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7 things you need to know about Jewels

Friday, 17 May 2024
5 min read
Ausballet Jewels Sydney photo Raineelantry 112 1

Jewels are often given as a token of love. George Balanchine’s Jewels can be understood as a series of love letters: to music, to dance, to his star dancers, to the cities and cultures that shaped him.

Through the hushed mysticism of Emeralds, the snap and crackle of Rubies and the courtly hauteur of Diamonds, Balanchine traces the map of his life as an artist. In 2023, we in Australia see (and hear!) Jewels for the first time. It’s a thrilling experience, and one worthy of The Australian Ballet’s Diamond Jubilee. Here are some lesser-known facts about the ballet to swap over after-show chats.

There are no Jewels in it... Or are there?

Emeralds, rubies and diamonds may have inspired the three sections of Jewels, but there are no explicit references to gem stones in the ballet. It’s a purely abstract work, and best understood as Balanchine’s response to the music of its three composers: Fauré, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky. That hasn’t stopped countless critics seeing the patterns of the corps de ballets as necklaces and pendants and tiaras, or interpreting the arm movements of the Emeralds ballerina as her admiration of invisible bracelets. Of course, Barbara Karinska’s costumes and Peter Harvey’s set designs are liberally scattered with sparkles, but nothing that would make it into Van Cleef & Arpels’ safe.

It was a statement of intent

In 1963, New York City Ballet and its school received lavish grants from the Ford Foundation – in effect, a recognition of Balanchine’s genius and a vote of confidence in his ability to shape dance in America. Shortly afterwards, City Ballet moved to a new home, the State Theatre in the Lincoln Centre, whose vast stage was designed to Balanchine’s specifications. The ambitious scale of Jewels was a demonstration that his works could match the size of the new theatre, but it was also a declaration: City Ballet was moving uptown.

It was a mid-century marketing coup It was costumed by a legend
Balanchine claimed that Jewels was inspired by the stones in Van Cleef & Arpels’ Fifth Avenue window. While this was undoubtedly true – Balanchine loved luxury and colour, claiming it was part of his Georgian nature – he was ever alert to a savvy PR angle. Suzanne Farrell, the young ballerina who became Balanchine’s most beloved muse, recalls being taken to a photo opportunity at Van Cleef & Arpels, where “George and M. Arpels” dressed her in priceless pieces. “They even took the crowns of Empress Josephine and the Czarina out of the vault and put them on my head. We were like children locked in a candy store.” Lincoln Kirstein, City Ballet’s co-founder, was unimpressed by the concept of Jewels, and judged it “a dreadful idea” when he first heard of it. However, in his memoirs, he acknowledged that the ballet had been “an unequivocal and rapturous ‘success’ since its introduction: the very title sounds expensive before a step is seen.” Karinska. Can we take a moment? She was Ukrainian, and moved to Moscow in 1916. After designing haute-couture for rich Soviet wives (and founding a school to teach needlework to working-class women), she realised the political climate was becoming too hot to handle and contrived an escape to Europe with her family, sewing jewels into their clothes and hiding dollars between the pages of their books. She met Balanchine while designing costumes for the Ballets Russes; after a career in Hollywood, dressing the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Ingrid Bergman (and picking up an Oscar), she devoted her creative life to Balanchine and City Ballet, costuming over 75 of his works. Balanchine said, “there is Shakespeare for literature, Karinska for costumes.” The ballerina Gelsey Kirkland remembered Karinska as the Lady in Blue, who dressed only in blue suits and dyed her hair with a blue tint. Biopic, please!
TAB Sydney Jewels Diamons S Stage Print CRW 44 2

Image: Benedicte Bemet Photo Christopher Rodgers-Wilson

There was nearly a fourth jewel

Balanchine originally considered a fourth section, Sapphires, set to music by Schoenberg, but decided the colour wouldn’t translate well onto stage. Far be it from us to gainsay the master … We’ll just be over here imagining it – and hankering for Karinska Sapphires ­­costumes.

It fires dancers' imaginations It was made forwards - and backwards
Balanchine famously resisted attempts to attach meaning to his abstract ballets, but dancers find Jewels endlessly evocative. Violette Verdy, the original first ballerina of Emeralds, imagined herself dancing “in a bedroom”, and thought of the corps girls as “mermaids and algae”. Edward Villella, who originated the lead male dancer in Rubies, saw his pas de deux with Patricia McBride as a dance between a jockey and a horse (the writer Claudia Roth Pierpont was reminded of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in their sparring romantic comedies). Wendy Whelan, the Associate Artistic Director of City Ballet, finds that for her Diamonds evokes moments from other ballets – Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet – “just the sprinkling of an idea of it … the music would ignite an image for me.” For City Ballet star Merrill Ashley, Diamonds recalls the life of Catherine the Great. “It’s so great,” she says, “that everyone can have a different idea”. Jewels was created in the order we see today, starting with Emeralds (Balanchine added the coda, which ends with three men on their knees, pointing mysteriously into the distance, nine years after the ballet’s premiere.) But the famous opening to the Diamonds pas de deux was made after the rest of the dance was already set. As Suzanne Farrell tells it in her autobiography, Balanchine couldn’t decide how he wanted her and her partner Jacques d’Amboise to enter. “Let’s skip it and pretend you’re already in,” he said. When he’d finished the pas de deux, he added the entrance, in which the dancers approach each other with slow, stately steps: a moment of ineffable grace and power. Coaching it, Farrell tells the dancers, “We’re parting the molecular structure of the air here … We’re coming together.”


Don't miss your chance to witness the mesmerising spectacle of Jewels, 12-18 July '24.

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