Balanchine finding inspiration while window-shopping at Van Cleef & Arpels on 5th Avenue is a nauseating image: the transition from models of Romantic inspiration to the pursuit of art as advertising. A ballet about jewellery is a paean to wealth and objectification. Reduced to the status of decoration, Balanchine’s concept for Jewels envisions dancers as the literal embodiment of the jewels wrapped around his audiences’ necks. Perhaps the concept was a calculated appeal to these wealthy donors, yet while Balanchine later admitted the ballet ‘had nothing to do with jewels’ the audience can still hear the rhinestones as they swing and clatter against dancing bodies. 

Marianela Nunez and Thiago Soares in <i>Diamonds</i> © Bill Cooper | ROH 2013
Marianela Nunez and Thiago Soares in Diamonds
© Bill Cooper | ROH 2013

However, this decadent triptych demonstrates a crucial principle: dance does not need narrative, moral message or political point; masterpieces are forged from choreographic invention and this is something Jewels has in abundance.

Diamonds, chronologically the finale of Jewels, functions as its spiritual centre-piece. Created for Balanchine’s muse Suzanne Farrell, Diamonds synthesises regal formality with melancholic lyricism in a nostalgic tribute to the classical ballet of Balanchine’s childhood in Russia. Using Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, written before the composer began Swan Lake, Balanchine creates a choreographic texture of echoes and resonances drawing from Marius Petipa’s tradition of grandiose staging and classical patterning. Wearing white tutus and tiaras a corps de ballet of couples perform synchronised arabesques, turns and courtesies in perfect alignment mirroring lead principals Marialena Nunez and Thiago Soares. Each cavalier holds their female partner as though made of glass. In fact, Soares’ partnering takes delicacy to the extreme; the result is a strangely drained and flat-footed performance, while Nunez seems to move with an expansiveness that encompasses the entire stage. Elastic jumps and natural athleticism are secondary to her stately poise as she moves across the stage; her dignified épaulement melting into generous backbends and liquid extensions reminiscent of Swan Lake's Odette. As Diamonds builds to a climax, the choreography crackles with reverberations from the previous two acts: jazz-inflected side-steps alternate with classical pirouettes and the lilting march of the polonaise. It’s as though we are witnessing the entire history of ballet refined and re-mixed through the mind and memory of a master-mind: Balanchine.

Helen Crawford, James Hay and Anna Rose O'Sullivan in <i>Emeralds</i> © Alastair Muir | ROH 2017
Helen Crawford, James Hay and Anna Rose O'Sullivan in Emeralds
© Alastair Muir | ROH 2017

Referencing the woodland glades of canonical ballets such as La Sylphide and Giselle, Emeralds opens the evening in a sea of green as dancers in calf-length tulle skirts drift across the stage as though spellbound by Gabriel Faure’s enchanting score. A tribute to Romanticism, Balanchine’s choreography emphasises the fleet footwork newly emphasised by shortened nineteenth-century ballet skirts and the ethereal spectacle of dancing on pointe. Marie Taglioni and the ideal of feminine grace established by the Romantic ballet resonates through the dancers' movements as they waltz from side to side, pose with gently inclined head and bend their arms as though reeds swept by a gust of wind. In many ways Emeralds is a piece built around the technique of bourrés en couru, a series of tiny steps performed with almost straight legs making the dancers appear to glide across the stage, and first performed by Taglioni. Laura Morera’s deft footwork and musicality capture this essence of delicate femininity while the pas de trois was a particular delight as James Hay, Anna Rose O'Sullivan and Helen Crawford inject the softness of Emeralds with a welcome and witty sprightliness.

Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb in <i>Rubies</i> © Bill Cooper
Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb in Rubies
© Bill Cooper

Even though the shortest section of the triptych Rubies explodes with optimism and exuberance; it’s during this act that Balanchine breaks from history to revel in American modernism. In short glittering red skirts the dancers prance and prowl with bravado confidence to Igor Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra. Suddenly, the dancers' bodies seem exposed in contrast to the chaste aesthetic of Emeralds; their relative nakedness emphasising their lean athleticism and extreme extensions mirroring the architecture and ambition of New York City. Where Emeralds demurs, Rubies combines brash can-can kicks and flirtatious show-girl poses to create a playful display of virtuoso technique. Steven McRae perfectly captures the cheeky tone of the piece: winking at the audience and slinking across the stage as though it’s a Barnum circus ring, while Sarah Lamb’s natural daintiness is transformed into feline power and strength.