When George Balanchine unveiled his ballet “Jewels,” he suggested that his inspiration lay in the glass cases at Van Cleef & Arpels.
What a good story for the magpies among us drawn to bright, glittery things. Whether it was true or not, the marketing potential was magnificent. Balanchine and Suzanne Farrell, his young prima ballerina at the time of the “Jewels” premiere in 1967, were photographed draped in diamonds from the Fifth Avenue gem boutique. Unattainable luxury, romance, sex appeal: This ballet had it all, and it was a box office sensation.
The glamour of “Jewels” is still strong, as was clear in the New York City Ballet’s handsome, though not flawless, performance Tuesday at the Kennedy Center Opera House. “Jewels” accounts for all but two of the company’s seven performances here. If this ballet no longer feels like a sensation, it is still an audience draw.
The three sections of “Jewels’” are titled “Emeralds,” “Rubies” and “Diamonds,” yet the ballet has little to do with actual gems. Even Balanchine acknowledged that the jewel theme began and ended with Karinska’s costumes. They are one of the ballet’s chief pleasures — such deep-dyed colors, so much sparkle, veering close to overload but staying on this side of good, rich taste. When the curtain opened on “Emeralds,” the audience burst into applause for the motionless tableau drenched in green-gold light, with its watercolor backdrop and dancers in long skirts and velvets, dressed like fairy royalty. It was an awful lot of green, but for winter-weary eyes, it felt like spring.
Glamour is here in spades; the visual effects are dazzling. But the choreography of “Jewels” is less so. “Rubies,” accompanied by Stravinsky’s Capriccio for piano and orchestra, has pizzazz and playful wit, though, while pianist Cameron Grant delivered a wonderfully mischievous account, the dancers produced more cuteness than authentic mischief. “Diamonds” pours on the technique. Ever the showman, Balanchine gave each of these sections a strong start and finish, but the slow middles still weigh them down.
There is another reason the effect of “Rubies” and “Diamonds” has dimmed: The ballet world has fully ripped off their once-novel tricks. The aloof dominatrix in “Rubies,” with her turned-in legs and splayed-out extensions, has become a standard character in countless contemporary works, though not with the towering poise of Teresa Reichlen in Tuesday’s cast. And the classicism and white-tutu overload of “Diamonds” have never gone out of style for ballet choreographers. This was the least impressive part of the evening: Maria Kowroski possesses all the grandeur of presence needed for the central role, but a few stumbles undercut the effect. The flat stage lighting did not help.
But the quiet, enigmatic “Emeralds” still feels fresh. From the welcome mystery of Gabriel Fauré’s music (excerpts from “Pelléas et Mélisande” and “Shylock”) to the romantic style of the dancing, “Emeralds” stands apart as a world like no other. It opens in utter stillness. It comes to life all in one breath. There are hints of “Giselle” and the neo-romanticism of “Les Sylphides”: The corps dancers lean forward at the waist and pose with hands crossed at the wrists. At one wonderful moment, a hunting horn sounds, and Abi Stafford, in the leading ballerina role, rises and listens, tilting her head to the call of the music the way a French poet’s muse would do.
Amid these historical touches, there are surprising contemporary moments that feel entirely right. Stafford grabs the hem of her skirt and shakes it at us, a little mambo moment out of “West Side Story.” In her whimsical, stage-skimming solo, Sara Mearns jumps around with childlike abandon, as if she is playing hopscotch. “Emeralds” is full of fruitful ambiguity and a mix of old and new. It is Fifth Avenue by way of a moonlit lagoon.
Some see “Jewels” as Balanchine’s homage to his three artistic homes. In this view, “Emeralds” is considered a tribute to France, where Balanchine worked before settling in the United States, and the hot-dogging “Rubies,” with the music of fellow expatriate Stravinsky, is seen as an ode to America. Following the same logic, “Diamonds” is a toast to Russia.
But I don’t buy the nostalgia. “Emeralds” is as charmingly Danish as it is softly French. For that matter, “Rubies” is as sexily French (think Zizi Jeanmaire) as it is athletically American. The better unifying principle is that “Jewels” represents three distinct styles of ballet: romantic (“Emeralds”), neoclassical (“Rubies”) and classical (“Diamonds”).
How ironic that Balanchine — the great modernist — expresses himself best here in the misty, early-19th-century atmosphere of “Emeralds.” He makes that style look cherished and novel at the same time.
Sadly, romantic-style ballet has not been taken up by contemporary choreographers, apart from restagings of works from the romantic period. But as Balanchine makes clear in “Emeralds,” the possibilities of romantic ballet are evergreen.
The New York City Ballet performs at the Kennedy Center Opera House Friday through Sunday. It also will perform works by Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky and Justin Peck on Wednesday and Thursday. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.