Last week saw Balanchine’s Jewels return to the Royal Opera House to send off the 2008/2009 ballet season in glittering style. A few things have changed since its premiere in 2007: gone the lavish frocks and sizeable jewels to match those onstage, as worn by first night audiences the other side of the credit crunch; present lots of cast changes and regrettable absences due to injury, most notably leading ladies Zenaida Yanowsky and Sarah Lamb who could not reprise their roles in Rubies and Edward Watson who, sadly, did not partner Tamara Rojo in Emeralds this time.
Thankfully at least one thing has remained the same: Alina Cojocaru’s radiance in Diamonds. If anything, Cojocaru’s reading of this grand ballerina role has become even better second time around. She is more shrouded in mystery, less the fairy tale princess, more the multifaceted precious stone. Alongside her noble partner Rupert Pennefather she puts on a dazzling display of delicacy in her dance, she is a vision that Rupert pursues and tries to enfold and lock in his arms as if worried she could vanish at any moment. If her first performance last week – more careful – made me admire the beauty of her regal line, her musical phrasing and her lush backbends, the second made my heart skip quite a few beats in its technical precision: back after one year were Alina’s sharp turns, her lightning speed chaînés combined with that delicate, heart melting quality which makes Cojocaru’s dancing seem as rare as a precious stone and so uniquely endearing. Rupert Pennefather was more than an able partner, generating some unforgettable moments from his own solo work. As he turns in his grande pirouette during the Scherzo (the 3rd movement in this arrangement of the symphony) he advocates to us what Balanchine aimed for, he makes us see clearly all the respective turns in Tchaikovsky’s music. This physical translation of the music is evident in both dancers and in this respect I find them here – as I did in 2007 – very well matched.
So eloquent is the choreography in Diamonds you could think Tchaikovsky’s music would have been especially commissioned for the ballet and not the other way round, revealing to us just how far the genius of Balanchine went. Beginning with patterns formed by the corps, with two soloists later cutting through the lines with delicate pas de chats as they were diamond dust, or even snowflakes on loan from The Nutcraker, these soloists are joined by two further women who seem to trace the choreographic motifs and music box paths for the lead couple to dance on. Their own cavaliers join in later and the whole ensemble present a truly majestic finale, gloved women et al., in a grand ballroom. Composed of the final four movements of Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, Diamonds is in itself, the third and final movement within the symphony of dance formed by Balanchine’s Jewels, where Emeralds is the adagio and Rubies the allegro.
While I am, as you would have guessed, very much a “Diamonds girl” I also take delight in the dreamy and elegiac qualities of Emeralds, particularly as executed by Tamara Rojo, Leanne Benjamin, Roberta Marquez, Valeri Hristov, Bennet Gartside and Steven McRae (in the pas de trois) who seem lost in their own reveries or playing an eternal game of “Romantic tag”, which is suggested by the way the first male (Hristov, befuddled but elegant) touches his ballerina, like winding her with a magic wand – a leitmotif which is also seen in the other sections of Jewels. And as four ballerinas, interlinked with their partners, plunge into simultaneous arabesques penchés we see multiple visions of Giselle captured in a delicate bracelet. A real luxury.
The most successful of the three Jewels is, conversely, the one that appeals the least to my personal taste. But that’s not to say I do not enjoy a modern cut Ruby sandwiched between an Emerald and a Diamond. Rubies is supposed to showcase three technically brilliant dancers (2 women and 1 man) but now with Laura McCulloch not particularly tall and not particularly dominating (though much more secure in later performances), I feel as if all the action is left in the hands of Alexandra Ansanelli and Carlos Acosta. But at least those are competent hands. Stravinsky’s “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra” seems to musically suggest a capricious woman and her rakish man and the way this central couple communicate is almost the antithesis of the regal couple in Diamonds: playful, flirty, naughty, temperamental. At one point Carlos keeps Alexandra waiting as he goes on a dance tangent. Her exasperated looks seem to say “Oh, enough with the waiting already!”. The piano throws a fit while Alexandra fittingly (and carelessly) throws her leg and her whole body in all compass directions. At times she feigns collapsing in Acosta’s arms as a rebellious child lost in a tantrum, whilst in the audience we rebel against her decision to retire from ballet so early (she is only 28 years old). Throughout their duet, Acosta plays with Alexandra’s body as if it were a musical instrument, while her solo dancing speed dazzles us. I may be team Diamonds all the way but this Ruby I shall dearly miss.