Briniging together the Paris Opera Ballet, New York City Ballet and the Bolshoi Ballet companies for this celebration of fifty years of Balanchine’s Jewels was a coup for outgoing Lincoln Center Festival director Nigel Redden. It’s widely accepted (even though Balanchine refuted it) that the traditions these three companies represent are embodied in Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds, respectively. On this occasion, NYCB and the Bolshoi switched places with the Russians dancing Rubies and the Americans performing Diamonds.. Understandably, this engagement was the hottest ticket of the dance season in New York City.

Paris Opera Ballet in George Balanchine's Emeralds
© Agathe Poupeney | Opéra national de Paris

Until this performance, Emeralds had always been my least favorite of the Jewels. The Paris Opera Ballet threw all its weight behind this, casting étoiles and premiers danseurs in all the leading roles and they are terrific dancers. The French do ballet differently. There is a luscious softness to their port de bras and a refined containment to their movement. Their very muscles seem smoother. Americans seem almost sinewy in comparison. This is not to say one is better than the other but in Emeralds, a ballet about lyricism, the Parisians completely won me over. Dorothée Gilbert and Hugo Marchand were exemplary. Gilbert is awesomely powerful on pointe as well as sublimely soft in her upper body. She moved through her balances like a lingering musical sigh that time and again drew my attention to how much this ballet is about the artistry of the upper body. Léonore Baulac’s solo had many steps performed facing away from the audience and it was a revelation of how exquisite a dancer’s back can be. French épaulement is like no other with its inexpressibly graceful twist. The men, Hugo Marchand, Germain Louvet and Marc Moreau all moved with incredible, feathery lightness. After many performances of anxiously waiting for Emeralds to end so the rest of the program could go on, this was a real revelation. I was transported to a sylvan glade and for once, I was in no hurry to leave. I won’t look at this ballet the same way again.

Yulia Grebenshikova of the Bolshoi Ballet in George Balanchine's Rubies
© Damir Yusupov

did not fare well in the hands and feet of the Bolshoi. Balanchine famously said that dance is music made visible but it was hard to see that in lead couple Ekaterina Krysanova and Artem Ovcharenko. They were lagging in getting to the positions that create a momentary picture, a snapshot, that illuminates a musical moment. The result was that they were moving through positions and it muddied the visual representation of the music. Ovcharenko’s jogging solo was off the mark as he was too balletic, not athletic enough. They also goofed around too much, treating the running, skipping rope and other Americanisms like a comedy routine rather than as play. As the tall girl, Yulia Grebenschikova was too soft in the middle and didn’t convey the inner Amazonian that this role requires. The Russian corps de ballet was great here and the leads are wonderful dancers but this is not their natural métier. There’s just no reasonable comparison between the dancers in this ballet and the Russians came up short.

When the curtain rose on New York City Ballet’s women for Diamonds, I was momentarily jarred. With the Paris Opera Ballet and the Bolshoi Ballet, the corps de ballet is more about uniformity of style, shape and position. NYCB’s dancers come in all different shapes and sizes. The individuals really stand out to the point that they initially appeared ragged and even a little chaotic. As I continued to watch, I began to realize that this is one of the things I love about NYCB: it makes room for a good deal of individual expression within the group.

Tyler Angle and Sara Mearns of NYCB in George Balanchine's Diamonds
© Paul Kolnik

The company nurtures this unique identity that gives us dancers like Sara Mearns. Partnered by Tyler Angle, Mearns gave us a Diamonds performance to remember. Unlike the more self-contained European dancers, Mearns slashes her way through space with her lines reaching out to infinity, her fingertips ever reaching out for just a little more. There is a burning and yearning in Mearns, a palpable sense of complete abandonment to the intoxication of pure movement. It was a riveting, thrilling performance and definitive of Balanchine’s greatness. I was out of breath just watching.

As dance experiences go, this one was hard to beat. It wasn’t all great but it was still sublime. The Paris Opera Ballet is supremely graceful, refined, elegant. They do it all with savoir faire. The Russians are outstanding technicians, awesomely powerful even when the choreography doesn’t fit them. New York City Ballet, and especially Sara Mearns, took the grand prize for this performance but let’s all admit that they were expected to excel since it’s their home theater and they’ve been doing Jewels for fifty years. Bravo to all.