BWW Dance Review: The Pennsylvania Ballet Presents George Balanchine's JEWELS at the Philadelphia Academy of Music
Balanchine famously said in reference to "Jewels," his full-length 1967 jewel-themed ballet: "I have always liked jewels. After all, I am an Oriental, from Georgia and the Caucasus, and a Russian. I would cover myself with jewels...The ballet had nothing to do with jewels. The dancers are just dressed like jewels."
Yes, I agree. Take the costumes away and you wouldn't even think of jewels. Very smart of Balanchine. Think of "Western Symphony," his ode to the West. At the premiere the dancers were originally dressed in leotards; they had to wait a year until they could afford the costumes.
The ballet is divided into three parts, "Emeralds," "Rubies," and "Diamonds". For those who know "Jewels" well and have seen it umpteen times, please bear with me. I know you've heard all this before, but there could be others out there in the universe who know nothing about it. As incredible as it sounds, it's true.
"Emeralds," danced in green, evokes the perfumed French ballet world of the mid-nineteenth century. The movement can seem slow, removed, stately. Violette Verdy, who originated one of the two principal ballerina roles, said "...it is a difficult way to begin. The audience does not warm. They can't, because it's reserved, proportioned, elegant, and it has a social coldness and restraint. There's no climate, only beautiful, dreamy moments of underwater quality. Naturally, the audience reacts with appreciation and politeness, but never with any kind of warmth and spontaneity."
But scratch that surface and you'll see that maybe it's not so. Setting the ballet to the music of Gabriel Faurés "Pelléas et Mélisande" and "Shylock," Balanchine seemed to have made a tacit agreement with us to put on our listening ears. Remember his dictum, "See the music, hear the dance." In essence, that's what "Emeralds" is all about.
Faurés music, to my ears, sometimes can echo Tchaikovsky. Think of that first ballerina solo, reminiscent of a billowing wave; it reminds me of those poignant yet indescribable strains we hear in "Serenade," "Sleeping Beauty," or "Swan Lake". No one ever says they need momentum or a push. So the music is essential to "Emeralds," without many really comprehending it, something that is needed in Balanchine ballets. Those soft undulating arms, the crispness of the "walking pas de deux". The music supports it and gently, ever so gently, propels it forward
Mayara Piniero and Oksane Maslova, ably supported by Arian Molina Soca and Ian Hussey. danced with authority, but also with reverence. There was respect for the music, but the authority to dance not only with it, but on top of it. By this I mean the sweep was with the music. They were with it, yet at the same time apart from it. Again, listen to the music very closely; it is not static at all. It tells a secret; it never lies. What that secret is, as in most Balanchine ballets, is up to you.
Nayare Lopes, Jacqueline Callahan, and Zecheng Liand, swept through the pas de trois, never pushing the music as I have seen many dancers do, keeping in time under the baton of Beatrice Joan Affron, who has never been recognized as one of the best ballet conductors in the United States. But the merrymaking turns dark, the seven dancers come together and the women leave as the men drop to one knee. This has always been one of the most disturbing images in Balanchine, but as always, he listens to the music. It just slowly peters out. There is loneliness. And the men are there, alone.
"Rubies," dressed in starting red, is set to one of Balanchine's favorite composers, Stravinsky. It is all flash, off-center movements, jogging and Copacabana images. Audiences love it. When the curtain rises on the tall girl, and please don't get upset that I refer to the ballerina as the tall girl, since everyone calls her that, and I'm not going to change after all these years.
That image sets the mood. She is brash, overtly sexual, she commands. But then the main couple enter. They are all jagged images; they riff with each other, there's going to be a contest. Their pas de deux is one of playfulness, but there is an undercurrent there. Balanchine takes everyday motions and transports them to ballet idiom, always prioritizing the music. As brash as it is, there's a melancholy feel about it.
Leon Goldstein, a member of the New York City Ballet orchestra, reflected, "Mr. B allowed no concessions in tempo for his dancers, and there were no fluctuations in the music to adapt to any difficulty in the choreography. The music completely ruled the dance. In answer to dancers' protests, Mr. B would tell the orchestra, 'Don't listen to them. Play the correct tempos and they will get it right.' We did - and they did. So many ballet conductors will say that compromising on tempo is an unavoidable aspect of music-theatre collaboration, yet with Balanchine it seems that the score can be followed to the letter. All his tempos are logical and "symphonic.'"
The two leads, Lillian DiPiazza and Jermel Johnson, were not well matched. Separately they were fine; together their moods did not meld. He seemed too nice, she was overly aggressive. Alexandra Hughes, although not the tallest girl I have ever seen, did an impressive job of showgirl beauty. And there was an awe when she was manipulated by four men on her feet and legs. I am wondering if this movement will appeal to many out there who may take it as sexist or whatever way. It says a great deal, without pressing its point.
Then comes "Diamonds," set to Tchaikovsky, another of Balanchine's favorite composers. "Diamonds" presents its own scenario, one that we have seen countless times before in other Balanchine ballets. We are back in the world of his childhood, imperial Russia, pomp. The music, Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 3, is one of his most minor works, yet it fits in with the choreography's grand overall concept. But in the pas de deux, things are a bit askew. The ballerina is definitely in a world of today. As much as her cavalier is all assurance and charm, there is also a certain tension there. This is a ballerina with a mind of her own. Maybe, like so many others, I have seen Suzanne Farrell, who originated the role, dancing the role with that air of "I can put this over better than anyone." That worked for Farrell, even if other ballerinas who followed could not assume that sense of superiority.
Dayesi Torriente was very good. If she did not dominate at times, her presence was assured. The pas de deux with Sterling Baca had some mishaps, the partnering faltering at times. Perhaps she did not have enough time to assimilate the finer points of the choreography, so I think it was really hard to pass any final comment on her performance. I wish I had time to stay for later viewings.
Kudos to Elyse Borne, a Balanchine trust répétiteur and former soloist with the New York City Ballet, who had 23 days to set the entire production on the company. In a pre-performance talk on opening night she said, if I can remember correctly, that she was looking forward to her first sip of champagne at the post-performance party. I hope she enjoyed every minute of it. To be short and succinct, I was impressed beyond words with her staging. I'll leave it at that.
The Pennsylvania Ballet, under the artistic direction of Angel Corella, has gone through a stormy transition period. Things have calmed down lately, the company is moving ahead, the waters are not so stormy. They have presented a number of excellent productions doing the 2018-2019 season. I keep coming back and even if I have some reservations, I think this is one of the best companies outside New York City. And they're only a train ride away. Go and enjoy them. You have nothing to lose and a lot to appreciate.
Photo: Alexander Iziliaev, Artists of the Pennsylvania Ballet in Balanchine's "Jewels.: