What Makes Balanchine's Jewels So Timeless
A long time ago, I was a teenager, just hired as a member of the corps with New York City Ballet. I found myself standing in B-plus at the very back corner of the State Theater stage, clutching the hand of fellow teenage corps member Shawn Stevens. Though the expansive stage was filled with dozens of talented dancers, I was most awed by the two who stood front and center: Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins. With a sudden and sweeping downbeat from maestro Robert Irving, the full power of Balanchine and Tchaikovsky flooded the stage and the final triumphant moments of "Diamonds" began.
Peter Martins and Suzanne Farrell in Jewels. Photo courtesy Dance Magazine archives.
Looking back on that moment, career-defining as I thought it was, I suspect no one except my mother was watching me. Didn't matter. Being a part of the masterpiece known as George Balanchine's Jewels was pleasure enough.
Jewels remains a signature work of the New York City Ballet, but it is no longer an exclusive of Balanchine's troupe. Jewels is seen and performed by people all over the globe, and on the occasion of the ballet's 50th anniversary, several companies will perform it this year. The Bolshoi Ballet, Paris Opéra Ballet and NYCB are even sharing the stage this month for a special Jewels performance at the Lincoln Center Festival.
Bolshoi's Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin in "Diamonds." Photo by Eleny Fetisova, courtesy Bolshoi
When considering which ballets are Balanchine's most pivotal works, "Emeralds," "Rubies" and "Diamonds" might not make the list. Those spots might be reserved for Serenade, The Four Temperaments, Concerto Barocco and Agon. Yet Jewels is unique, standing alone as the first three-act ballet without a story. In retrospect, this was a groundbreaker. There was essentially no connection between the three works save for the common denominator of jewel-colored costumes and gemstone titles. Not exactly box-office gold. Perhaps anxiety over ticket sales prompted the company to program the three premieres with Balanchine's Prodigal Son. Soon after the 1967 debut, the overarching title, Jewels, was added, unifying the three disparate works.
It's important to place Jewels in its proper historical context. New York City Ballet had moved into new digs just three years prior to the premiere. Compared to the more intimate stage at City Center, State Theater at Lincoln Center must have felt like a football field. With a wider and deeper stage, the choreographer decided to stretch. In a three-year period we saw the unveiling of Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet and Don Quixote, and a reworking of Ballet Imperial and Nutcracker, plus a televised version of A Midsummer Night's Dream; all ballets with large casts. The number of dancers on the roster also significantly increased.
Jewels experiments with newly acquired space in a way that exemplifies Balanchine's work at the time. The choreography seems to explore new dimensions with a windswept corps in "Emeralds" wafting towards and retreating from the audience. Inhuman stretch is everywhere in "Rubies," and a cast of 34 dances in and out of the wings in "Diamonds" as if even the football field is too contained for Balanchine's steps.
We look for meaning and connection in each of the three works, which Balanchine was loath to offer. When asked what "Rubies" was about, he responded, "It's about 20 minutes." Critics and scholars, however, often point to nationalist themes in Jewels, highlighting that Balanchine spent significant periods of his life in Russia, France and America.
"Emeralds" has often been called an ode to France. Violette Verdy agreed, attributing the inspiration to the atmospheric score by Gabriel Fauré. Verdy herself may have provided inspiration for the French theme. Mimi Paul, whose mother was Swiss-French, provided a quiet grace to balance Verdy's ardor.
Violette Verdy and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux in "Emeralds." Photo courtesy Dance Magazine archives
The appeal of Patricia McBride and Edward Villella in "Rubies" was distinctly American, buoyed by the jazz-inflected score by Igor Stravinsky. Each dancer possessed a winsome, girl-next-door/guy-next-door quality—fresh, spontaneous, stepping straight out of the sock hop. Villella recalls Balanchine constantly returning to the playful theme of the filly and the jockey. Villella and Patricia McBride literally trot and prance their way through sections of the piece, at times appearing to hold a riding crop.
"Diamonds" is steeped in the traditions of imperial Russian grandeur—perhaps a tribute to the Mariinsky Theatre of Balanchine's childhood. Farrell's headpiece looks like it might have been a gift from the Czarina herself. The harmonious balance and swells of Tchaikovsky's full-orchestra score, Madame Karinska's magnificently jewel-encrusted costumes and 34 elegant dancers remind us that the mold-breaker who brought us Agon revered symmetry and pageantry as much as he loved arresting innovation.
He also placed Farrell at the center of this modern-day nod to tradition. Farrell was by no means a traditional ballerina. She was unleashed and unpredictable in every movement, wild and spontaneous with clever phrasing and a willingness to let her long legs fly. With Farrell at the epicenter of this conventional ballet, Balanchine gave tradition a fresh coat of paint, a recast and a makeover. Jewels springs from tradition, building on it, bursting from it and putting another exquisite link in the evolutionary chain of classical ballet.
Young dancers tell me they like the "traditional stuff like Balanchine." Gulp. (There's a sudden reaffirmation I'm really not a Millennial.) But the opinions of those savvy teenagers remind us that the breakthroughs of 20th-century artists like Balanchine are not only tradition for a new generation, but timeless art for all generations. Whether they see nationalist themes, extreme physicality or the juxtaposition of tradition and innovation, the relevancy of this great work resounds. Its appeal is as evident in 2017 as it was in 1967.
For this milestone anniversary, Pacific Northwest Ballet is unveiling new scenic and costume designs by Paris-based designer Jérôme Kaplan. When I watch the curtain rise this fall in Seattle, I won't be standing upstage left in B-plus; I'll be seated in the audience. But as maestro Emil de Cou ushers in the final sweeping notes of Tchaikovsky's score for "Diamonds," I know I will recall the nervous excitement I felt many decades ago, and I'll share the thrill with thousands who are seeing this masterpiece for the first time.
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.
But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.