Jewels, a plotless 1967 triptych by George Balanchine, can be approached in a number of satisfying ways. Some consider it a kind of ballet world tour, an homage to three national forms of classical dance: The romanticism and thick nostalgia of Emeralds, set to lush music by Gabriel Fauré, harks back to French ballets of the 18th century; the jazzy acrobatics and playful distortion found in Rubies reflect Balanchine’s innovative work here in America (and his frequent stateside collaboration with the score’s composer, Igor Stravinsky); and the pristine classicism of Diamonds (and use of Tchaikovsky) is an obvious homage to the Imperial Russian style of Marius Petipa. Others choose to see Jewels, less limitedly, as an evening-long distillation of Balanchine’s aesthetic: his range, his musicality, his general brilliance. Jewels can be all of these things and more. It continues to reveal itself, even after a fourth viewing.
Not until my last visit to New York City Ballet on Tuesday did I stop to consider the order of the ballets. They aren’t ordered chronologically with regard to music or stylistic allusions. (Viewing it through that lens, Jewels takes two steps forward and one step back.) Their arrangement simply could be a matter of contrast, a conscious and savvy move by Balanchine to shock the audience with the edgy modernism of Rubies after they’ve acclimated to the tranquility of Emeralds. Deliberate or not, the three parts of Jewels are a tribute to women of many attractive forms, and a testament to the timeless power of classicism.
Of the four friends who joined me for my Jewels marathon, only one professed to loving Emeralds. That doesn’t surprise me: It’s slow, subtle, and (in my case) required three viewings to begin to unlock. (At Saturday’s performance I found myself in tears.) Danced to horn-heavy selections from Fauré’s Shylock and Pelléas et Mélisande, Emeralds shows women as innocent and expressive. In the first solo, a woman (Abi Stafford/Tiler Peck) watches her arms delicately curve and flail as if they’re acting on their own accord. She lifts her skirt and peers down at her furiously moving feet, appearing delighted — even surprised — to find them; we share in the thrill of her discovery. The steps for the second soloist (Jenifer Ringer/Sara Mearns) are simple but arresting in their lyricism. Her developpés and arabesques hang in the air, and she swims through the stage with her arms. (Mearns, in particular, gives deep significance to the slightest gestures.) The pas de trois (at its best when led by the ebullient Antonio Carmena) and two pas de deux are marked by deep respect, but the most striking moment in Emeralds arrives near when all seven principal players form a chain, alternating in gender, the women standing in arabesque penchée , looking toward the kneeling men who support them: perfect harmony. As the curtain drops and the men staring mournfully into space, we sense that this fragile world of innocence and chivalry is no more. I think I cried for its loss.
The two principal women in Rubies, a ballet brimming with classical hyperbole, aren’t looking for a knight in shining armor. Set to Stravinsky’s bouncy Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, it opens with a static string of 13 men and women holding hands, looking not at each other but aloofly into the audience (compare with the chain in Emeralds). Independence epitomized, one of the women (Teresa Reichlen/Savannah Lowery) bursts through the crowd and amuses herself with a series of high kicks and hops on and off pointe. When she finally condescends to dance with the men, she denies them her undivided attention, partnering with all four at once. She later locks arms with them, one after the other, to spring herself into the air: a means to an end. The couple in the pas de deux (Ashley Bouder and Gonzalo Garcia/Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz) faces off in a flirty game of one-upmanship, grinning even as they circle each other like hungry animals. He embraces her on a few occasions, but there’s a sense that she’s teasing him, giving him only a brief taste before pulling away. They consummate their lust with a few pelvic thrusts, but it lasts only seconds. The thrill for both of them lies in the chase. (I’d have loved to see the results of a Bouder-De Luz pairing: Their partners, despite strong performances, failed to match their showmanship and intensity.)
Diamonds, for all the beauty and entertainment it offers, is the least interesting of the three ballets. It starts with a long, shifting display of diamond-shaped patterns made by the corps and two soloists that comes close to tedium. What’s extraordinary about Diamonds is its treatment of the ballerina, particularly during the finale. While 16 couples dance in unison with poise and politeness, the ballerina (Maria Kowroski/Wendy Whelan) stands front and center, marginally supported by her partner (Charles Askegard/Tyler Angle), performing pirouettes and fouettés and holding a series of grand poses. It’s as if the high concentration of dancers has caused this woman — a shining example of pure classicism — to materialize in their midst. The man spins her while she’s on pointe in arabesque, then he steps back: She completes another turn, proving what we already know: She doesn’t need him. Achieving this transcendence requires a dancer with impeccable line and strong technique. Kowroski excels in the role — one of the best I’ve seen her in — but Whelan’s performance was disappointingly blurry.
Balanchine loved women. If he “were a novelist or a playwright or a movie director instead of a choreographer,” Arlene Croce wrote, “his studies of women would be among the most discussed and most influential artistic achievements of our times.” In Jewels he paints vivid portraits of distinct women — the innocent damsel, the cunning flirt, the ethereal beauty — and approaches each with great affection. If Emeralds is about romance and Rubies depicts the other, less “honorable” end of the spectrum, Balanchine doesn’t seem to be grieving. Nevertheless, concluding the program with the Diamonds ballerina makes a powerful statement. As she spins and strikes one classical pose after another, entirely apart from the other dancers literally and figuratively, Balanchine leaves us to ponder his ideal woman: perfect, powerful, eternal.