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Starlit Nights at the Palais Garnier:
Balanchine's Jewels

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 24 January 2001 - George Balanchine, the greatest choreographer of the twentieth century, adored beautiful women and his ballerinas in particular. He married four* of them and made muses of many others, creating works to make their bodies sing, rendering them even more sublime. The gems in Jewels, the ballet inspired by a visit to Van Cleef and Claude Arpels Jewellers of Fifth Avenue, are in fact his dancers.

The three part ballet is a celebration of the golden ages of dance: Bournonville's sylphs at the Paris Opéra, Balanchine's own 'babes' from the American musicals, and the glorious imperial ballerinas from Saint-Petersburg. It is also a tribute to the cities he lived in, and to their respective romantic, contemporary, and formal choreography. The music, from composers who lived and worked in each of the countries, ushers in the spirit of these three diverse styles.

Balanchine's Emeralds
Carole Arbo and Jean-Guillaume Bart in Emeralds
Choreography: Balanchine / Photo: Icare

The opening ballet, the poetical, flowing Emeralds is set to Gabriel Fauré's " Pelleas and Melisande". Balanchine evokes France, the birthplace of Romantic dance, where he worked with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes after he had been virtually pushed into leaving Russia because his pieces were too unconventional, too audacious. Commissioned to create The Creatures of Prometheus for the Paris Opéra Ballet in1929, he fell ill, and Serge Lifar who was called upon to complete the ballet, took over the post of director shortly after. Balanchine crossed the Atlantic, and France's loss was New York's gain.

Danced for the first time by the company which so nearly became his own, Emeralds, interpreted in one casting by Isabelle Guérin who personifies the cool poise of the French school, glowed with a quiet refinement and serenity all of its own. Yet on a second evening, Elisabeth Maurin's interpretation, full of gentle charm and femininity, followed more closely that of French ballerina Violette Verdy, for whom the role was created in 1967, and to whom she bears a striking resemblance. A second solo, 'the Sicilienne', was danced by the mystical, delicate Fanny Gaida.

Nicolas Le Riche and Kader Belarbi, with their smooth partnering and soft light jumps danced the conventional male roles as well as they could, but were practically relegated to being part of the background, a back-handed compliment as decor and costumes, sumptuous, were by top Paris couturier, Christian Lacroix.

The ballerinas drifted on stage in clouds of floating tulle, their tiny waists nipped in by bodices in dark 'Nile Green' satin, glittering stones on ears and hair, whispers of elegance, fashion and fragrance.

Rubies, set to Stravinsky's Capriccio and arguably the finest complete work of the three, sparkles. Already part of the Paris Opéra's repertory under the name of Capriccio, it is movement made music where Balanchine has in his own words, "simply followed the score".

Balanchine's Rubies
Delphine Moussin and Lionel Delanoe in Rubies
Choreography: Balanchine / Photo: Icare

The dancers, in attractive tunics of scarlet and ruby-red mousseline sewn with pearls and gems, surpassed themselves. Did it really matter if the fresh and breezy, somewhat flashy style of the New York City Ballet was replaced by the more stylish, chic and charm of the French troupe? Led by Delphine Moussin, more flirtatious than perky, who was partnered in the second cast I saw by the ebullient Lionel Delanoe whose pride and joy in dancing with his ravishing offstage companion was only too evident, the troupe revelled in the challenges of the difficult choreography. There seemed nothing they couldn't do.

Jazzy hip movements, dizzying pirouettes on the heel, miming rowing a boat, playing with an imaginary skipping rope; here we have the carefree spontaneity Balanchine so loved about America, a throwback to the musical comedies and films he created soon after his arrival in the United States. A burst of sunshine, only slightly marred by the lean, long-legged Marie-Agnès Gillot who did not enter into all the fun.. Athletic prowess is not what George Balanchine is all about.

As the curtain rose on Diamonds, the tension and excitement caused by Rubies was replaced by awe, by the ooohs and ahs from the audience at the magnificence of the glittering scene before them. No chances had been taken with casting, and there was a physically perfect corps de ballet, each girl more glorious than the next, motionless, in scintillating white tutus encrusted with diamonds and crystals. Lacroix might well disclaim any "création" , but he did Karinska , Balanchine's costume designer, proud. While remaining faithful to her original designs and to the spirit of the work, he nevertheless introduced that sexy little touch of French "je ne sais quoi", threading the tutus through with silver lace.

Balanchine's Diamonds
Agnès Letestu and José Martinez in Diamonds
Choreography: Balanchine / Photo: Icare

The ballet is a classical showpiece set to music by Tchaikovsky, a tribute to the work of Marius Petipa and the Kirov company, almost an extension of what the choreographer learned as a pupil there, for when the walzing began, it seemed to come directly from the snowflake scene in the Nutcracker. Formal, cold, almost glacial, the work generates a deep, inner tension particularly in the second movement, a grand pas de deux interpreted by Letestu and Martinez.

Agnès Letestu, who entered on stage like a ripple of light, possesses every quality dear to Balanchine ; musicality, a decided personality, exquisite feet, and a strong, precise technique. Ethereal, yet with the speed and strength necessary, she was partnered to perfection by José Martinez who supported her with the merest brush of his fingertips. A Balanchinian knight in shining armour. They evoked Swan Lake and the splendours of the Imperial Ballet of Saint Petersburg in a shimmer of classical elegance.

Paul Connelly conducted the Orchestre de Colonne with sensitivity and with respect for both music and dancers. It is his first visit to the Paris Opéra, and hopefully, it will not be his last.

*Tamara Geva, Vera Zorina, Maria Tallchief, Tanaquil LeClercq.

** Jewels was first danced in Paris by New York City Ballet in 1976, and in London by the Kirov in September 1999, the only other 'foreign' company to dance this full-length, plotless ballet.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for

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