Talk About Legs! Balanchine’s Jewels Sparkles at City Ballet

I’ve been seeing Balanchine’s Jewels for more than 40 years, and that’s a lot of jewelry. In the beginning it seemed to many of us unique in its ambitions and its splendor; to others it seemed gaudy—paste. But no one thought it would ever travel. Too expensive, too many styles to absorb and what company other than New York City Ballet could produce a Verdy, a McBride and Villella, a Farrell?

If we ask that question today, the answer would still be none: The original cast has never been equaled. But Jewels has certainly traveled. Talk about legs! First came Miami City Ballet, years after the New York premiere; then other American companies, then the Kirov, the Paris Opera and now the Royal. And wherever it turns up, it’s a hit. Last month in London it was a total smash—cheering audiences at Covent Garden, where years ago, when City Ballet brought it, a lot of noses were turned up. “Ingenious and colorful, yes, but, my dear, look at their port de bras!”

The Royal has been renewed under the relatively new leadership of Monica Mason, always a Balanchine admirer, and its Jewels dancers forgot about their port de bras and moved. Even so, with both the casts I saw, “Emeralds” was no more than respectable; “Rubies” less so. Alexandra Ansanelli, ex-City Ballet, gave her usual ingratiating performance in the McBride role (I don’t like it, but at least it looks like Balanchine). Another American dancer, Sarah Lamb, was more spontaneous, more genuine. But the men were just wrong, particularly the company’s male star, Carlos Acosta, who was disastrously miscast. He’s big and heroic and completely uncomfortable in this role created for the explosively virile and scintillating firecracker that was Villella. Acosta wasn’t a ruby; he wasn’t even a garnet.

As for “Diamonds,” there seemed to be a misunderstanding about what kind of ballet it is. Balanchine and Farrell used Tchaikovsky’s third symphony to give us the ultimate distillation of 19th-century Russian classicism—grandeur to the max. The music tells you just how grand it has to be. In London, both the orchestra and the dancers brought it to a cheerful climax rather than a thrilling one. During the sumptuous and majestic concluding polonaise, everyone was smiling (in relief that they’d made it through to the end?). Try to imagine Farrell or Kyra Nichols or any of the current crop of City Ballet Diamonds grinning at this juncture. Balanchine’s Diamond is a ballerina assoluta, not a soubrette. Alina Cojocaru, the Royal’s finest dancer, is an exquisite lyricist, but she’s no Diamond. The problem isn’t that she’s so small, it’s that she enchants rather than commands: More miscasting, no doubt in response to some counterproductive star system. So this big hit of a Jewels, despite the gallant effort and hard work that clearly went into it, was only a qualified success. And I’ve restrained myself on the subject of Jean-Marc Puissant’s hideous art deco sets. …

 

MEANWHILE BACK AT the ranch (a.k.a. the State Theater), City Ballet opened its post-Nutcracker winter season with—surprise!—Jewels. The contrast with the Royal was all too immediately clear. The Royal’s corps worked hard and did a creditable job. City Ballet’s corps, flooded with talented young dancers, looked as though Balanchine was second nature to them—and why not? They were all trained at his school. And they’re in terrific shape, raring to go, having just sprung from the endless weeks of Nutcracker.

As was to be expected, Ashley Bouder was beautiful in “Emeralds” and Maria Kowroski ravishing in “Diamonds.” Megan Fairchild (at her best this season in Tarentella) has greatly improved in “Rubies”—she’s beginning to take pleasure in it—but she wasn’t helped by being partnered with Benjamin Millepied, who in a different way from Acosta is all wrong for this ballet. He’s just not a powerful, bravura guy, whereas in Ballo della Regina he looked better than I’ve seen him in a long time—light, airy, elegant; in other words, right for the role. Even his feet looked stronger than they usually do. (In another piece of miscasting, Rachel Rutherford, always a lovely lyrical dancer, was promoted—if that’s the word—from the second to the first ballerina role in “Emeralds,” and she isn’t right for it—she lacks sharp definition and wit.)

A lot of the season’s programming is hard to figure out. “Four by Four”—one of those fatuous names the various programs have been stuck with—had almost no one onstage: Ballo, with its two principals, four demis (of whom Ashley Laracey stood out, as she does in everything she dances), and a mini-corps of 12 girls; Liturgy for two (one of them Wendy Whelan in a glorious performance); Les Gentilhommes—nine boys; Fancy Free—six dancers and a bartender. Then there’s “Balanchine’s World” (that means four ballets by Balanchine), which paired Bugaku with La Sonnambula, two dramatic works that don’t mix. (Upcoming programs: “Inspirations,” “Spirit of Discovery,” “Matters of the Heart,” and perhaps my favorite, “Passages.” Whoever it is whose job it is to dream up these nonsenses deserves an extra week of paid vacation.)

Bugaku was a mixed blessing. Kowroski has relaxed into it, and her wonderful body and legs are fabulous to behold. Yet she hasn’t yet grasped the essence of the role, which was created on the equally beautiful Allegra Kent. Kowroski almost flaunts her sexiness; Kent kept hers a fascinating secret. (Oh, the mysterious East—and the mysterious Kent.) As for Albert Evans, he not only looked terrible but he lacks all the intensity and latent force this Villella role demands. I understand that senior dancers have to be utilized, but please—not at Balanchine’s expense. Bugaku depends on the sexual and psychic power of its principals; without dancers who communicate that power fully, it’s just samurai pastiche.

Talk About Legs! Balanchine’s Jewels Sparkles at City Ballet