The Bolshoi is back in Brisbane for this year’s QPAC International Series, presenting two contrasting works: Spartacus and George Balanchine’s Jewels. The latter was a 1967 showcase for New York City Ballet’s move to the Lincoln Center. It now has legendary status as a masterpiece of Balanchine style and the first full-length, truly abstract ballet.

Daria Khokhlova in <i>Emeralds</i> © Damir Yusupov
Daria Khokhlova in Emeralds
© Damir Yusupov

Any viewing confirms it is a masterpiece, with its creation of three balletic universes: the ambiguous, romantic French forest of Emeralds, set to lush music by Fauré; the speeding red edges and American modernist glint of Rubies, accompanied by Stravinsky; and the crowning glory, Diamonds, in all its sparkling snowy palatial beauty – Balanchine’s grand tribute to Russian Imperial classicism and Tchaikovsky.

Although Jewels has since become big business and is one of the most performed Balanchine pieces outside NYCB, every production seems – for better or worse – inextricably tied to the memory of that first one. Jewels was choreographed to showcase Balanchine’s principals, and the personalities of the original cast (who read like a Who’s Who of “Balanchine originals”) remain imprinted like DNA in the choreography and the public’s memory. The mysterious, musical poetry of Emeralds was Violette Verdy. Rubies was the bright Patricia McBride and Patricia Neary, and Edward Villella’s never-quite-replicated combination of classicism and New York street-style. And whoever leads Diamonds is often compared (somewhat unfairly) to the ultimate Balanchine ballerina, Suzanne Farrell. Complicating the matter is the expectation of Balanchine fidelity, with every production overseen by the Balanchine Trust.

This is all a long way of saying I had reservations about Jewels as a Bolshoi touring piece. Would something so quintessentially Balanchine really show them at their best? After all, the Bolshoi sense of self is as strong as the Balanchine sense of self, with Bolshoi identity tied to Russian storytelling, rich in dramatic poses and heroic blockbuster ballets: the very things Balanchine stepped away from when he left the Soviet Union. Presumably the piece was intended to showcase Bolshoi diversity and technical talent. And it is true they did a good job. Jewels is difficult and they looked beautiful. But as a whole they did not seem in their element, not comfortable enough to be consistently expressive, and this was a pity for a company so capable.

Ekaterina Krysanova and Artem Ovcharenko in <i>Rubies</i> © Darren Thomas (29 June cast)
Ekaterina Krysanova and Artem Ovcharenko in Rubies
© Darren Thomas (29 June cast)

Daria Khokhlova and Ksenia Zhiganshina were the Emeralds leading ladies. Khokhlova's reticence in expression meant the "mysterious, musical poetry" was lacking, but Zhiganshina in the secondary soloist role was lovely. She is innately musical (that essential Balanchine trait), and this enabled her to find Emeralds's overtones of shade and light.

Rubies was uncomfortable on the Bolshoi. Its notorious speed threatened to escape the dancers. The musicality wasn’t quite there – the dancers didn't seem relaxed enough to move in (rather than to) the piece's Stravinsky syncopation. Rubies’ American sass also got muddied in translation, and the sections that drew on Broadway and Hollywood style veered dangerously close to the caricature cliff-edge. This was most evident in the leading male solos, in this cast Igor Tsvirko. He ate up the jumps and his warmth won the audience. But I could feel the ghost of Edward Villella; it's hard for others to capture steps whose soul is the unusual combination of New York homeboy and ballet prince. But the piece improved as it progressed, as if the dancers were defrosting into Rubies’s red-hot, precise looseness.

I knew Diamonds would be marvellous though, and it was. Who else but Russian dancers could better understand Balanchine’s tribute to the traditions of his childhood at the Russian Imperial Ballet School. The central role was danced by Anna Nikulina, resplendent in the grand white Diamonds tutu. The solemn opening walks beginning the famous central pas de deux are the role’s litmus test, and she was wonderful (I confess to using Suzanne Farrell as a reference point). Her every step and gesture had regal distance and drama, but also the emotional intensity and musical expression that give life to the role’s queenly coldness – no easy balance. By the time she led Diamonds to its sumptuous ending, with the company coming together in grand diagonal lines across the stage, the audience was swept up.

Jacopo Tissi and Alyona Kovalyova in <i>Diamonds</i> © Darren Thomas (29 June cast)
Jacopo Tissi and Alyona Kovalyova in Diamonds
© Darren Thomas (29 June cast)

And maybe that was enough. Anything Balanchine seems fated to bear the weight of Balanchine expectation, sometimes hampering the dancers, as may have happened here. This expectation may change and develop for the better as more companies dance his work (think how Giselle has transcended Romantic style), but it may not. Ultimately though, Jewels is a genius celebration of ballet – this time from a Bolshoi perspective, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

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