It took me two days to calm down from the excitement of having watched the opening performance of “Jewels” at this year’s Lincoln Center Festival in New York. In celebration of the ballet’s 50th anniversary, three of the world’s top ballet companies—Paris Opera Ballet, New York City Ballet and Bolshoi Ballet—shared the same stage in an unprecedented collaboration and danced the three parts of George Balanchine’s plotless ballet, “Emeralds,” “Rubies” and “Diamonds,” respectively. What you see in the picture above is the final sequence of the multiple curtain calls of the evening, where all the dancers came on stage, making a formidable tricolored formation in their sparkling costumes. That in itself is a wonder to behold, but you really have to be there to experience the incredible excitement of the audience. You can get a taste of that from the video I took during the evening. Alas, I was only able to afford a nose-bleed seat in the 4th ring and don’t have a powerful zoom lens on my camera. So you have to bear with the compromised image quality. But still, it should give you a good idea of the enthusiasm of an enraptured audience that evening!
The opening piece, “Emeralds,” was danced by Paris Opera Ballet, and the choice seems perfect, as the music for this piece is by the French composer Gabriel Fauré and this is the part that plays homage to the French school and to Balanchine’s extended sojourn in Paris, where he worked for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes as a freshly minted choreographer.
The lead roles were danced by Mathieu Ganio and Laëtitia Pujo, the walking couple danced by Myriam Ould-Braham and the pas de trois by Mathias Heyman Marc Moreau, Hannah O’Neill and Sae Eun Park.
The costume design is by the haute couture designer Christian Lacroix. I have seen on DVD his costumes for POB’s “Jewels” and was totally in love with them. Some critiques have mentioned how that deeper shade of green is “wrong,” but to me, this is just the right shade of “emerald” (a lighter one would be more like jade), and I do love the length of it as it is closer to the Romantic era tutu length. The set design by Peter Harvey, however, leaves much be desired.
Like many of my ballet friends, I consider “Emeralds” my least favorite part of the three, probably because there is less drama in the movements and that everything is more subdued and slow-paced. But the French excels in subdued elegance, and I have excellent impressions from that DVD production starring Aurélie Dupont, Alessio Carbone, Marie-Agnes Gillot and Agnès Letestu of the Paris Opera Ballet. So it came as a bit of a disappointment to see the performance Thursday night. Despite the beautiful footwork and precision, the dancing was lacking in fluidity as some of the Balanchinesque movements weren’t executed with the “sparks” that was intended, such as the staccato-style arabesques in which the legs and arms are held at different heights, as well as some non-classical hand gestures. In the former, there wasn’t enough punch in the staccato… almost non-existent, whereas in the latter, it felt jarring to look at. Perhaps the hallmark of the French school—precision and elegance—does not readily lend itself to Balanchine’s style. In Thursday night’s performance, it just felt like an ill-fitting pair of gloves.
“Rubies”—my favorite part of the ballet, which is a homage to the American school and Balanchine’s career in New York City—was danced by New York City Ballet, the three lead dancers being Megan Fairchild, Joaquin de Luz and Teresa Reichlen. As soon as the curtains unfolded, the audience cheered for the “home team” with great excitement. The fast-paced and playful spontaneity of “Rubies” with the powerful color of red (my favorite) was a dramatic switch from the slow pace and cool elegance of “Emeralds.” Set to Igor Stravinsky’s “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra,” which encapsulated his fascination for the spunky jazzy rhythms he was exposed to in New York in the 1920s, “Rubies” is a work that never goes out of style and substance in my eyes—not to mention the brilliant costume design by NYCB’s very own Karinska.
It was so obvious that NYCB dancers were completely “in their elements.” My favorite dancer, Megan, along with Joaquin, delivered captivating dynamics in their pas de deux, whereas Teresa was the perfectly cool and nonchalant Tall Girl. There was a lot of hip thrusting and flexed feet, which aren’t classical at all, but such was the innovation that Balanchine brought to the modern ballet vocabulary. Personally I don’t ever get tired of seeing how the classical ballet language is being challenged in such a playful and still elegant way.
