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Friday, July 21, 2017

Superjewels!


Original Jewels cast, photo @ Martha Swope
In 1967 George Balanchine decided to make a three-act plotless ballet. And then he hit upon marketing gold -- the three sections would be named after gemstones -- Emeralds, Rubies, and Diamonds. And voila! An indestructible cash cow was created. Jewels has in these 50 years filled the coffers of not just the NYCB but ballet companies across the world. It's a hit wherever it goes. Balletomanes love their jewelry and Diamonds are a ballet company's best friend.

Lincoln Center Festival decided to capitalize on Balanchine's foundation by creating a One Time Only (!!!) Event -- a Very Special Jewels in which each section was danced by a different company. Ticket prices were through the roof but the event sold out anyway. The Paris Opera Ballet took Emeralds, while the NYCB and the Bolshoi took turns swapping between Rubies and Diamonds. I attended the first two performances so I saw both combos -- NYCB Rubies/Bolshoi Diamonds and Bolshoi Rubies/NYCB Diamonds.

Seeing three different companies dance the three different sections of Jewels is sort of strange -- the ballet is supposed to be a display of company versatility. On the other hand, it is a One Time Only Event -- Superjewels. The audience absolutely loved it -- there were loud ovations after every ballet, audiences refusing to leave their seats until dancers came out for yet another solo bow. I have to remind myself sometimes that not everyone gets to see Jewels as often as those who live near NYC do and for those people it's a very special treat.

Reichlen (top), Smirnova/Chudin, Pujol/Ganio
The opening night performance combined some of the best Jewelry-related dancing I've ever seen with some of the worst. The weakest section was Emeralds. The Paris Opera Ballet dancers are as always tasteful and refined. Their corps uniformity is amazing, and all of them have beautiful feet with highly arched insteps. They are also incredibly boring dancers. Part of this is personal preference -- I dislike their overly stiff torsos, their extremely deliberate epaulement that is stuck in time -- the music moves, but their upper bodies don't. What bugs me the most is that they dance through the steps rather than respond to the music. They also airbrush everything to the point of deleting the choreography -- for instance, in the "walking" pas de deux the Myriam Ould-Braham and Mathias Heymann did not do the famous arabesques in which the legs and arms are raised in a staccato manner and held at different heights -- to see what I'm talking about watch this at 22:50. That's one of Emeralds' iconic moments. They just did a regular arabesque. I was shocked. Dramatically they were off too -- the walking pas de deux is supposed to be danced as a trance, but the two dancers were constantly looking at each other and smiling. The lead couple was veteran Laeticia Pujol and Mathieu Ganio. Pujol is retiring after these Emeralds performances. She's a fine dancer, but simply doesn't project anything. In the Violette Verdy solo she also did a lot of distracting head-bobbing. Ganio is one of the most elegant danseurs I've ever seen -- he's Paris's David Hallberg. I have fond memories of him in Giselle. But he couldn't inject much energy either. The "walking couple" of Ould-Braham and Heymann was different dancers, same story. The trio of Marc Moreau, Hannah O'Neill and Sae Eun Park -- again, same thing. Fine technically, but so so dull. Even their costumes lacked the sparkle of most Jewels costumes.

Reichlen in Rubies, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Rubies had the tried-and-true team of Megan Fairchild, Joaquin de Luz, and Teresa Reichlen. I've seen this trio many times. Reichlen is always a wonder as the Tall Girl -- no matter how many times I see her I never fail to be amazed at the control and strength she exhibits. I doubt I'll ever see anyone dance this better -- the nonchalant way in which she seems totally unaware about the men who are manipulating her limbs, those deep squatting pliés, the multiple unsupported arabesque pencheés including a final one held for what seems like an eternity, it's just perfection. With her endless legs and towering presence she is really an Amazon in a tutu. Fairchild and de Luz were their usual selves -- perky, more cute than edgy, but always technically excellent. Fairchild is a wonderful foil for Reichlen -- petite, bouncy, brisk allegro footwork, a cheerleader in a tutu. de Luz is one spry 41-year old: he finished his "jogging" variation with huge corkscrew jumps that exploded into the air like a cannon. The crowd went nuts for the home team, with screaming until Reichlen came out for a solo bow. In the final curtain call people even banged on the walls when the Rubies crew came out.

Smirnova and Chudin, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The Bolshoi's Diamonds was a great finisher. The Bolshoi corps is slower and more deliberate than I'm accustomed to with NYCB. It's not wrong, just different. But the soloists Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin were stunning. They too dance the ballet with a slightly foreign accent, but it's obvious they've studied and absorbed the Balanchine style. The respect they gave the choreography paid off. There was mercifully no "acting" (which I've seen from other foreign companies who dance Jewels), no exaggeration. It was just one long beautiful reverie. Smirnova has the soft Mariinsky arms and regal bearing, but it looks like she's also studied Suzanne Farrell. The way she holds her neck and chin is very Farrell-like. If I have one quibble it's that she doesn't go for the off-balance lunges the way a NYCB ballerina would -- she's more careful and studied. Chudin was elegance personified and his Scherzo solo with a long series of pirouettes a la seconde followed by a quadruple pirouette finishing in textbook fifth position got the loudest applause of all (how often does that happen?). Smirnova and Chudin have wonderful chemistry. Not of the sizzling, sexy kind. But they match each other in serenity. There is total trust and coordination between them. Their pas de deux was one of the most finest renditions I've ever seen. They alone were worth the ticket.

