Fifty years ago, George Balanchine broke the mold when he choreographed the first evening-length abstract ballet, "Jewels." The ballet is divided into three sections, each inspired by a different composer, and costumed to reflect emeralds, rubies and diamonds.
Ballet West offers the Utah premiere of this masterful trilogy beginning Friday, April 5, at the Capitol Theatre.
" 'Abstract' is such a funny word," Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute said. "I think 'plotless' is more accurate, because each of the three sections is evocative of a mood, an era, and tells its own story."
"Jewels" opens with "Emeralds," set to music of Gabriel Fauré and costumed in feminine ankle-length tutus. The delicate fluid movement is reminiscent of 19th-century Paris and London during the Romantic era defined by ballets such as "Giselle" and "Coppélia." The section requires 17 dancers.
"Rubies," set to music of Igor Stravinsky, is jazzy and flirtatious and is often a favorite among audiences. Sparkly, gem-colored skirts for the women conjure images of New York City nightlife. A sassy pas de deux for the lead couple, a solo for the archetypal Balanchine dancer and a high-energy chase to the end often beg comparisons to the New York Marathon. The section requires 15 dancers.
For the final section, "Diamonds," Balanchine chose the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, to pay homage to his homeland, the Imperial Russian Ballet and his mentor Marius Petipa. Structured in the classical tradition of "Sleeping Beauty" and "Swan Lake," "Diamonds" begins with a slow adagio involving 14 dancers. The second movement is a pas de deux or couples dance. In the third act, all 34 dancers return to the stage for the polonaise the crowd-pleasing whirlwind of movement that brings the audience to its feet.
Not for beginniners • "It takes a very strong and good-sized company to perform all three sections of 'Jewels' in its entirety," Sklute said.
Last year, Nevada Ballet Theatre, a company that lacks the size and strength to produce the three-part masterwork on its own, invited Ballet West and Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet to join in a cooperative performance of "Jewels" something that never had been done. Each company took on a different section, with "Emeralds" as Ballet West's portion. The production was granted special permission from The George Balanchine Trust and sponsored by the jewelry company Van Cleef & Arpels. Legend has it that Balanchine's inspiration for the ballet came as he peered in the jewelry store window.
"We're fortunate to have a deep bench now," first soloist Thomas Mattingly said. "Everyone has improved over the last five or six years so that now we have a company full of dancers who are all capable of dancing featured roles."
Joshua Whitehead, who moved up from Ballet West II into the main company this year, didn't grow up studying ballet and admits he has to "work harder learning the complicated footwork in 'Jewels' " than dancers who trained classically early especially those who trained at Balanchine's School of American Ballet (SAB) in NYC.
Demi-soloist Emily Adams trained at SAB, "so the technique does come easier for me," she said, "but I'm not sure anything could fully prepare me for the 10 minute solo I have in 'Emeralds' or my solo in 'Diamonds.' "
Adams said each part in "Jewels" is identified by the name of the dancer who originated the role. The original cast is filled with ballet legends such as Suzanne Farrell, Patricia McBride, Edward Villella and Conrad Ludlow whose name may be familiar to Utahns. After retiring from an impressive 20-year career as a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet and New York City Ballet, Ludlow taught in the department of ballet at the University of Utah from 1985-2010 and continues to coach here.
Ballet West soloist Chris Sellars grew up studying the classics at his parents' ballet studio in Huntington Beach, Calif., but had never seen the neoclassical "Jewels" until last year, when the company learned "Emeralds" for the spring performance. Since then, Sellars has been properly and quickly schooled in the three-act ballet.
"We learned all of 'Rubies' in six hours of rehearsal and it is exhausting," Sellars said. "The Stravinsky music is very complicated to count and at this point I can't hear 'landmarks' to help navigate it. But each section of 'Jewels' is its own discovery and has its own well, you could call it atmosphere or abstract story."
A plot or not • It isn't necessary to impose a narrative on "Jewels" to enjoy it. But is it really plotless, as Sklute suggests?
Through the years, some have speculated that the first ballerina in 'Emeralds' symbolizes Balanchine's ideal woman.
Others say the rubies represent something more coveted than any gem especially at the climax of the pas de deux, when the ballerina sensuously drops these red gems into her partner's hand.
And 'Diamonds,' many believe, may be Balanchine's marriage proposal to Suzanne Farrell the dancer whom he was known to have been obsessed with in the late 1960s when "Jewels" premiered.
Audiences will have to see this masterwork by the most famous choreographer in ballet history to answer those questions for themselves.
Ballet West's 'Jewels'
When • April 5, 6 and 10-13 at 7:30 p.m.; 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday, April 13
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $19-$80; at arttix.org, 801-355-ARTS or at the box office. Discounts for groups of 15 or more by calling Ballet West, 801-869-6900.
Golden anniversary season announced
Ballet West's 2013-14 season which marks the company's golden anniversary will include world premieres, a major revival and longtime favorites.
"I have designed our 50th-anniversary season to honor the past, celebrate the present and keep an eye on the future," Adam Sklute, Ballet West artistic director, said in a news release announcing the schedule. "Each program this year pays homage to our founder Mr. C and all of my predecessors, while continuing to offer Utah audiences the new and exciting repertoire that keeps Ballet West a forerunner in American ballet."
The season will open Nov. 8 with a revival of Willam Christensen's colorful and dramatic "The Firebird." It will be performed at Kingsbury Hall, the birthplace of the company 50 years ago.
After "The Nutcracker" in December and "The Sleeping Beauty" in February, Ballet West's spring production features the world premiere of "The Rite of Spring," by resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte.
Rounding out the season will be the premiere of Jiri Kylian's urgent and tender "Forgotten Land," set to Benjamin Britten's stirring "Sinfonia da Requiem," and George Balanchine's classic "Divertimento No. 15," which embodies the playful elegance of Mozart's music.
"The Firebird" (major revival) • Nov. 8, 9 and 13-16; at Kingsbury Hall on the University of Utah campus.
"The Nutcracker" • Nov. 29-Dec. 28; includes a version of "The Nutty Nutcracker" on Dec. 30
"The Sleeping Beauty" • Feb. 7, 8 and 12-15
"The Rite of Spring" (world premiere) • April 11, 12 and 16-19
"Innovations 2014" (world premiere) • May 16, 17 and 21-24; at Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center
For season tickets • balletwest.org