Balanchine's gems were his dancers. He honored them with 'Jewels.'

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Balanchine's gems were his dancers. He honored them with 'Jewels.'
David Michalek’s slow-motion footage of New York City Ballet dancers, outside the David H. Koch Theater in New York on Monday, Sept. 18, 2023. (Lanna Apisukh/The New York Times)

by Roslyn Sulcas

NEW YORK, NY.- The sylvan glade romanticism of “Emeralds,” the electric energy of “Rubies,” the glittering imperial court of “Diamonds.” These are the three parts of George Balanchine’s “Jewels,” from 1967, often described as the first full-length plotless ballet. On Tuesday, New York City Ballet will open its 75th anniversary season with “Jewels” and a tribute to all the dancers who make up the company’s history.

That’s fitting because “Jewels” was Balanchine’s tribute to his dancers of that time: to the enchanting elegance of Violette Verdy and Mimi Paul in “Emeralds”; the insouciant charms and street smarts of Patricia McBride and Edward Villella in “Rubies”; and the grand glamour of Suzanne Farrell and Jacques d’Amboise in “Diamonds.”

The idea was born over dinner at violinist Nathan Milstein’s home, where Balanchine and Claude Arpels, from Parisian jewelry firm Van Cleef & Arpels, were both guests. Balanchine, keen to create larger-scale work for the company’s new home at Lincoln Center, liked the idea of dancers as exquisite gems and perhaps hoped for sponsorship. (It didn’t happen.)

“Jewels” begins with an ode to French romanticism in “Emeralds,” set to Gabriel Fauré. Then comes “Rubies,” an exuberant, witty illustration of the angular modernism that the Russian-born Balanchine developed in New York, set to Igor Stravinsky. Finally “Diamonds,” set to Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, evokes the grand imperial style of late 19th-century Russian classicism.

It’s a mini-history of ballet, and a portrait of Balanchine’s life in dance, which began at the Imperial Theater School in St. Petersburg, Russia; had chapters in France with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and the Paris Opera Ballet; and found its fullest expression in New York, where with Lincoln Kirstein, he founded the School of American Ballet in 1934 and City Ballet in 1948.

“It was a risk,” said Barbara Horgan, the choreographer’s longtime assistant. “We didn’t really do full-lengths. But I think he was anxious to make a blockbuster and bring in audiences.”

The audiences came — and the work’s title came a bit later. In a New York Times review after the premiere in April 1967, Clive Barnes referred to the three parts as “The Jewels,” adding, the ballet “has to be called something.” (He also offered an alternative: “The Bits of Colored Glass.”) By the time it opened the winter season in November 1967, it was officially “Jewels.”

In interviews, five of the original cast members talked about their memories of creating the ballet with Balanchine. Here are edited excerpts from the conversations.

Emeralds: ‘A Walking Meditation’

Mimi Paul

At my first rehearsal, Balanchine asked the pianist Gordon Boelzner to play two sections of the Fauré music. I knew the melody of the Sicilienne variation [from “Pelléas et Mélisande] because the classical radio station I listened to played it as their signature, so I said, “I like that one.” Balanchine said, “This is going to be very special for you.”

We walked to the back corner, and he started. Essentially you tried to mimic what he was showing you. He didn’t talk about much, but I remember him saying I should think of walking on a tightrope, placing each foot very deliberately in front of the other, never having both feet on the floor at the same moment. It was like a walking meditation. He was very accommodating. If something felt awkward, he would change it. Sometimes he let me invent, which I loved to do.

I think he saw an aspect of who I was at that point. I was quiet and introverted, someone who worked on my own a lot. It’s not that he drew something out of me; more that he spotted something in me. I felt extremely free.

Suki Schorer

I felt it was really me onstage in the pas de trois of “Emeralds.” Balanchine knew his dancers so well. He knew what our parents did, how we were raised. He would get you talking, not asking direct questions, but he was curious. With Violette Verdy, he really used her French port de bras and musicality and gave her a lot of freedom in that part.

I remember a stage rehearsal, close to the premiere, where Violette said, “Mr. B., you haven’t choreographed the finale.” He said, “Oh, I forgot.” He quickly put it together, and we had to try to remember it! Later he added a section to “Emeralds,” and the end totally changed.

Rubies: Off-balance, With a Sense of Humor

Patricia McBride

Balanchine demonstrated so beautifully, with all those hippy, turned in movements, and showing us the off-balance partnering. He worked very calmly and quietly, you could barely hear him talk, and he was very gentle. I was always a little nervous about keeping up with Mr. B., but we were pretty relaxed together.

The off-balance stuff is tricky, but if you got the musicality, that would help you. Mr. B. was really specific with the counts; he was always very precise with Stravinsky’s music. It’s mind-boggling to understand the different counts when the corps is doing one thing, and the principals are doing something else. It’s incredible how his mind could work in that way.

He never said “smile here” or anything, but in the pas de deux, he said, “Make your legs angry,” so I pounded my legs for that opening, stamp, stamp, stamp, down into the music. He let me be me. I thought it was a very glamorous role.

Edward Villella

When we started to work on “Rubies,” I thought, Oh, my goodness, this has a sense of humor! Balanchine said to me, “You are the jockey, and Patty is the showgirl,” and the humor in the ballet kept evolving. In the third movement there is a section where four guys chase the principal man around the stage, and it was so much like me. I was always fooling around and laughing. I was a tough guy from Queens, an oddity who had jumped ship at maritime college, and I was so happy to be dancing.

Balanchine would spend years listening to scores. You would hear him, in the theater, taking scores apart, one note at a time, on the piano. When he came into the rehearsal room, it was never tense, because he was totally prepared, and he knew us. Everything in our pas de deux was surprise, surprise, surprise. It was very difficult as a partner; there were so many unseen, extraordinary ideas. But I said to myself, “He trusts me with this.”

Diamonds: Grandeur Without Tragedy

Suzanne Farrell

Balanchine asked me if I had a preference about which jewel I wanted to be. I suggested the Stravinsky section, and he said, “I think I want you to be the diamond.” On the first day, he didn’t know how to start the pas de deux, so we began in the center. Later he added the entrance. The pas de deux has a diamondlike prism effect, a lot of separating and coming back together. At one point we actually make a diamond shape. It’s so ingenious. There is no competition between the man and woman in the pas de deux; it’s just two people coming together and doing something that neither could do alone, and making it more exalted. It’s gloriously resolved, there is no tragedy.

It was the only tutu ballet that Balanchine ever made on me, and I loved the feeling of grandeur he created through the music. I particularly love the polonaise; there is nothing like Mr. B., Tchaikovsky and a polonaise!

I feel that what links the three ballets in “Jewels” is the bourrée [a series of tiny gliding steps done on pointe]. They are different in each piece — languid in “Emeralds,” prancing in “Rubies” and more like stylized walks in “Diamonds.” No one ever applauds for a bourrée, but here they hold the ballet together.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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