth in “Rubies” from George Balanchine's “Jewels.” Photograph by Rainee Lantry

From Jazz Age to classicism and St. Petersburg by means of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3 in D major, “Diamonds” drives home the prism-like fire and sparkle that comes from the optical effect of white light splitting the very core of its being. Once more, the dancers, none more so than Benedicte Bemet and Joseph Caley, make like magnificent lapidaries as they turn and polish a mineral into a multi-faceted gem that gleams as much as it elicits swoons. The formations you see may be a neckpiece. A tribute to Petipa. A melting point hotter than steel. A remembrance, personal or universal, specific or abstract. A bow and arrow.[4] You choose. Seated in the audience, I have the luxury, and the felt invitation, of allowing the unfathomable trickery of the choreography to wash over me.

From the walking pas de deux in “Emeralds” to a moment of stillness within the regal pas de deux in “Diamonds,” with three gemstones side by side, it is hard not to pick a favourite, but it is perhaps their combined luminosity of refracted light that cinches things for me, with the essential element always being dance above all else. And that is the most brilliant cut of all.

Gracia Haby


Using an armoury of play and poetry as a lure, Gracia Haby is an artist besotted with paper. Her limited edition artists’ books, and other works hard to pin down, are often made collaboratively with fellow artist, Louise Jennison. Their work is in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and state libraries throughout Australia to the Tate (UK). Gracia Haby is known to collage with words as well as paper.

footnotes


  1. At the close of the Melbourne season, the Australian Ballet will take “Jewels,” together with a 60th Anniversary Celebration, on tour to the Royal Opera House, UK, instead of “Kunstkammer.” As David Hallberg explains, “I think everybody would agree that Goecke’s behaviour wasn’t acceptable and unfortunately has consequences, so we made the decision to change the repertoire for London. I wanted to show the company in the most positive and celebratory light and if there is something celebratory and sparkling, it’s “Jewels”.”
  2. Violette Verdy quoted by Rose Mulready, ‘Light through a prism’, The Australian Ballet “Jewels” Melbourne and Sydney programme, p.25. The principal roles in “Emeralds” were performed by Violette Verdy, Conrad Ludlow, Mimi Paul, and Francisco Moncion; Patrica McBride, Edward Villella, and Patricia Neary in “Rubies,” and Suzanne Farrell and Jacques d’Amboise in “Diamonds.” 
  3. “It’s a rhinestone world: Behind the scenes with the volunteers helping to create the costumes for “Jewels”,” The Australian Ballet site, https://australianballet.com.au/blog/its-a-rhinestone-world-behind-the-scenes-with-the-volunteers-helping-to-create-the-costumes-for-jewels, accessed June 30, 2023.
  4. Sharni Spencer and Callum Linnane rehearsing the “Diamonds” pas de deux, including the ‘bow and arrow’ moment, “In the studio: Rehearsing the “Diamonds” Pas de Deux from Balanchine’s “Jewels”,” The Australian Ballet YouTube channel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdITlXtEPwM, accessed June 30, 2023.

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