Review: Royal Ballet in Jewels at Royal Opera House

Performance: 20 Sep - 5 Oct 2011
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 27 September 2011

Royal Ballet, Marianela Nunez & Thiago Soares in 'Diamonds' as part of 'Jewels'. Photo: Johan Persson

Reviewed: 24 September 2011

Dame Monica Mason’s farewell season as Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet began appropriately enough with the presentation of some *Jewels*. George Balanchine’s homage to three national schools of ballet through the metaphor of gemstones (involving a canny brand placement for Van Cleef & Arpels that has lasted for over 40 years) was brought into the Royal Ballet’s repertoire by Dame Monica in 2007 – and this revival begins a season of her favourite works.

Balanchine used the motif of *Emeralds*, danced to the music of Fauré, to signify the romance of the Parisian school where he had been guest ballet master after the second world war; Rubies and the jazz-infused music of Stravinsky portrays the vibrant, dynamic young ballet of New York, which Balanchine had been instrumental in creating and *Diamonds* – set to extracts of Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony – pays tribute to the Imperial Ballet of St Petersburg, where the choreographer spent his formative years. So, when Jewels is danced by the Paris Opéra Ballet, New York City Ballet or the Mariinsky Ballet, there is an automatic home advantage in one of the three parts of this triptych; but the Royal Ballet has to forgo its own style in order to assimilate each of the national schools of ballet evoked by Balanchine. On this occasion the company delivered 24 carat performances in the opening and closing pieces, while failing to impress at all in a lacklustre rendition of the central work.

Arriving in the Floral Hall for the Saturday lunchtime start of this opening performance by the second cast, the changed décor was an immediate surprise, including the removal of an old friend, the Perrier-Jouët champagne bar, which has now been replaced by a larger art deco “island” in the centre of the Hall. Ironically, the loss of the familiar floral livery of the former bar was replaced with the exact same imagery when the curtains rose on Emeralds, with Jean-Marc Puissant’s art nouveau chandeliers mimicking the flower bottle motifs of Perrier-Jouët’s famous Belle Époque Cuvée.

The vivid sparkle that we might expect from emeralds is toned down in a work quite unlike any other Balanchine choreography; remarkable for its subtle, subdued elegance, rekindling the romanticism of early codified ballet with dancing that is gently mannered in its courtly formality and contrasts with the decorative flamboyance of the art nouveau setting. There is a particular softness in the work of the experienced lead ballerinas Roberta Marquez and Mara Galeazzi, who – in their lengthy back-to-back variations – appear like young girls playfully exploring a verdant ballroom of La Belle Époque. It is tempting to use the ethereal illusion of nymphs or sylphs but both dancers are too earthy, too womanly, to be mythological creatures; although, in her solo, Marquez has the narcissistic, Ondinesque quality of a water sprite intently focusing on the patterns she draws in the swirling arc and ripple of her arms and hands. Valeri Hristov and Bennet Gartside are appropriately gallant cavaliers, but it was the third man, David Trzensimiech (partnering Helen Crawford and Emma Maguire in the pas de trios), who captured most attention with a strong, charismatic presence that continued into both Rubies and Diamonds.

The undemonstrative coolness of Emeralds was unfortunately carried through into Rubies, a ballet that demands a polar opposite style of pizzazz and attack. It was only the rapid, violent spinning of Ricardo Cervera that came close to achieving the vibrancy and force that is required. Yuhui Choe danced prettily but without either the carefree explosiveness or comedic nuances that the choreography requires and although Laura McCulloch had the burlesque charm of a showgirl, she was exposed by the lack of fluency in achieving the necessary equation between technique and speed. The performance lacked fire and Rubies was by far the weakest link in the chain.

All this was quickly forgotten with the bravura performance of Marianela Nuñez in Diamonds. Partnered with a touching intimacy by her new husband, Thiago Soares, Nuñez delivered a masterclass of finesse and technique, most notably in the certainty and strength of her adagio steps and balances. The ballerina role in Diamonds is a notoriously difficult homage to the rigor of the Imperial Russian ballet of Petipa – with its subtle references to Swan Lake, La Bayadère and other similar motifs – and Nuñez delivered this exaggerated challenge with an unqualified and majestic command. Whilst this was very much her triumph as the paragon amongst all Diamonds, the impact was given even more sparkle by the clarity of Soares’ excellent partnering and the strong group dancing of the corps de ballet.

Musically, this feast of Fauré, Stravinsky (especially in the solo pianism of Robert Clark) and Tchaikovsky was a triumph under the direction of Valeriy Ovsyanikov; but surprisingly, the Royal Ballet was strongest in the Jewels that it acquired most recently (both Emeralds and Diamonds were not performed by the company until 2007, whereas Rubies has been in the repertoire for longer). Since the principal coaching was carried out by Patricia Neary, on whom the main ballerina role in Rubies was created by Balanchine, it must surely get better as the run progresses.

Continues 29, 30 September & 5 October
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