Not so many moons ago, opening night at the Opera House meant dressing up—dinner jackets, long dresses and furs, with of course, the obligatory embellishment of the family jewels. Alas, jeans, shirtsleeves and sneakers are all too often seen these days, so glamour and style must stem from the stage outwards into the auditorium. And that’s the classy way The Royal Ballet opened its 2011/12 season on September 20th, lighting the stage with an abundance of glittery choreographed gems, with dancer, fresh from their summer holidays, in sparkling form.

Dancers of the Royal Ballet © Johan Persson
Dancers of the Royal Ballet
© Johan Persson

The three-act ballet presented on opening night was George Balanchine’s abstract work, Jewels created in 1967. Balanchine tells how the inspiration to create this ballet came after paying a visit to the New York showroom of Van Cleef and Arpels to view its many priceless gemstones. Inspired by their beauty, he saw in his mind the possibility of creating their brilliance in dance form—not offering literary content but allowing the choreography and the dancers to depict the qualities of the stones as they performed to beautiful music. Each completely separate episode was to be danced to a different composer: Emeralds to the music of Gabriel Fauré from Pelleas et Melisande and Shylock: Rubies to Igor Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra: Diamonds to four movements of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3 in D Major -- Balanchine didn’t think the funereal first movement was danceable so didn’t use it.

The style of the three ballets is every bit as different as the musical selections—Emeralds is French chic and gentle, the girls in long pale green tarlatans with shiny satin emerald bodices: Rubies, costumed in vibrant red fringed leotards, is all-American with its jazzy syncopated steps and touches of leggy Broadway showgirl style, while Diamonds is pure class, a tribute to Balanchine’s own heritage of the Imperial Russian ballet with the dancers in pristine white jewel encrusted tutus.

Emeralds opens the evening with gentle strains of Fauré offering disciplined graciousness. Principal Tamara Rojo took centre stage, unfolding her elegant limbs with controlled composure. Her natural bubbly personality, though here necessarily somewhat restrained, was still evident and she danced with delight and sincere enjoyment, well partnered by Ryoich Hirano (who stepped in for an injured Frederico Bonelli). Hirano showed himself a steady partner, reliable and noble, dancing his solos with light clean footwork. The trio—Samantha Raine, Deidre Chapman and Alexander Campbell, newly arrived from Birmingham Royal Ballet-- danced with enthusiasm and clarity. Principal Leanne Benjamin demonstrated her sense of musicality offering fluid movement and excellent control in her balances. Her petite frame suggested fragility especially when she rippled her arms like the Swan Queen, but her technique was steely and secure. Nehemiah Kish, in an unflattering puff-sleeved tunic that reminded of a 19th century dancer, solemnly partnered the petite Benjamin in the much criss-cross walking and arm weaving but his own solos were somewhat dull.

Rubies is probably the most popular of this ballet triptych for it excites with its jazzy virtuosity and pzazz—and the company has a ball with all the hip thrustings and syncopated rhythms. Zenaida Yanowsky, statuesque and much taller than the other dancers, beamed sending her long legs whizzing upwards and flying across the stage in majestic outstretched jetés. Sarah Lamb also showed off, streaking across the floor, turning with quaint chicken-wing arms and spinning like a top, thoroughly enjoying herself in Balanchine’s fun choreography. Her effervescent partner, Steven McRae joined her and together they pranced like circus ponies with knees held high, expertly managing the complicated partnering required. He torpedoed onto the stage with all the power, but not the weight, of a scud missile, eating up the floor with his speedy turns, multiple pirouettes and boyish charm, much to the delight of the Opera House audience. All the dancers in Rubies made this lustrous jewel sparkle and flash with their dancing.

If ‘diamonds are a girl’s best friend’, then according to this ballet, the recipient should be regal, pristine and pure. The stage for Diamonds evokes a grander era with its crystal chandeliers and the perfect old world mannerisms of the dancers in their dazzling virginal white tutus. The central couple, Alina Cojocaru and Rupert Pennefather performed the many grand pas de deux, (reminiscent of those in Petipa’s masterpieces), with exacting precision, she, like a tiny porcelain doll seemingly weightless but technically secure. Pennefather, however, who is tall, elegant and handsome needs to generate some kind of expression—he remained poker-faced throughout as though he was not really enjoying the experience, and he needs to express more power in his bravura moments.

The ballet progressed through many memories of Russian ballet tradition with the corps, one moment reminding us of the Snowflake scene in The Nutcracker, then there were heel and toe steps that came straight from peasant dancing, and finally, the splendidly performed polonaise, as in Onegin, by all the Diamonds dancers filling the stage with true beauty.