The newest program for the San Francisco Ballet’s 2021 digital season is the glorious return of George Balanchine’s jewels. This tripartite masterpiece is commonly referred to as the first full-length narrative ballet. This is a dubious claim depending on how you define “full-length” or “non-action”. It is also often described as an examination of the differences between French, American, and Russian ballet styles, or as a distillation of the intrinsic properties of emeralds, rubies, and diamonds. Personally, I find these descriptions almost annoyingly elusive and therefore not helpful at all. So – here is everything you really need to know: this whole thing is fabulous, and you really have to see it. And if you’ve seen it before, you have to see it again. It’s the kind of complex work that gets better and better with repetition, as you are bound to find new things to enjoy that you may not have noticed before.
That Jewels has stood the test of time since its premiere in 1967 is a bit of a surprise, as it was created as a “piece d’occasion” to celebrate the opening of the New York City Ballet’s new theater at Lincoln Center. It was ushered in with a level of hype unknown to City Ballet at the time, including a fashion series featuring the leading ballet flats at Van Cleef & Arpels. Our cultural landscape is littered with countless “great” new works that were commissioned for August occasions and premiered in front of a mystified gala audience, never to be seen again. Well, it turns out that Balanchine wasn’t the one to miss such a high profile opportunity and, in this case, created a ballet that is creative, quirky, and deeply engaging on an emotional level at the same time.
When I saw the SFB’s production, I was struck by the idea that the connective tissue between its three different ballets for me is that towards the end of each there is a characteristic, characteristic walking motion that crystallizes the ethos of that particular piece. At Emeralds, it’s a gentle, strolling stroll, underpinned by a weak, rhythmic pulse that creates a subtle atmosphere of romantic longing. At Rubies, it’s a brisk, arms-hunched run for the men and a lively canter with straight arms and hunched wrists for the women that capture the ancient, competitive spirit of this piece. At Diamonds, it’s a stately grand promenade with an extra kick as dozens of dancers flood the stage for the joyous finale.
(From left to right) Wona Park, Esteban Hernandez and Julia Rowe in Emeralds
Emeralds, captured in a performance here recently, are getting Jewels off to a wonderfully enigmatic start. The opening movement, set in Fauré’s beautiful suite Pelleas et Melisande, reads like a long, lazy sigh, sensitively danced by Angelo Greco, Misa Kuranaga and Sasha Mukhamedov. The pace accelerates significantly with a lively trio danced fabulously by a perfectly coordinated Esteban Hernandez, Wona Park and Julia Rowe. They are so wonderfully synchronized with one another that one moment they can move as a unit and the next break out into concise, complementary solos. The ballet ends with a slow pas de deux for Mukhamedov and Aaron Robison, which captures the overall spirit of ballet. Robison is particularly effective in this area, with his gallant manner and attention to the underlying pulse of the music.
San Francisco Ballet in Rubies
When the curtain rises again for Rubies and Stravinsky’s astringent and energetic Capriccio for piano and orchestra plays, we find ourselves in a completely different world. Suddenly everything is carefree, angular and wonderfully out of whack. The music is full of unexpectedly quirky melodies and changing rhythms that Balanchine treats like a fun house. Recorded at an SFB performance from February 2016, the dance is consistently incredibly crisp. Special greetings to the spirited 12-man corps that seem to pin down any difficult, unorthodox level. The opening section is led by Wanting Zhao, who dances with admirable clarity and speed, but may not yet feel comfortable enough with the audacity of the choreography to fully embrace it. In the years since then, Zhao has really developed as a dancer and now would probably totally crush it. The main couple are a lively and playful Mathilde Froustey and Pascal Molat. They dance well together but seem a bit miscast here. I wanted to see them dig in more, dance deeper to the ground, and really go for the more competitive, rougher, and more ready aspects of the movement.
After the idiosyncratic hijinks of Rubies, it can take a while to get used to the stately size of the final ballet Diamonds, which is based on Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous Symphony No. 3 in D major. The opening movement for the corps women is only pleasant and seems a bit indistinct. Things soon come into focus, however, as Balanchine leads us through a series of amazing sequences that inexorably lead to the bubbly finale. The second movement is an extended 10-minute adagio for Sasha De Sola and Tiit Helimets that is absolutely adorable from start to finish, though it doesn’t include a single particularly eye-catching move. While this is supposedly a nonsense ballet, it seems to me that we are watching a mature couple go through a period of uncertainty or stasis in their relationship before reconnecting. It is fascinating to me how the woman here always seems to be in control of the situation, even when she is lifted or held. It is so often that she moves away from him and it is he who runs to catch up with her.
Sasha De Sola and Tiit Helimets in diamonds
The dancing here between De Sola and Helimets is just phenomenal. They are both perfectly attuned to each other if they manage every tiny change in their relationship. I also like how they underestimate the emotions and let the movement speak for itself. When he picks her up and carries her across the stage and sets her back as gently as a caress, the effect is transcendent. The pas de deux ends with a gesture of tender indulgence, a meeting of equals. No disrespect to all of the other incredible dancers out there, but I don’t think I’ll see more glorious 10 minutes of dancing all year round.
In the Scherzo movement that follows, De Sola and Helimets finally have a chance to relax with fireworks. Helimets whips a perfect series of twists a la seconde, and De Sola shows her otherworldly ability to break up a passage of intricate, fast-moving footwork with a sudden, heartbreaking balance on one toe. Diamonds really flies when 32 dancers appear out of nowhere for the exuberant polonaise finale. How joyful it is to see so many incredibly talented dancers giving everything they have in perfect synchronicity. It’s an exciting end, and lucky for us that it has been videotaped so that we can see it all again as soon as it’s over.
(From left to right) Lauren Strongin, Wei Wang, Will Zhao, Max Cauthorn, Koto Ishihara and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira
in the joyous ending of Diamonds
(All photos by Erik Tomasson)
The San Francisco Ballet’s jewelery production can be streamed until April 21, 2021. For more information and tickets, visit www.sfballet.org or call (415) 865-2000.