17 February 2017 at 12.11pm | Comment on this article
The dazzling elegance of three precious stones was George Balanchine’s primary inspiration for Jewels, his abstract three-act masterpiece – but it was not only gemstones that captured the choreographer’s imagination.
It is often said that the three acts of Jewels each evoke a different city, and a different era of ballet and music – with ‘Emeralds’ and Fauré capturing the mythic grandeur of Romantic Paris, ‘Rubies’ and Stravinsky the bustling New York of Balanchine’s time, and ‘Diamonds’ and Tchaikovsky the stately grace of 19th-century St Petersburg, home to Petipa and Ivanov. But even with no plot to its name, Jewels draws on other sources as well, including some that are rather unexpected.
In 1965, two years before the premiere of Jewels, Balanchine took his dancer and muse Suzanne Farrell to Paris, to pay a visit to the Musée de Cluny. They were there to see six medieval wall tapestries, known as The Lady and the Unicorn. Shrouded in mystery, these unusual, large-scale works depict six young women, each surrounded by a lion and a unicorn. The allegorical significance of the tapestries is much debated, but five of them are generally considered to depict the senses – touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight – and the sixth has a grander title: ‘A mon seul désir’ (To my only desire). ‘He loved the title A mon seul désir’, Farrell wrote in her autobiography, ‘and [Balanchine] said he wanted to make a ballet for me about the story of the unicorn’.
This unicorn ballet may have become Jewels, or perhaps specifically the pas de deux created on Farrell that is the beating heart of ‘Diamonds’. As Alastair Macaulay writes, some of the more mysterious moments in this pas de deux can be viewed in light of Balanchine’s fascination with the Cluny tapestries – such as towards the end, when the ballerina’s arms rise above her head to create a sort of horn, and she walks forward slowly on pointe in expansive, equine steps. And is the way she seems to evade her partner’s gaze – stepping aside from him, retreating from his advances – a hint at the unicorn’s elusive nature?
Even at the very start of the pas de deux, as the couple walk slowly towards each other, their paths are not direct. They seem to move closer with caution, taking an angled path and pausing every third step. And when they do meet, a certain sense of separation remains: this is not a duet of extravagant lifts or passionate embraces. The man, in contrast, appears in longing awe of his partner, the epitome of unattainable classical grace.
Later the man seems almost to intrude on a solo by the woman, as he grabs her waist while she turns, but she evades his capture and he is soon chasing after her once again. While in classical ballet it is typically the man’s role to support his partner through more daring moves than she could accomplish alone, here the woman seems to be granting the man a favour by letting him hold her. The New Yorker critic Arlene Croce called this pas de deux ‘a long, supported adagio, the point of which is to let us see how little support she actually needs’.
Another critic, Laura Jacobs (who has written in depth about Jewels for both Ballet Review and the New Criterion), sees the influence of those enthralling tapestries extending beyond ‘Diamonds’ and into the work as a whole – can the titular jewels perhaps represent the shower of gifts which the woman receives in the final tapestry? Balanchine and Farrell did, after all, act out just such a scene in Van Cleef & Arpels, trying on all manner of precious jewellery.
All ballets are gifts of sorts from choreographers to dancers, but Jewels is perhaps more intensely so than most: the result of Balanchine’s passion for Farrell, which was ultimately not reciprocated. The ‘Diamonds’ pas de deux, then, is not just a tribute to the grand, shimmering tradition of Russian ballet, but also to a figure who was, to Balanchine, more elusive still.
Jewels runs 1–21 April 2017. Tickets are still available.
The production will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 11 April 2017. Find your nearest cinema.
The production is staged with generous philanthropic support from Hans and Julia Rausing, Sarah and Lloyd Dorfman, Lady Ashcroft, Lindsay and Sarah Tomlinson, Peter Lloyd and The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.