The curtain calls at the end of the night were lovely. Each company came out again (corps included), and the soloists all got flowers, and then solo bows in front of the curtain. Then the curtain rose again, corps came out for their bows, and Peter Martins, Aurelie Dupont and Makhar Vaziev also bowed to the crowd.

Jewels final curtain call. Thanks Andrea Becker for the picture!

The second night of Superjewels was very different from the first night. The performance was more homogeneous in quality -- unlike opening night there wasn't the case of some of the worst performances (POB's Emeralds) side by side with the Olympians (Teresa Reichlen, Olga Smirnova/Semyon Chudin). Everything averaged out.

Dorothée Gilbert, photo @ Julien Benhamou
First the good news: POB's second cast of Emeralds was much improved. Dorothée Gilbert was stronger technically than Laeticia Pujol -- her balances were longer-held, her torso more pliant, her dancing more energetic. She's also more charming, with a winning smile. A sore spot: she also does that annoying head-bobbing thing in the Verdy solo. Both her and Pujol bobbed their heads more than they moved their arms. Are they trying to imitate sea lions? Hugo Marchand was not as elegant as Mathieu Ganio but he made a fine partner. The walking duet was also much improved -- hurrah, the arabesques in staccato were back! Léonore Baulac and Germain Louvet also did a lot of glancing and smiling but at least one of the iconic steps was restored. The trio was pretty much the same -- Marc Moreau, Sae Eun Park and Valentine Colasante. I don't think the POB's style will ever be my favorite but this performance did restore faith in them. Sidenote: I watched the 2005 DVD of Jewels and wow what has happened to the POB? I know in recent years people have complained loudly of the deterioration of the French classic style but when you watch that video and then you see the company live, it really is noticeable. Are there no more dancers like Clairemarie Osta or Aurelie Dupont?

Bolshoi in Rubies, photo @ Damur Yusipov
Rubies was an awkward fit for the Bolshoi -- they obviously gave it their best shot, and there was nothing egregious about the performance, but it clearly is not their thing. First of all: THE MEN NEED JOGGING LESSONS. In that famous jogging lap around the stage the men rose to very high demi-pointe, stiffened their torsos, and sort of did this dainty hopping in one place with alternating legs. There was no sense that they were doing anything remotely resembling jogging. No forward push of the torso, no hiking of the elbows to propel the body, no distance covered. They need to watch some Usain Bolt videos before they ever do this again. The three soloists were technically without reproach but again, Not Their Thing. Ekaterina Kryasanova and Artem Ovcharenko in the pas de deux had no playfulness and flirtatiousness. Instead, Kryasanova swung her hips and legs but looked straight out at the audience with a huge showgirl grin. Ovcharenko is a beautiful dancer and that was the problem. He was way too pretty to be believable as a sporty all-American jock (which is how the original, Eddie Villella, played it). Yulia Grebenshchikova (Tall Girl) is also a lovely dancer -- beautiful legs and feet, great flexibility. But the Tall Girl is supposed to be Queen of Cool, and Yulia played her like the Sugarplum Fairy, all sweet smiles. She also didn't have the control to really sustain those unsupported arabesque penchées in her solo. As a whole the company just didn't get the jazziness, the sportiness, the off-center swing.

A reminder of how this ballet is supposed to look:


Mearns and Angle, photo @ Andrea Mohin
NYCB took Diamonds. I say this is a draw with the Bolshoi from the previous evening. Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle did not have the pristine elegance of Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin. Mearns in particular didn't have the soft flowing arms and classical line of Smirnova. But Mearns got the fast off-center arabesque lunges, the sudden changes in the center of gravity that are a hallmark of Balanchine style. Mearns is also a more inherently dramatic dancer than Smirnova. She projects emotion to the point of being overwrought. Tyler Angle was as always a wonderful partner and he did his best in the Scherzo solo but he really needs to point his feet more. In white tights his unpointed feet were so obvious. I do wish the NYCB would put forth an alternate cast for Diamonds in this run -- this ballet looks very different when, say, Teresa Reichlen dances it. The biggest difference between the Bolshoi and NYCB was the corps. The Bolshoi corps was stately and magisterial, sort of content to be the ballet blanc background of a Petipa ballet. The NYCB corps understands that Diamonds is a tribute to Petipa, and not actual Petipa. They had a speed and attack that made them seem like fairies darting in and out of this magical kingdom. The polonaise finale was deliberate and grand with Bolshoi. With NYCB it was a thrilling race to the finish with their trademark fast footwork and group acceleration until the whole stage is moving at the speed of light. Barbara Karinska's costumes with the soft flowing skirts add to this impression -- in the finale those skirts started flying up and down. With the Bolshoi you think "oh how lovely." With NYCB you think "Omg how exciting."

