George Balanchine, by his own admission, always admired jewels, a quality he attributed to his Georgian roots. “I like the color of gems, the beauty of stones,” he wrote in “101 Stories of the Great Ballets.”
When, in 1967, the curtain rose at New York City Ballet on his opulent triptych, known as the first full-length plotless ballet, it had no unifying title. But there was a unifying idea: precious stones. “Emeralds” possesses the fragrant earthiness and secrecy of nature; “Rubies” is heat and playfulness, with the games and posturing of a summer scape in New York City; and “Diamonds” casts a dazzling spell of cool refinement that wavers between soft and hard.
“Jewels,” as it came to be called, is an occasion as well as a ballet. On Tuesday, it opened City Ballet’s 75th anniversary at Lincoln Center, which included a special tribute to the dancers who have been part of the company since 1948 when it was formed by Balanchine and the writer and philanthropist Lincoln Kirstein. (The music was performed live, though before the show, members of the New York City Ballet Orchestra held a rally in front of Lincoln Center’s plaza to protest delays in contract negotiations.)
To see so many dancers fill the stage after “Diamonds” — more than 350, including a few from its 75-year-old beginnings — as well as inimitable stars like Suzanne Farrell, Allegra Kent, Patricia McBride and Edward Villella — made for a poignant, physical statement. These were jewels in the flesh.
Yet you also thought of the many dancers who weren’t there. Ghosts were in the air. As the “Pomp and Circumstance” march played — maybe something else would have been better? — Farrell, amid the cheers and waves, pressed her fingertips together and cast her eyes downward. Her solemnity was striking.
As for the performance? Certainly, joy was in the air — though perhaps, in the case of “Rubies,” an unfortunate overflow. “Jewels” loosely references three schools of ballet: French, American and Russian. During the evening, the sections’ different looks and sensations were apparent, but most clearly felt was the singular choreographic hand stringing them together. “Jewels” is a banquet of Balanchine starting with “Emeralds,” the evening’s most subtle, most mysterious and, because of that, most fragile ballet. Saturated in green like a dewy forest and set to Fauré, it pays homage to French Romanticism.
Leading roles included debuts for Indiana Woodward and Tyler Angle. His elegant, able partnering sets a dancer free, and Woodward — French, like Violette Verdy, the originator of her part — was transcendently herself, glowing with her own indelible perfume.
Dancing cleanly and clearly, Woodward used her imagination to great effect in a solo focusing on the arms as they curved and parted the air, swooping to linger by her face or reaching behind to form a kind of innocence meeting ecstasy. In their pas de deux, Angle and Woodward shaped the notes as they came together and separated like easy, rippling waves. Less seamless was Emilie Gerrity who, with too much anguish in her expression, wavered between control and hesitation, in a solo of her own.
In “Rubies,” set to Stravinsky and instilled with a jazzy swagger, Mira Nadon, the statuesque female soloist, stretched and splayed her limbs with abandon as she glided through extensions and balances with a blend of sensuality and risk. But something went haywire with Megan Fairchild. Dancing with Anthony Huxley, she was overly jovial as an uncharacteristically hammy quality seeped into her performance. Huxley, for his part, stayed the course, dancing with humor, ebullience and good taste.
The elegant, crystalline “Diamonds,” set to Tchaikovsky and evoking imperial Russian ballet, came as a relief — though its gleaming blue set is the biggest eyesore of all the “Jewels” décor. (It reminds me of an empty high school swimming pool.) But that could hardly diminish the sophistication of its pas de deux, danced by Sara Mearns and Russell Janzen. They instilled the ballet with an impeccable, understated grandeur. And making their connection even more emotional, more vulnerable, was the knowledge that time is ticking: On Sunday, in the season’s final program of “Jewels,” Janzen, a standout principal, will give his farewell performance.
After they walked toward each other, meeting at the center of the stage with slow and steady steps, their bodies continued in a pattern of sweeping together and apart. They shaped movement — difficult balances and changes of direction with tricky partnering — with patience and ease, even as decorum slipped into sudden and surprising bursts of feeling. When Janzen finally dropped to a knee beside her and kissed her hand, she looked down at him in surprise — as if the action really was a surprise. Nothing felt premeditated, not even their tearful mid-show bow.
“Jewels” may be referred to as a story-less ballet, but that has never seemed entirely true. Mearns and Janzen’s performance felt like proof that it’s not. There are unspoken stories in each ballet — streams of them — in which the dancers are not characters but heightened versions of themselves, using a language embroidered with steps, musicality and Balanchine’s way of highlighting precisely etched, unaffected dancing.
How does a dancer move through space and time, and how does that create conditions for energy to flow? Ballet, as Kirstein once wrote, depends on dance and “the dancer, dancing whatever is calculated to raise public and performer to some transitory terrestrial paradise.”
Watching the ebb and flow of Balanchine’s choreography — the patterns and pathways of his “Jewels” — and inside of that, a dancer’s instantaneous and intentional response to the music, is like a transference of energy. It’s a physical sensation not only to watch but to feel how the internal reverie of “Emeralds” moves into the pleasure and play of “Rubies” and lands in the unflappable world of “Diamonds.” Can a dance change the world for the better? With Balanchine, anything’s possible.
New York City Ballet
Performances continue through Oct. 15 at David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, nycballet.com.