Jewels is an absolute treasure. It combines the life force of contemporary dance with the sparkle of classical ballet. See Jewels because it is just so gorgeous to watch. The dancers embrace the technically intricate steps with such finesse. Watching Jewels is to experience three distinctive moods: “Emeralds” will ease you into a dreamy state, “Rubies” will set the stage on fire, and “Diamonds” will satisfy your inner balletomane with its technical bravado and glorious Tchaikovsky score. Just let it all wash over you – the sheer beauty and athleticism, and the melodies of three musical geniuses.
George Balanchine choreographed the three-act ballet Jewels in 1967, the year it was performed by his company New York City Ballet. It was deemed the “first full-length abstract ballet” with no narrative, and movement just for movement’s sake. Balanchine’s choreography is so intricate and musical that one hardly has time to find a story in “Rubies” and “Diamonds”. The opening piece, “Emeralds”, invites the audience to create their own story with a sparkling pastoral setting. Gabriel Fauré’s scores from Pelléas et Mélisande (1898) and Shylock (1889) set the scene for a romantic French ballet. Walking patterns and subdued formations are picturesque, with the intricate weaves particularly inventive in the septet. Lead couple and Principal dancers Sharni Spencer and Callum Linnane expertly executed their choreography. Senior Artist Imogen Chapman sparkled in her first solo, where she made walking on pointe inviting. She was deftly partnered by Corps de Ballet dancer Maxim Zenin, who exuded confidence in his role.
If “Emeralds” is a bit subdued, then Act 2 “Rubies” will surely wake you up. “Rubies” reflects Balanchine’s love of America and the vibrant energy of New York City while ushering in new genres of jazz music and neoclassical ballet. Here, Balanchine partners with long time musical collaborator Igor Stravinsky. “Rubies” dives into the depths and erupts in highly syncopated and off-kilter steps. It takes a stable dancer to be able to go off balance from one step to another with such invigorated energy and speed. Lead couple and Principal dancers Ako Kondo and Brett Chynoweth mastered the task and made it look easy and fun. There was a feeling of infectious joy intermingled with tightrope precision. “Rubies” soloist Isobelle Dashwood embodied the Balanchine aesthetic of coolness and glamour. She took the straight line of the leg and contorted it to hyper flexibility only to pop back into a new form. Nothing is static or pose-holding about “Rubies”. Fiery and aggressive movements are extracted from all the dancers while elongating their bodies to heavenly heights.
The final act “Diamonds” is a culmination of ballet in its most recognised state with a nod to the Russian Imperial Ballet of the 1700’s and its choreographer Marius Petipa. The curtain opens to a crystal palace floating in the clouds with music composed by the grandfather of classical ballet Pyotr Tchaikovsky – his Symphony No. 3 in D Major, op. 29 (1875). “Diamonds” captures moments from Swan Lake while embracing Balanchine’s signature style and quirks. “Diamonds” closes with a dynamic ending of “a step for every note” in Tchaikovsky’s climactic finish. It was captivating to watch the 32 dancers on stage led by Principal dancers Benedicte Bemet and Joseph Caley. Caley partnered Bemet beautifully, supporting her through one seamless penché after another. Bemet’s leg extensions were limitless. Caley’s solo was impressive with his elancé jumps and confident turns. But it was Bemet’s charm and charisma that commanded attention through the grandeur of “Diamonds” and drove the ballet through its highly technical finish. She was stunning.
The spectacular sets in Jewels were originally designed by Peter Harvey and constructed with jewels spilling out over the top of the stage. The true centerpiece is the ornate costumes designed by long-time Balanchine collaborator Barbara Karinska. Each act has a distinctive look representing its era in ballet: calf-length tulle skirt for the romanticism of “Emeralds”, short paneled mini-skirts for the contemporary “Rubies” and classical tutus for “Diamonds”. It is fair to say that Karinska’s costumes are works of art in their own right and help give Jewels its astounding visual effect.
My mother gave me a VHS tape recording of Jewels made for American television back in 1983. It was well-watched. The mere idea of using gemstones as a theme for a ballet was tantalizing. Iconic ballerina Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins danced the leads in “Diamonds” and set a soaring standard for technical prowess. Balanchine worked with his dancers every day and had trained most of them since they were young teens, a luxury our dancers today cannot enjoy. To so successfully interpret such a highly-stylised 54-year-old piece from the choreographer who defined a generation of modern ballet speaks volumes for The Australian Ballet. For myself, having grown up with the Balanchine aesthetic, watching the opening night’s production was like visiting an old friend. My Australian companion, who greatly enjoyed the performance, recognised a certain foreignness to the work.
Jewels is not the ground-breaking work it once was in the 60’s or 80’s but it has inspired so many and continues to dazzle.
Photo credit: Rainee Lantry
Paris Wages reviewed The Australian Ballet’s performance of “Jewels” , presented at Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre on June 29, 2023.