George Balanchine’s Jewels

7 10 2010

As mentioned yesterday, AG and I went to Houston to see that city’s ballet perform the work Jewels by George Balanchine. If there was any doubt that Houston has a world-class ballet company, it was dispelled by this performance. For the most part, their presentation was crisp and faithful, having been well coached by the gatekeepers of the Balanchine Trust. The experience was a veritable joy, and probably one of the best live ballet experiences I have ever had (okay, I am still a neophyte by some standards). But in this presentation, one was able to witness what is the essence of Balanchine’s genius: his choreography allows you to see the music.

First, a mandatory note on the state of ballet in general. It should be noted that AG and I drove from New Orleans, so we ended up going to the matinee. At this performance, I am not sure if it was marketed as such, but it seemed like it was really “kid friendly”. I should rather say that is was “little girl friendly”. Many young girls showed up dressed in frilly and colorful dresses, with their mothers (and less commonly, their fathers) in tow. The souvenir stand sold mementos like those pictured below:

Such an atmosphere made AG very upset, and not just because we don’t like “kiddy” things in general. The implication was that the ballet is a chance for upper middle class moms and their daughters to bond. The husbands and sons no doubt were gearing up to watch the Texas-Oklahoma game, perhaps grilling some meat and throwing the ball around. Now, we don’t want to tell the Houston Ballet how to run its business, but such a model does not do well in terms of growing the general love for ballet. If it becomes another girly piece of nostalgia, like a doll house or the proverbial “chick flick”, we don’t see much future in it. Maybe having it become an exercise of feminine polite society and encouraging this by selling piggy banks decked out in tutus may be a good short term marketing strategy, but it is in no way to grow the arts in this country.

With that public service announcement out of the way, I can go to discussing the work itself. According to the helpful program notes, Balanchine’s Jewels can be interpreted as a plotless ballet. In other words, it doesn’t have a straightforward story to it. There are no princes, princesses, evil witches, or swans who murder, die or fall in love, etc. It is a three part work divided into the sections, “Emeralds”, “Rubies”, and “Diamonds”. The costumes are of course decked out in the (faux?) jewel of the respective section, with costume of the color to match (green, red, and white). The accompanying music comes from, respectively, Gabriel Fauré, Igor Stravinsky, and Peter Tchaikovsky. The work was originally premiered by the New York City Ballet in 1967, featuring, among others, Balanchine’s longtime muse, Suzanne Farrell.

All that being said, I think it is a disservice to call the ballet, “plotless”. In many respects, the Balanchine ballet is an autobiographical piece, a sort of bildungsroman telling the story of the development of an artist, and the power of art to express the ideals of a particular time and place. In “Emeralds”, Fauré’s score and the elegance of the dance evoked Balanchine’s formative time with the Ballets Russes under Sergei Diaghilev. I suppose it would not be hard to be nostalgic for such a time: a young man straight out of revolutionary Russia working with some of the greatest composers and artists of the century, in some of the most lavish settings. This was the time of the neoclassical work, Apollo, or the avant-garde plot experimentations of Prodigal Son. Diaghilev even sent Balanchine on a sort of “educational tour” of France and Italy, to see all of the cultural monuments of Western civilization. Perhaps the green emeralds evoke that freshness of youth, the possibility of a whole life ahead, and the romance that only such youth can have. Overall, the choreography for me had the ambiance of a dream, reflecting very well the music and ethos of French music at the beginning of the 20th century.

If “Emeralds” is the youthful dream, “Rubies” is a work of a man in full maturity, having passed through the drama of tumultuous modernity. That of course reflects the Stravinsky score, taken from his Capriccio for piano and orchestra. In “Rubies”, Balanchine, along with Stravinsky, comes to America. There are many quotations in the choreography from Broadway, and even a running motion evocative perhaps of Balanchine’s interpretation of how Americans move. The classicism is still there, but it is refocused in the context of ultramodern New York City, the founding capital of Balanchine’s new vision for ballet. I could not help but see many “quotations” from other works from his time in America; gestures from such “abstract” Stravinsky ballets as Agon and Violin Concerto. Perhaps this is how Balanchine “sees” Stravinsky’s music: stark, a little bit jagged, but always energetic, rushing forward, almost prepared to burst out of sound itself. If “Emeralds” lulled us into a dream, it is the fiery vibrancy of “Rubies” that wakes us up.

In “Diamonds”, we go back, one wants to say to childhood, but I would have to say that one goes back to eternity itself, to a time when the ideal and the real reflected each other perfectly. Balanchine was in the last generation of the Imperial Ballet School in Russia. He thus had minor supporting roles in some of the last ballets put on by the Czarist regime. It is that formation that Balanchine wished to impart to a new generation of dancers here in America. Even the official symbol of the New York City Ballet, the company he founded, is a Czarist symbol: the lyre of Apollo worn as the official uniform lapel pin of the students at the old Russian academy. But Balanchine was never a vulgar traditionalist. He was never into the idea of re-creating Czarist ballet as some sort of museum piece: a faithful reconstruction of a lost childhood. Balanchine is one of the only major figures in Western culture who was both traditional and revolutionary; one who was faithful to the past but at the same time used it to move forward.

