Posted on December 21, 2016
Christmas isn’t about presents – though I am preoccupied thinking about them during the festive season. For dance-goers the world over, The Nutcracker embraces all that Christmas represents. For me, though, this much-loved work can instead seem like the balletic equivalent of those utilitarian gifts you always expect to get: socks, ties, underwear. Happily, I received a much more glamorous gift this Christmas in the form of George Balanchine’s 1967 ballet Jewels, which I had the treat of dancing in December.
Referred to as the world’s first full-evening plotless ballet, the oft-repeated story of the ballet’s inspiration is a visit to jewellers Van Cleef and Arpels by Balanchine. Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds, to music by Fauré, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky respectively, are the three lozenges that make up the triptych. I first saw the ballet with my mother in 2007, when The Royal Ballet mounted its first staging of the production. We knew nothing about the ballet, but booked tickets based on its name – who can resist the pull of gemstones? Now, nearly ten years later, I know there are endless facets of interpretation to this work, despite Balanchine’s notoriously laconic explanations of his ballets, but does Jewels have anything to do with Christmas? It’s certainly true Balanchine had no intention whatsoever for the ballet to supersede The Nutcracker – we have him to thank for the popularity of that ballet in the US due to his own production and it’s subsequent screening on television – but in the spirit of merry indulgence, humour some ideas that have been thrown up by rehearsing this ballet during Advent.
Jewels’ colour palette of green, red, and white immediately alludes to Yuletide. Diamonds is perhaps the wintriest in tone, evoking the Russia of Balanchine’s youth, using Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 3 to paint images of the Imperial court. I loved discovering that the composer completed this symphony before writing Swan Lake, and images of Odette – and Raymonda – abound in the ballerina’s choreography; the mysteriously ebullient scherzo movement has her enter in a chain of arabesques that whisper of flight. Tchaikovsky’s score here has a shimmering, anticipatory tone, and Balanchine matches this with floor patterns that swirl and fold in on themselves, resembling the flurry of snowflakes caught on a wintry gust. Tchaikovsky resolves these notes of tension with a deliciously earthy folk melody, and Balanchine stagers refer to this section of choreography as the “Russian” dance.
More percussive in spirit, Rubies, was playfully referred to by one friend as being “like the office Christmas party”! True, Barbara Karinska’s head-dresses for the women of this ballet do have a festive look, almost like luxurious gift wrap, but this comment ignores the exhilarating note of danger and risk inherent in Balanchine’s choreography. It represents jazz, New York, and uninhibited sensuality. Wildly – and unprompted – I liked to think how the blood-coloured stones sewn on to the costumes resemble not only weighty gem stones, but luscious pomegranate seeds. Chef and food writer Diana Henry writes joyously of the pomegranate’s “regal calyxes… like baubles,” and the wonderfully dissonant note they set amongst winter’s other more pallid produce. It’s appropriate, then, that Stravinsky’s riotous music is used for this middle ballet. Pomegranates are loaded with religious and cultural meaning, particularly in the Near East. Does it matter that Balanchine identified himself as a Georgian, from the Caucasus?
Though Christmas is a Christian festival, I’ve always felt the way we bring nature into our homes in deepest winter, be it Teutonic fir trees, wreaths, mistletoe, or holly and ivy, speaks to something more ancient and elemental within us. Emeralds, in its Gallic, restrained beauty fills a similar space. The ballet contains chivalric and medieval images that neatly makes me think of travelling troubadours and, by extension, the old tradition of Mummers’ plays at Christmas in the UK. None of these ideas, of course, have come from Balanchine, but they put a smile on my face. Christmas, and the family traditions that go with it, is about marking a point in time. Indeed, one enigmatic couple physically mark the pulse of time with their steps and the ballerina’s fragmented arabesque extension in one pas de deux towards the ballet’s close. I like to think Balanchine might be secretly saluting Serge Diaghilev – the impresario responsible for Balanchine’s artistic education – here. Diaghilev loved, and was buried in Venice; this duet is danced to Fauré’s music originally composed for a production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
The increasing ubiquity of this exquisitely wrought ballet across repertories all over the world has led some to make comparisons with The Sleeping Beauty. It used to be that companies danced this apex of classical dance to flaunt their prowess. In the 21st century, is Jewels taking its place as a way for ballet companies to test their mettle? Most critics see Jewels as Balanchine’s homage to three different eras of his life. Each jewel informs the other, just as each year of our own lives, crowned annually by the festive period, informs the next. I found this quote from Balanchine himself: “You must go through tradition and absorb it, and become in a way a reincarnation of all the artistic periods that have come before you.” That’s certainly a suitable Christmas wish.