Saturday, February 28, 2009

The brilliance of Jewels

Melissa Hough and James Whiteside dazzle in Rubies. Photo by Eric Antoniou.

There's probably no better introduction to George Balanchine than Jewels, his first, and only, evening-length "abstract" ballet, which stands poised exactly where Mr. B. stood himself: at the juncture of ballet and modern dance, toeing the line between narrative and abstraction, romance and disillusion. See, I'm already loading up on the SAT-words, because frankly Jewels is so multi-faceted: Janus-like, it looks backward and forward, inward and outward. Balanchine himself claimed its three acts, each named for a different gem, were simply inspired by a visit to Van Cleef and Arpels; but critics and audiences alike immediately read into its glitter a coded tribute to the three phases of Mr. B.'s artistic life: the romance of French belle-époque style (Emeralds); the jazzy drive of 40's Americana (Rubies), and the imperial grandeur of the Russian tradition (Diamonds).

It's hard to think they were wrong. Jewels all but shimmers with a sense of nostalgia and reverie - despite the clean discipline of its structure - and it constantly quotes, or comments on, older choreographers and modes, and even the earlier work of Balanchine himself. At the same time it operates as a kind of haunting musical prism; the corps is always being deployed as a device to close down on the dance itself, and then re-open it in some new formulation, and we feel the piece seems to be ramifying outward, into a larger and larger cultural sphere.

The one jewel that seemed a little rough on opening night was Emeralds, which may actually have the "deepest" cut of the three. Here the accompaniment is Fauré's suite from Maeterlinck's dreamy, doomy Pelléas et Mélisande (which became a kind of fin-de-siècle musical fetish), mixed with faster passages from the same composer's Shylock. Despite claims of "abstraction," Balanchine toys with narrative here (and elsewhere in Jewels), referencing symbols and incidents from Maeterlinck and hinting at a double love story, as well as such common tropes as the pastorale and the hunt. And something about the ballet's atmosphere seems mysteriously reflexive; its narrative source is suffused with a yearning for doomed love (the essence of so much late-nineteenth-century ballet!), and Balanchine closes Emeralds with a mournful coda, in which the ballerinas flee the stage, leaving the men alone, on one knee, their arms extended toward - what? The future? You can feel in that moment a shiver of Balanchine's own late-career melancholy doubling back into the content of the piece itself.

And the Ballet brought this complex tone off, although it took them awhile to get into the mood. The central problem was that the piece's leads, the generally dazzling Lorna Feijóo and Yury Yanowsky, seemed at first to be on autopilot (there was even a small collision with an uncertain corps). They began to relate to each other as the evening progressed, but in the meantime the show had been stolen by Erica Cornejo, whose yielding persona is well-matched to the plush yearning of the French style, and who got to glide through both the best of Fauré's melodies and the best of Balanchine's steps. Better still, she conjured a potently pensive atmosphere, seemingly out of thin air, with Carlos Molina, who has suddenly woken up this season (at left, in photo by John Bohn). And the charming pas de trois from Jared Redick, Misa Kuranaga and Dalay Parrondo was a light rush of clean Balanchinean perfection - Mr. B.'s technical demands no longer seem as challenging as they once did (at least not next to, say, those of William Forsythe), and his steps can sometimes seem simplistic and naked if not done with the coordinated precision of this trio.

Rubies, the second rock in the line-up, is the work's big crowd-pleaser: set to Stravinsky's Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, its slinky angularity conjures New York and jazz and Broadway and sex. This time there's a scampering, happy American boy and girl prancing across the landscape - instead of sighing and dropping dead in each other's arms - but there's also a vamp cracking the whip over a male posse (who sometimes seem about to turn on her), and there are fleeting currents of cold menace blowing through the generally steamy proceedings. Here Balanchine mix-and-matches a bemused take on adolescent, all-American erotics (the boy and girl jump rope, run in place and all but high-five each other) with an undertone of sexual horror; the whole thing plays like a cross between Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and Oklahoma! The ensemble seemed to understand this, and gave it their all, and there were three brilliant individual turns to savor as well. At the piece's center, Kathleen Breen Combes brought a galvanizing attack to the ring-mistress who clearly ruled her own hot little roost. But she had to fight hard to keep up with Melissa Hough and James Whiteside, who literally ran off with their extended pas de deux; it's a star-making romp, and Hough and Whiteside came out shining.

With Diamonds (above, photo by Gene Schiavone), Balanchine actually turns back the clock, to St. Petersburg in the 1890's, and leans most heavily on direct quotation; indeed, to my eyes the long pas de deux, though charmingly rendered by Russian specialists Larissa Ponomarenko and Roman Rykine (who set the standard for partnering at the Ballet), felt like a direct lift from Petipa, sans the subtle commentary of Emeralds. Some have read into Diamonds a variation on Swan Lake, but to me it looks more like a simple tribute to the grandeur of the golden age of Russian ballet: it reflects courtliness and grace rather than genuine romance, and it's set to a somewhat generic chunk of Tchaikovsky (most of the Third Symphony). And Balanchine's choreography is never more architectonic than it is here; the corps is constantly moving in diamond-shaped patterns, and the piece closes with a gigantic procession for sixteen couples that develops into a glorious set of coordinated variations. I was holding my breath during this sequence, because even at a rehearsal last weekend it sometimes turned into a traffic jam; but a miracle had been wrought over the past few days, and the dancers carried off the complex interweavings with unruffled accuracy, and it was hard not to feel that the final facets of Jewels had been set in dazzling place.

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