By Kat Richter for The Dance Journal
As noted in Lew Wittington’s interview with PA Ballet Artistic Director Roy Kaiser last month, George Balanchine’s iconic Jewels is an immense undertaking. It’s usually performed by larger companies and PA Ballet’s version, which opened at the Academy of Music last month, required two repetiteurs from the Balanchine Trust and every single one of the company’s 39 dancers. Nonetheless, the grand and at times grandiose work bore witness to the company’s fifty year history—a history steeped in the Balanchine aesthetic—and hinted at a promising season to come.
In choreographing Jewels, Balanchine took his inspiration from the work of jewelry designer Claude Arpels. “I have always liked Jewels,” he is said to have remarked, “After all, I am an Oriental, from Georgia and the Caucasus.”
The abstract ballet, which premiered in 1967, has no plot. Instead, it is divided into three acts, each corresponding to a specific jewel. The first piece, Emeralds, is meant to reflect the elegance and romanticism of nineteenth-century France. The second, Rubies, evokes the United States and the fast paced hustle and bustle of New York City. Diamonds, the final section, depicts the splendor and majesty of Russia’s Maryinsky Theater where Balanchine himself trained before immigrating to the United States at the invitation of renowned arts patron Lincoln Kirstein.
Juxtaposing the music of three very different composers (Fauré, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky), Jewels earned its place in the ballet canon in part because of the technical demands of the choreography and in part because of its sumptuous costumes. Unlike Balanchine’s iconic black and white leotard ballets, Jewels is every bit as dazzling as its title would suggest. PA Ballet’s production preserved the essence of Karinska’s original designs, complete with low cut, jewel-encrusted bodices and sparkling tiaras in green, red and silver. For Diamonds, the company even traded their traditional pink pointe shoes for splendid white.
With an invitation to perform at the Vale International Festival of Dance and an ongoing collaborating with WHYY, PA Ballet’s 50th Anniversary celebration is off to a solid start. Its production of Jewels gave the entire company a chance to shine. Corps dancer Rachel Maher, for example, executed the difficult choreography of the final act with a genuine but ebullient smile—something that was sadly missing from many of the other dancers in Diamonds. Lillian Di Piazza was flirty and charismatic in Rubies, whether miming jumping rope or performing the work’s signature pelvic thrusts and flex footed choreography. Her playful energy was matched by principal dancer Jermel Johnson’s precision; his turns and jumps were picture perfect throughout.
At nearly 50 years old, Jewels does feel somewhat dated. Rubies is flashy and unexpected with its syncopated footwork and off balance turns but Emeralds, despite its impressive penche arabesque crescendo, and Diamonds become predictable in their symmetry. Nonetheless, the work is full of awe inspiring moments and tender tableaus that left fans of the company gasping for breath and anxiously awaiting the next installment of the company’s 50th season.
Kat Richter is a freelance writer and teaching artist. She holds an MA in Dance Anthropology and is also the Executive Director of The Lady Hoofers, Philadelphia’s only all-female tap company. Her work can be found at www.katrichter.com.