3 Top Ballet Companies Convene For The Golden Anniversary Of 'Jewels'

Jul 20, 2017
Originally published on July 20, 2017 4:45 pm

Russian, American and French ballet dancers are gathering Thursday night for a bit of cultural diplomacy at New York City's Lincoln Center. They're celebrating the 50th anniversary of George Balanchine's masterpiece Jewels, considered the first full-length, nonnarrative ballet.

Jewels is in three acts, each named for a gem and each with a different choreographic style, representing different periods in Balanchine's life. It's been a signature piece for the New York City Ballet since its premier in 1967.

"I don't think Balanchine will ever feel dated to me," says Megan Fairchild, who has been dancing one of the leading roles for a decade. "Especially something as jazzy as [the movement] 'Rubies' — you're off balance, your hips are out, you're, you know, throwing yourself around in extreme positions. It couldn't get any more modern to me ... and then, at the same time, it's still really pure ballet."

Pure ballet is the key here — there are no swans or princes or Sugar Plum Fairies, says Lincoln Center Festival's Nigel Redden, who brought the Paris Opera Ballet and the Bolshoi Ballet to join the New Yorkers.

"It is a plotless ballet," he explains, "the first full-length plotless ballet, choreographed by arguably the most important choreographer of the 20th century; certainly one of the great geniuses to be at Lincoln Center."

And, Redden says, there's a reason he brought in dancers from Russia and France. The first movement, "Emeralds," features the music of French composer Gabriel Fauré and will be performed by the Paris Opera Ballet. Balanchine came of age as a choreographer in 1920s Paris. Aurélie Dupont, the ballet's director of dance, says you can practically smell the perfume.

"I think 'Emeralds' has something very French about the technique, which is the feet," she says. "Like the French school, we work a lot about the position and something very precise about the feet and the music. And Balanchine, for 'Emeralds,' put the dancers with long tutus, so we really see the leg. It's of course very romantic."

Even though 'Rubies,' the second movement, has music by Igor Stravinsky, Fairchild says it feels very American, very Broadway — which is where the Russian-born Balanchine did much of his work when he first came to America in the 1930s.

"There's no classical mold to fit into; we're not wearing tutus," she says. "I have this little skirt of jewels on — just [a] teeny, teeny little miniskirt of jewels hanging down. And they kind of clink together as I'm dancing. Like, I don't even know if the audience can hear, but it's just — it's got like a fun kind of party air to it."

The final movement harks back to where Balanchine grew up, says Redden.

" 'Diamonds' is danced to Tchaikovsky, who always conjures up a sense of Russia and a sense of the grandeur of the Imperial Court," Redden says. "And that particular dance has the most dancers in it, has the largest corps, and has a kind of grandeur to it, which I think is very splendid."

The Bolshoi and New York City Ballet will alternate performing "Diamonds" and "Rubies." Peter Martins, who runs the City Ballet and danced in Jewels for Balanchine, told an audience at a recent symposium that Balanchine didn't think much of "interpretation." He would say: "Don't act. Just dance. It's all in the choreography. You don't have to add artistry. I provide," Martins recalls.

Still, Makhar Vaziev, the Bolshoi's ballet director, says he's very excited to see how all three companies actually do interpret Balanchine's choreography. "Mr. B" was a "genius" he says, "and that's why we're here."

Audiences in New York can experience that genius, when Jewels is performed by all three dance companies at Lincoln Center through the weekend.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There's a very important meeting tonight in New York City involving Russian, American and French ballet dancers. They have gathered in a bit of cultural diplomacy at Lincoln Center to celebrate the 50th anniversary of George Balanchine's masterpiece "Jewels." It is considered the first full-length non-narrative ballet. Here's Jeff Lunden.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: It's two days before the gala opening, and New York City Ballet's dancers have gathered to rehearse "Rubies," the middle movement of "Jewels." They practice under the watchful eye of ballet mistress Rosemary Dunleavy.

ROSEMARY DUNLEAVY: I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Tess (ph). (Unintelligible), right?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

DUNLEAVY: Just stay downstage a little bit so that you can get in front of her - OK, all right.

