Review: Royal Ballet - Jewels - Royal Opera House

Performance: 17, 20, 28, 30 Dec 2013 & 7 Jan 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 18 December 2013

Royal Ballet's Thiago Soares & Marianela Nunez in 'Diamonds' Photo: Tristram Kenton, courtsey ROH

George Balanchine created Jewels in 1967, having been inspired to do so when glimpsing a display of gems in the window of the Van Cleef and Arpels store in Manhattan. Though there is nothing remotely tangible to connect his ballet to the ’60s, the whole idea seems of its time. It conjures an image of glamorous women smothered in furs, sporting sparkling jewellery. They look like Audrey Hepburn or Anne Bancroft and life is a permanent whirl of cocktail parties, premieres and visits to smart stores on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.

Outside of its title and a structure comprising the three-piece set of Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds, each part reflected in simple colour palettes to match, this ballet has little to do with jewels. Balanchine is not telling a story but he has captured an essence, or rather a suite of essences. Each part is like a concentrate, where Balanchine – the master choreographer – has distilled the aroma of three distinct styles into capsule ballets. When the bottle is opened or the vaporiser engaged a torrent of memories are unleashed. Substitute Guerlain for Van Cleef and Arpels on Balanchine’s stroll through Manhattan and we could have had a ballet called Perfume.

The Royal Ballet has not been performing this complete trilogy for long but already long enough for certain dancers to have become associated with particular pieces. Thus, it s now hard to come to terms with an Emeralds without Leanne Benjamin and Mara Galeazzi (both of whom retired earlier this year) and the new cast failed to match the expectation that their predecessors had created. It is hard to pinpoint reasons for this other than that they failed to make me believe that I was seeing the music move, as Balanchine intended, and there were occasional slightly awkward moments in the duet between Edward Watson and Roberta Marquez. Casts have to change and the most promising aspect of an otherwise disappointing opener was the pas de trois, danced with panache by Alexander Campbell (enjoying a very promising – and busy – season) with engaging support on Elizabeth Harrod and Akane Takada.

The opening section of Rubies suggested that this under par performance might continue as the jazzy, off-kilter attack of the corps seemed to be lacking in lustre. Only Zenaida Yanowsky gave me cause for optimism in the solo ballerina role (a slot that the Royal Ballet has always struggled to fill). She recovered seamlessly from a momentary slip but then seemed to tire as the relentless energy-sapping requirements of Balanchine’s tribute to the dynamism of American ballet gathered pace. But Rubies (and indeed the whole evening) was a game of two halves since Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb lit up the stage with their long duet. McRae brought gasps and spontaneous applause from the audience for the ferocious speed of his exiting pirouettes and Lamb – a ballerina who hails from Boston (and not the one in Lincolnshire) – provided an object lesson in how to get this very idiosyncratic style.

The piece de resistance is the Diamonds finale, where Balanchine evokes a rolling display case full of images from the Imperial Russian ballet of St Petersburg – a world he experienced as a young student dancer before the Revolution. Set to some of Tchaikovsky’s most memorable melodies in his gorgeous third symphony (also used by Kenneth MacMillan for a similar purpose in his full-length ballet, Anastasia ) the choreography is studded with the most delicious references to the great classical ballets of the late nineteenth century.

The corps de ballet was utterly enchanting, providing a perfect setting for the spectacular performance of The Royal Ballet’s own Koh-I-Noor diamond, Marianela Nunez, who sparkled with confidence and the opulent elegance of a ballerina at the very top of her abilities. She was partnered with meaningful intent by Thiago Soares who, when let loose to show his own virtuoso strengths, delivered dancing that matched the brilliance of his partner. Throughout the soloists and corps there were fine performances which shone through the setting: by Dawid Trzensimiech, Johannes Stepanek, Yuhui Choe and others. If the evening had started in need of a polish, it twinkled with fairy dust by the end.

A full-length ballet without a story is rare and Balanchine broke the mould with his Van Cleef and Arpels fancy. It is a hard ballet to make work across all three very different styles, reflected in the music: the French romanticism of Faure, the jazz-infused ebullience of Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky’s imperial opulence for the St Petersburg School. Although it is still a work in progress to get the full suite performed to the same high standard, The Royal Ballet nonetheless gave an enjoyable account that enjoyed a handful of spectacular contributions in this welcome short break from the Christmas collection of Nutcrackers.

Continues 17, 20, 28, 30 Dec 2013 & 7 Jan 2014

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK.

Image: Royal Ballet’s Thiago Soares & Marianela Nunez in ‘Diamonds’ Photo: Tristram Kenton, courtsey ROH

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