This section of the work seems to be the one most evocative of the great ballets of Petipa (Swan Lake, the Sleeping Beauty, the Nutcracker, etc.) AG pointed out that there was no real “ballerina” until the appearance of the principal female dancer arrives on the stage, all dressed in white (this was originally Suzanne Farrell’s part). Quotations from classical ballet are obvious, made all the more so by the Tchaikovsky score (a long excerpt from his Third Symphony). The finale also speaks much of the “Czarist spirit” of ballet. It could be said that one reason that Balanchine’s ballets can seem so stark at times (minimal costumes, no sets, sometimes “no plot”) is that he did not feel that he could do justice to old-style Russian ballets that he participated in as a child. He just would never have the “imperial forces” to pull it off. In the finale of “Diamonds”, he decided to go for broke, so to speak, and flood the stage with dancers. The finale thus evokes something majestic and courtly; showing an egalitarian audience all that art can become in a royal context.

And perhaps it is in this finale that one can see best into Balanchine’s soul (if I may be so bold). Imperial Russia was not so much a utopia, but the World where the Ideal and the Real were one and the same. It doesn’t really matter if that was truly the case. There is no evidence that Balanchine was a political reactionary, or that he thought that the world could be saved by anything other than art. For Balanchine, what is evoked in classical ballet is the eternal, and that is what good ballet is in every circumstance, regardless of what period is evoked. That is why his ballets can seem a little abstract at times, but they never seem inhuman. In his best moments, we see what Plato wrote in the Timaeus: time (in this case, music and movement) is the moving image of eternity. And that is what all good dance does, really: it makes eternal such mundane things like a swing of the arm, a kick of the leg, or the sound of the violin, and draws them up into the music of the spheres.


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3 responses

9 10 2010
Bernard Brandt

I and my wife have noted the tendency in Los Angeles and Orange County promotions of Ballet (e.g., Bolshoi Ballet in L.A. doing a medley of things including Don Quijote, and Kirov Ballet in Orange County doing Swan Lake), to favor Mom and Daughter things. That’s just the lay of the land, or rather, of the audience. One would have to be blind not to note the numbers of mothers and daughters at such gatherings, just as one would have to be blind not to note the numbers of male couples at performances of Chantecleer. It’s just the way things are in the Land of the Fee (spelling intended).

Similarly, my wife and I have noted that at horsemanship gatherings up the Hill where the rich people live, there is a similar mother/daughter dynamic.

In both cases, my wife and I utter a few wry things (quietly, entre nous) about Ballerina Barbie as opposed to Malibu Barbie (cf. Addams Family Values) or the politics of Ponyland, (or whatever that wretched Saturday morning animated TV program goes by), and go on to attend to the respective shows. We quietly hope that the moms and daughters are involved in the show, too, rather than working out their own fantasies, either the childrens’ or the mothers’ through the children.)

By the bye, thank you for your review of the Ballanchine performance. You are a better, a more intelligent, and a more sympathetic, reviewer of dance than most I have read in the various rags that pass for newspapers these days.

7 10 2010
Sean

As you point out, this was a matinée performance, so children are to be expected and I’m not surprised that the gift shop’s inventory reflected that. I don’t see much difference between piggy banks in tutus and the various coffee table books, over priced opera glasses and $200 hand bags that are the staple items of museum/opera house gift shops the world over. The sale of the items is usually a decent part of revenue for these art venues and, to the extent that it helps make these events possible, I think it does advance the cause of the arts.

7 10 2010
Leah

The issue of how “high art” cultural events in general are marketed. I’ve noticed that whenever I go to the opera/symphony/etc, when I look out into the audience all I see are masses of white-haired people. Pretty soon, these white-haired people will be gone, and who will support the arts then? Although I doubt that the average young person 50+ years ago was clamoring to hear classical music or watch ballet, I get the impression there was at least a respect for the high arts that seems to be missing today. For example, in Martin Luther King Jr.’s book, “Strive Toward Freedom,” an first-hand account of the Montegomery Bus Boycott, the story is sprinkled with references to opera, classical music, and dead German philosophers. Presumably, the unwritten assumption is not only that a man of King’s background should be familiar with the arts, but also that the general reader knows who and what is being discussed. Today, I can’t imagine a national figure making those kinds of references (can’t appear to be too elitist, right?).

“And that is what all good dance does, really: it makes eternal such mundane things like a swing of the arm, a kick of the leg, or the sound of the violin, and draws them up into the music of the spheres.”

Great line.

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