The NYCB dancers brought down the full house for sure! The applause was significantly louder than that for the POB dancers during the curtain calls.
The last segment, “Diamonds,” set to the scores of Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 3 in D Major,” is a tribute to the Russian school and Balanchine’s important formative years in Imperial Russia. Even though I don’t fall for the advertising catch phrase “Diamonds are forever,” I do think this phrase befits Bolshoi’s brilliant performance of the last part of “Jewels.” It has left an indelible impression in my mind and heart.
As soon as the curtains unfolded, there was a collective gasp in the audience—almost blinded by the sparkles from the tutus—followed by a palpable restraint in breathing lest the delicate perfection on stage was disturbed. It was a kind of silence of anticipation! When the lead couple, Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin, finally appeared, the audience couldn’t hold their excitement any longer. Their slow walk in the initial pas de deux was so beautiful I was almost in tears. It goes to show how these ballet superstars can touch souls even without big dramatic movements. I saw this PDD on video but to see it live was an experience that was out of this world, albeit the fact that I was sitting way too far up to see the facial expressions.
The execution of “Diamonds” on Thursday night was simply impeccable. The slow, precise and deliberate unfolding of perfection captivated the audience’s hearts, not to mention the beautiful classical line of the dancers and the synchronicity of their movements. The Russian dancers really lived up to the reputation of the Diamonds and the Big Theater itself!
The sparkling white costumes designed by Bolshoi’s costume designer Elena Zaitseva are a big departure from the original NYCB bell-shaped tutus, which have a slightly off-white/champagne tone. Personally I prefer the Russian design for the absolute theatrical effect and classical feel. It’s almost like seeing Swan Lake, just without the feathers and every dancer is like an aristocrat in a regal ballroom.
The audience went nuts at the curtain call, and the cheers went louder when we realized that all three troupes of dancers would go on stage at the same time for a collective bow. When the NYCB dancers came out, I heard loud bangs by some enthusiastic fans who couldn’t contain their excitement anymore! But the grandest ovations went to the Bolshoi dancers. There was a collective expression of awe and respect from a spellbound audience, who knew, in their hearts, that this historic moment made this evening a once-in-a-lifetime occasion for them. As if this was not enough to get our endorphin pumping up the roof, Aurélie Dupont, former étoile and the current director of dance at Paris Opera Ballet, appeared on stage, flanked by Makhar Vaziev, the newly minted ballet director of Bolshoi Ballet; and Peter Martins, the artistic director of New York City Ballet. The audience was enraptured at this point! More banging on the wall ensued.
“Jewels,” or “Superjewels”—as one critique calls it—was truly the highlight of the season. Even though I have seen different renditions of “Jewels” multiple times, both live and on video, this has to be the most spectacular and special experience for me.
I had a wonderful time meeting my fellow balletomanes and making a few new friends that evening. The real party was after the show, at the stage door, where a group of us die-hard ballet nuts met and greeted the French and Russian dancers. The NYCB dancers were nowhere to be seen—they probably went out through another “secret” exit.
To our delight, Madame Dupont came out,with a big bouquet of flowers in her arm, and languished for us to take pictures and sign autographs. I’ve been her fan for a long time and never even dreamt of seeing her face to face, let alone taking a picture with her. What a dream!
Then came Mathieu Ganio, the handsome danseur étoile of the Paris Opera Ballet:
Finally, the “Diamond Couple”, Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin, came out one after the other, and stayed and small talked with us. It felt like a goddess and a god having descended from heaven and suddenly became mortals so we could touch them and speak with them. Olga is beautiful and elegant beyond description. Semyon is handsome and very friendly and humble. His English is quite good. My friend asked him if he would like to dance and live in New York, to which he replied positively, “but my wife won’t allow me.”
At our request, they posed together for us.
Here are some snapshots inside the theater during intermissions and post show, to highlight the festive atmosphere and the special way the foyer was lit for the occasion!