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.
I've been a fan of Jordan Isadore's for about a decade. His gorgeous, spine-contorting renditions of Christopher Williams' repertory are legendary, and for many years I had the privilege of making dances with him and producing his works through DanceNOW[NYC].
Over the last year or so, as he began winding down his performance career, Isadore began making odd, phenomenal objects: dribs of Labanotation scores rendered as hung mobiles, gorgeously crafted in stained glass and metal. The designs are stunning, imbued simultaneously with a hipster-nonsense contemporaneousness and reverence for dance history.
I spoke with Isadore about his retirement from the stage, and transition to crafting full time.
There's always that fateful day each year, usually in February or March, when ballet contracts are renewed. Dancers file into an office one by one, grab an envelope and sign their name on a nearby sheet of paper to signify the receipt of their fate. Inside that envelope is a contract for next season or a letter stating that their artistic contribution will no longer be needed. This yearly ritual is filled with anxiety and is usually followed by either celebratory frolicking or resumé writing.
Whenever I received my contract, I would throw up my hands joyfully knowing that I would get to spend one more year dancing. In 14 years at Boston Ballet, I never once looked at my pay rate when signing a contract. The thought of assessing my work through my salary never crossed my mind.
Watching Bohemian Rhapsody through the eyes of dancer, there's a certain element of the movie that's impossible to ignore: Rami Malek's physical performance of Freddie Mercury. The way he so completely embodies the nuances of the rock star is simply mind-blowing. We had to learn how he did it, so we called up Polly Bennett, the movement director who coached him through the entire process.
In a bit of serendipitous timing, while we were on the phone, she got a text from Malek that he had just been nominated for a Golden Globe. And during our chat, it became quite clear that she had obviously been a major part of that—more than we could have ever imagined.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Even if you haven't heard her name, you've almost certainly seen the work of commercial choreographer James Alsop. Though she's made award-winning dances for Beyoncé ("Run the World," anyone?) and worked with stars like Lady GaGa and Janelle Monae, Alsop's most recent project may be her most powerful: A moving music video for Everytown for Gun Safety, directed by Ezra Hurwitz and featuring students from the National Dance Institute.
We caught up with Alsop for our "Spotlight" series:
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Today, we are thrilled to announce the honorees of the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. A tradition dating back to 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards celebrate the living legends who have made a lasting impact on dance. This year's honorees include:
Each year, The New York Times Magazine shines a spotlight on who they deem to be the best actors of the year in its Great Performers series. But, what we're wondering is, can they dance? Thankfully, the NYT Mag recruited none other than Justin Peck to put them to the test.
Peck choreographed and directed a series of 10 short dance films, placing megastars in everyday situations: riding the subway, getting out of bed in the morning, waiting at a doctor's office.
On busy performance days, international guest artist Joy Womack always makes time for one activity after class and rehearsals: a nap. "I like to feel well-rested when I need to be in the spotlight at night, not dragging at the end of the day," she says. "It helps me recover and refocus."
With her earbuds tuned to a guided meditation app, she can squeeze in a nap wherever she needs to. "One time I even took a nap on the floor of the tour bus in Siberia," she says. "Dancers can sleep anywhere."
Joy Womack prioritizes napping before a show. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe magazine.
As research has revealed the benefits of short daytime naps, power-napping advice has proliferated, and more dancers are choosing to include a nap in their pre-performance routines. Approaching napping strategically will help you get the most out of an afternoon snooze.
On Monday night, a memorial was held at Riverside Church to honor the life and achievements of Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell. With nearly three months to process and grieve (Mitchell passed away on September 19) the atmosphere was not that of mourning as much as reflection, reverence and admiration for who he was, what he built and what remains. (Watch the full livestream here.)
The church filled with family, artistic friends, fans and admirers. What was most gratifying was the volume of DTH alumni from the school, company and organization who traveled across the globe to pay their respects, from founding members to present dancers and students. The house of worship was filled with the sentiment of a family reunion. As Mitchell was sent home, it was a homecoming for many who have not shared air together in decades. What was palpable was the authentic bonds that Dance Theatre of Harlem and Mitchell fostered in all.
Fans of the sublime English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams were probably excited to see her image splashed across the company's website in a promotional image for an upcoming production of Swan Lake.
But those who took a closer look were met with a disappointing reality: Adams, who is the only black woman in the company, is not listed on the principal casting sheet for the production.
Gennadi Nedvigin is not the only early tenure director breaking out a new production of The Nutcracker this season.
We love The Nutcracker as much as the next person, but that perennial holiday classic isn't the only thing making its way onstage this month. Here are five alternatives that piqued our editors' curiosity.
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
A list of Clara alumnae from Radio City's Christmas Spectacular reads like a star-studded, international gala program: Tiler Peck and Brittany Pollack of New York City Ballet (and Broadway), Meaghan Grace Hinkis of The Royal Ballet, Whitney Jensen of Norwegian National Ballet and more. Madison Square Garden's casting requirements for the role are simple: The dancer should be 4' 10" and under, appear to be 14 years old or younger and have strong ballet technique and pointework.
The unspoken requisite? They need abundant tenacity at a very young age.
When it comes to flexibility, more isn't always better. Donna Flagg says that many of the dancers who show up at her Lastics Stretch Technique classes at studios like Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway are already hypermobile.
"They're so loose," she says, "they just yank their legs as far as they can." That's not to say that hypermobile dancers shouldn't stretch—they just need to take extra care to keep their joints safe. Flagg recommends a few guidelines:
The Nutcracker is synonymous with American ballet. So when Gennadi Nedvigin took the helm at Atlanta Ballet in 2016, a new version of the holiday classic was one of his top priorities. This month, evidence of two years' worth of changes will appear when the company unwraps its latest version at Atlanta's Fox Theatre Dec. 8–24. Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov and produced on a larger-than-ever scale for Atlanta, the new ballet represents Nedvigin's big ambitions.
Ballet Hispánico returns to the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem with its full-length ballet, CARMEN.maquia. Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano has reenvisioned the story of Carmen to emphasize Don José, the man who falls in love with Carmen, suffers because of her infidelity, then murders her in a "fit of passion." Their duets are filled with all the sensuality, jealousy and violence you could wish for—in a totally contemporary dance language.
Sansano's previous piece for Ballet Hispánico, El Beso, bloomed with a thousand playful and witty ways of expressing desire. He has a knack for splicing humor into romance.
Not being able to attend the in-person audition at your top college can feel like the end of the world. But while it's true that going to the live audition is ideal, you can still make the best out of sending a video. Here are some of the perks:
What does it mean to be human? Well, many things. But if you were at the Dance Magazine Awards last night, you could argue that to be human is to dance. Speeches about the powerful humanity of our art form were backed up with performances by incredible dancers hailing from everywhere from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to Miami City Ballet.
Misty Copeland started off the celebration. A self-professed "Dance Magazine connoisseur from the age of 13," she not only spoke about how excited she was to be in a room full of dancers, but also—having just come from Dance Theatre of Harlem's memorial for Arthur Mitchell—what she saw as their duty: "We all in this room hold a responsibility to use this art for good," she said. "Dance unifies, so let's get to work."
That sentiment was repeated throughout the night.