LUNDEN: "Jewels" is a three-act ballet each named for a gem and each with a different choreographic style representing different periods in George Balanchine's life. It's been a signature piece for The New York City Ballet since it premiered in 1967. And Megan Fairchild has been dancing one of the leading roles for a decade.

MEGAN FAIRCHILD: You know, I don't think Balanchine will ever feel dated to me and especially something as jazzy as "Rubies" - that you're off-balance. Your hips are out. You're, you know, throwing yourself around in extreme positions. It couldn't get any more modern to me for something like this. And then at the same time, it's still really pure ballet.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF STRAVINSKY'S "CAPRICCIO FOR PIANO AND ORCHESTRA")

LUNDEN: Pure ballet is the key here. There are no swans or princes or sugar plum fairies, says Lincoln Center Festival's Nigel Redden, who brought the Paris Opera Ballet and the Bolshoi Ballet to join the New Yorkers.

NIGEL REDDEN: It is a plotless ballet, the first full-length plotless ballet choreographed by arguably the most important choreographer of the 20th century, certainly one of the great geniuses to be at Lincoln Center.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF FAURE'S "PELLEAS ET MELISANDE")

LUNDEN: And Redden says there's a reason he brought in dancers from these two countries. The first movement, "Emeralds," features the music of French composer Gabriel Faure and will be performed by the Paris Opera Ballet. Balanchine came of age as a choreographer in 1920s Paris. And Aurelie Dupont, the ballet's director of dance, says you can practically smell the perfume.

AURELIE DUPONT: I think "Emerald" has something very French about the technique, which is the feet. Like the French school, we work a lot about the position and something very precise about the feet and the music. And Balanchine, for "Emerald," put the dancers with long tutus, so we really see the leg. It's of course very romantic.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF FAURE'S "PELLEAS ET MELISANDE")

LUNDEN: Even though "Rubies," the second movement, has music by Igor Stravinsky, ballerina Megan Fairchild says it feels very American, very Broadway, which is where the Russian-born Balanchine did much of his work when he first came to America in the 1930s.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF STRAVINSKY'S "CAPRICCIO FOR PIANO AND ORCHESTRA")

FAIRCHILD: There's no classical mold to fit into. We're not wearing tutus. I have this little skirt of jewels on, just teeny, teeny, little miniskirt of jewels hanging down. And they kind of clink together as I'm dancing. Like, I don't even know if the audience can hear, but it's got, like, a fun kind of party air to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF STRAVINSKY'S "CAPRICCIO FOR PIANO AND ORCHESTRA")

LUNDEN: The final movement harkens back to where Balanchine grew up, says Lincoln Center's Nigel Redden.

REDDEN: "Diamonds" is a dance to Tchaikovsky, who always conjures up a sense of Russia and a sense of the grandeur of the Imperial Court.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF TCHAIKOVSKY'S "SYMPHONY NO. 3 IN D MAJOR")

REDDEN: And that particular dance has the most dancers in it, has the largest corps and has a kind of grandeur to it, which I think is very splendid.

LUNDEN: The Bolshoi and New York City ballets will alternate performing "Diamonds" and "Rubies." Peter Martins runs the city ballet and danced in "Jewels" for Balanchine. He told an audience at a recent symposium that Balanchine didn't think much of, quote, unquote, "interpretation."

PETER MARTINS: He would say, don't act. Just dance. It's all in the choreography. You don't have to add artistry. I provide.

LUNDEN: Still, Makhar Vaziev, the Bolshoi's ballet director, says he's very excited to see how all three companies actually do interpret the choreography.

MAKHAR VAZIEV: The most important for me is Mr. B - Balanchine. He was genius, and that's why we're here.

LUNDEN: And audiences in New York can experience that genius when "Jewels" is performed by all three dance companies at Lincoln Center through the weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF TCHAIKOVSKY'S "SYMPHONY NO. 3 IN D MAJOR")

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLUMBIA SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF STRAVINSKY'S "CAPRICCIO FOR PIANO AND ORCHESTRA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.