So this Superjewels actually lived up to its hype -- you learned things about every company's style. Their strengths, their weaknesses. Considering how many dancers of different companies I saw in the audiences I hope that they all learn from each other. Fifty years later, Jewels is the gift that keeps on giving. It challenges companies to absorb three very different styles in three different ballets. It gives great roles for principals, soloists, and the corps de ballet. And it makes arts organizations lots and lots of money. Thanks, Mr. B.

Here's a video I took of the opening night curtain calls:


12 comments:

  1. Great review. It is so thoughtful and you learn while reading as well.

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    1. Thanks! I wish I was going back for more performances :(

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  2. Here from Ballet Alert -- juicy writing all the way through, supported by excellent observation. Since there was no way I could be there, I really appreciate this! sandi kurtz

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    1. Thanks sandik (right???).
      I wish the PNB would bring over their Jewels to NYC one day.

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  3. Really informative and a very enlightening review, thank you so much from a Balanchine novice!

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  4. Excellent review, thanks. I couldn't be there so have been reading reviews voraciously. Jewels was the first ballet I saw at the State Theater in 1979. I'm still besotted with the Farrell-Martins Diamonds and the McBride-Villella Rubies and watch them repeatedly on youtube! Loved both Kowroski & Reichlen in current group in Diamonds.

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    1. I LOVE Reichlen's Diamonds. I understand she had to bring it home for NYCB as SuperTallGirl in Rubies but I would have loved to see her get one Diamonds.

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    2. I agree that watching the video of Farrell-Martins Diamonds is a worthwhile thing to do. You can hear how dramatically slower the tempo of the music is in the video, particularly in the beginning of the pas de deux. The new tempo takes away from the innate dignity of the piece, which is the blockbuster of the three ballets. Diamonds is meant to wipe all memories of what preceded it off the stage. That was what happened when Farrell danced it in 1967 with Jacques d'Amboise. Emeralds slowly awakens you. Rubies sizzles with fun and sex. Just when you think it can't get any better, Diamonds transports you to a another galaxy. I don't think Farrell could have danced it at the pace it was played last weekend. Her spiritual approach to the piece--her internal dialogue with the music and her partner--depended so much on the tempo. She created mystery on stage, not merely serenity. She was able to make the most complicated steps look simple and of course she could handle the "fast off-center arabesque lunges, the sudden changes in the center of gravity that are a hallmark of Balanchine style." The frenetic pace that Diamonds reached last weekend, especially when danced by the Bolshoi, struck me as nervous and filled with stress. Their costumes contributed to this. The ballet is not about bling--that is the external appearance of diamonds. Diamonds are superior because they are stronger and more durable; they are made from only one element, while the others are made from at least two compounded elements. That is why a diamond is in a category all its own. Its strength is related to its purity. This is what Farrell was able to convey through her simplicity, spirituality and effortless mystique. On another note, I pitied the Paris Opera Ballet for having the burdensome task of animating Emeralds, a piece originally created for them by Balanchine. It requires heavyweights to bring out its lurking beauties and myriad nuances; the subtle facets of this ballet were lost on the audience. I would rather have seen Olga Smirnova attemt Emeralds than Diamonds. It would have been a more fair contest. The original cast of Emeralds had Violette Verdy leading the way, with her strong personality, luxuriant arms, tremendous wit and impeccable style. (In Jerome Robbins' Dances at a Gathering, Verdy was so remarkably sophisticated in her role as the Girl in Mustard that she has become virtually impossible to recast today.) Verdy was supported by the sprightly Suki Schorer and Sara Leland, a long time Balanchine dancer who became an "old hand" at keeping audiences awake with her numerous feminine charms. I wish the Paris Opera Ballet at least could have had the dignity of wearing Karinska costumes. In fashion, people understand the power of clothes and in theater, a really great costume can sometimes play the role for you...I applaud The Paris Opera Ballet for having the humility to go first at every performance last weekend and devote themselves solely to Emeralds. At this historic event, they deserved to have been coached more thoroughly by NYCB coaches and given Karinska to wear.

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  5. @Janet Shannon: Thank you. I love your eloquent analysis about Farrell in Diamonds. I agree completely. Farrell's unique talent and sometimes ethereal quality invite you to enter a different sphere. Very well said! "Her spiritual approach to the piece--her internal dialogue with the music and her partner--depended so much on the tempo. She created mystery on stage, not merely serenity."

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  6. Ah, but Ivy, you apparently missed the mark: Mr. Macaulay assures us that "Mearns's performances this week of the great role were the greatest New York has seen this century." So there you have it, the expert has spoken.

    This is obviously a roundabout way of thanking you once again for your hard-nosed but fair objectivity. Since I am prevented by geographical distance from seeing any of this in person, and by the Balanchine trust from seeing much of anything even electronically, including on YouTube (much to my annoyance at how stingy NYCB is with its repertoire for anyone who does not live in New York), I really feel like I get an honest assessment rather than slobbering adulation when I read your reviews. Please keep up the good work, it is appreciated.

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    1. Thank you! Hope you come to ny one day the nycb has a very strong roster now.

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