In the mid-1960s, a visit to renowned French jewelers Van Cleef and Arpels inspired George Balanchine to choreograph a glittering ballet. New York City Ballet premiered Jewels in April of 1967 at the New York State Theater (now called the David H. Koch Theater) and it remains a fan favorite 44 years later, delighting audiences from that same stage.

Charles Askegard and Maria Kowroski in Diamonds © Paul Kolnik
Charles Askegard and Maria Kowroski in Diamonds
© Paul Kolnik

When this ballet was first created it broke the mold in many ways. New York and the United States were on the precipice of change, one that permeated all aspects of culture (the musical Hair made its shocking debut a few months after Jewels premiered). Van Cleef and Arpels’ timeless designs could not be translated into a traditional ballet story line. Instead a new abstract ballet was born. Without a plot to convey or characters to develop, Balanchine was free to use movement to express other ideas. Each of Jewels’ three acts, Emeralds, Rubies, and Diamonds, showcases a unique style of classical dance and its corresponding aesthetic (costumes by Karinska, scenery by Peter Harvey).

The first act opens to an emerald green backdrop with dancers in romantic costumes. The ballerinas’ rich green bodices give way to flowing minty-hued tulle and the stage is saturated in color. Gabriel Fauré’s score (Balanchine chose selections from Pelléas et Mélisande and Shylock) urges the dancers forward, skimming the floor with delicate steps. In this section the corps forms a series of shapes in the space, at one point gathering at center stage to create a sea of faces, arms reaching out and up at all directions like rays of light reflecting off a gemstone. Principals Abi Stafford and Jared Angle appeared to have stepped out of a French court, many times circling one another while linked at the wrist. Their exit, walking slowly backwards from downstage left to upstage right, cut a diagonal line across the stage that was as clear visually as if it were painted on the floor. This diagonal emerges again at the end of the first act. Three men remain kneeling along the diagonal, reaching their arms along the invisible line until the curtain closes.

Where Emeralds uses grand emotion, the more contemporary Rubies plays with contrast and drama. The set features sharp red lines framing the stage against jet-black curtains. The women in deep red leotards and short bejeweled skirts pop against the black backdrop, as do the men, covered in red from the waist up. Igor Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra fuels the performers’ attitudes, especially during dynamic piano solos (pianist, Cameron Grant). While there is no plot, the three principals explore their relationships with each other and with their fellow dancers. Theresa Reichlen, frequently surrounded by the four male soloists, dances with a magnetic force to execute iconic moments in the choreography. Whether with one leg bent in attitude high behind her head or held straight in front of her nose, arms extended and flexed at the wrists, she is beautiful to watch. Megan Fairchild and Joaquin de Luz are the definition of a dynamic duo dancing through every tempo of Grants’s solo. With the help of her partner, Fairchild’s arabesques extend beyond possibility while an ominous kettledrum beats out time.

Despite following two incredible acts, Diamonds, lives up to its namesake as the crown jewel. Every detail in this section evokes grandeur. Swaths of blue arch over the stage like the walls of a great hall, or maybe that’s because Tschaikovsky’s music is unmistakably imperial with horns punctuating the principal dancers every move. The tutus in this section are, of course, white, classically shaped flat tutus. Principal dancer Maria Kowroski’s costume is fantastic as the top half of the leotard is encrusted with crystals. Diamonds, is also the section with the largest ensemble with the most clearly delineated principal couple. Kowroski and long time partner Charles Askegard (this is his final season) have such a strong connection that the audience is tempted to create a backstory for them. Together they achieve almost every climactic dance moment, soaring pas de deux, precise turning sequences, leaps hanging in mid-air, with remarkable elegance. For the grand finale more than 30 dancers fill the stage jumping and spinning in unison to Kowroski and Askegard’s last enormous flourish.

While abstract choreography is no longer outrageous, the spark of creativity responsible for creating Jewels lives on through the New York City Ballet; this is one you don’t want to miss.