'Jewels' in the Crown

If ever there was a trophy ballet, Jewels is it. Choreographed in 1967 by George Balanchine for the New York City Ballet, it's a jewel in the crown of companies lucky enough to dance it. For years that meant NYCB, then other troupes in the Balanchine "family." Now it has entered the repertory of St. Petersburg's Kirov Ballet, and it's hard to imagine a more glorious evening than the New York premiere during the company's recent season at the Metropolitan Opera House. Since 1990 the Kirov has acquired several Balanchine works. But Jewels is in a category of its own, a grand three-act ballet that is completely plotless. Each of the acts bears the name of a precious stone, but other than that they have no formal connection. Yet each is a clue to Balanchine's imagination and a page from his autobiography. The opening, "Emeralds," to music by Fauré, evokes Paris, where he lived as a young man. "Rubies," to Stravinsky, is red, hot, and jazzy, like the New York he discovered in the 1930s. "Diamonds," to Tchaikovsky, is a vision of remembered classical grandeur, an homage to Marius Petipa and the Imperial Ballet that Balanchine knew in St. Petersburg as a youth.

Everyone has their favorite section of Jewels. Mine is "Emeralds," with its pools of silence, its women in green skimming on pointe through a dream. I was not disappointed. Zhanna Ayupova, the company's senior ballerina, brought a refined lyricism to the lead role, a softness and pliancy in the arms and upper body that seemed to defy her Kirov training. When she backed into the wings with Victor Baranov, holding him around the waist, she seemed transfixed, as if bidding the world a last, fateful farewell. Veronica Part, about to decamp for American Ballet Theatre, exuded a more robust dreaminess as the second soloist.

"Rubies," by contrast, is all flash and pizzazz. Diana Vishneva, in the lead role, goes for broke. She dances full-out, giving the big jumps and kicks everything she's got and more. Her legs carry her across the huge Met stage in three or four bounds, and her extensions convey an impression of muscular strength even more than height. Like her partner, Viacheslav Samodurov, she relishes the kinetic freedom of Balanchine's "modern" style, and unlike most of the ballet's other pairs they met the challenge of his partnering by working together as equals.

There is no corps like the Kirov's. In "Diamonds" it sparkled, revealing the full majesty and grandeur of Balanchine's choreography. As the ballerina, Svetlana Zakharova revealed once again her exquisite line, but also the ultra-high extensions that distort it. She treats her partner, the hardworking Danila Korsuntsev, as an adjunct to her glory rather than a part of it, a faceless cavalier rather than an erotic complement.

The Kirov's pointe work leaves something to be desired. Few of the women roll through their feet, which makes for awkward transitions from pointe to flat and too much noise in jumps. There are also lapses in taste: the fussy sets (credited to Peter Harvey), the bow after one of the duets of "Emeralds." But nothing can efface the magnificent impression of the corps in "Diamonds," bringing to life Balanchine's memory of the past remade as a luminous, eternal present.

 
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