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Three Companies, Three Facets of Balanchine’s ‘Jewels’

The three companies can be seen to represent these three facets of ballet: the jazzy American vernacular of New York City Ballet; the opulence of the Bolshoi; the more delicate elegance of the Paris Opera. “There is something interesting,” said Nigel Redden, the festival’s outgoing artistic director, “about presenting these three styles and seeing if the public can feel the difference.”

The logic behind the contrasts is partly biographical: Balanchine was trained in St. Petersburg, came to artistic maturity in Paris with the Ballets Russes and spent the bulk of his career refining his neo-classical style in New York.

I spoke about this contrast of styles in “Jewels” with three of the ballerinas who will perform it this month at Lincoln Center.


Dorothée Gilbert of the Paris Opera Ballet in the “Emeralds” segment of “Jewels.”

Julien Benhamou

‘Emeralds’: A Subtle Elegance

Dorothée Gilbert, Paris Opera Ballet: “It’s the most subtle of the three ballets — its beauty is all in the subtlety of the details.”

“Emeralds,” set to hazily atmospheric music by the French Romantic composer Gabriel Fauré, has two lead female roles, one of which was created for Violette Verdy, a French ballerina who joined City Ballet in 1958. Her dancing had an ineffably French perfume: spirited and charming but always precise and articulate, particularly the footwork.

There is a solo in which the dancer begins by moving just her arms, as if admiring them, then appears to be propelled into eddies of movement by a gentle breeze. “I made waves,” Ms. Verdy liked to say.

“The woman in this solo has a sparkle,” Dorothée Gilbert said by phone from Paris, using a French word you might use to describe Champagne (“pétillante”). “She loves life.”

Wherein lies the ballet’s Frenchness? “‘Emeralds’ is a very pure dance,” Ms. Gilbert answered, “in which elegance and refinement are important, particularly emphasizing the arms and the lower leg. And to me, the French school of ballet is about that articulation of the lower leg and feet.”

“You can play with the music in a very subtle way,” she added. “The choreography is really in the music, and the body goes where it wants to go.” The Paris Opera Ballet has performed “Jewels” since 2000, and Ms. Gilbert has already danced in “Rubies” — the second section — but New York will be her debut in the Verdy role in “Emeralds.”


Teresa Reichlen of New York City Ballet in the “Rubies” section of “Jewels.”

Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

‘Rubies’: Power and Glamour

Teresa Reichlen, New York City Ballet: “I’m weirdly possessive of it. That’s my ballet!”

“Jewels” is a ballet with many leading roles, one of its attractions. In “Emeralds,” there are four (two couples), and in “Rubies” three, a main couple and a leggy Amazon who peels away from the chorus line and vamps her way through the rest of the ballet. She’s a force of nature; it takes not one but four men to partner her, one for each limb. In her 14 years dancing the role, Teresa Reichlen has come to define it with cool glamour and an unflappable, almost teasing self-assurance.

In the passage with the four men, they encircle her, lifting and lowering one leg and pulling her forward into a sloped arabesque as she balances firmly on one toe. “They’re literally manipulating you,” Ms. Reichlen said recently at the Koch Theater, home of New York City Ballet, “but I try to create the illusion that I’m in control, that I’m telling them what to do. I feel very powerful when I dance it.”

“Rubies,” set to Stravinsky’s brassy and syncopated “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra,” is considered the most American of the three ballets. It’s fast and hard-edged and packed with allusions to sports, from rope-jumping to horse racing, and to tango, the cakewalk and tap. Balanchine’s interest in tap and African-American dance is well documented; he worked with both the Nicholas Brothers and Katherine Dunham on Broadway. For the 1936 “Ziegfeld Follies,” he choreographed a number for Josephine Baker in which she was partnered by four men.

“ ‘Rubies’ is very grounded,” Ms. Reichlen said, “with all that pawing and plié on pointe and moves that are low to the ground.” At the center of it all, he placed this uncontainable, liberated woman.

‘Diamonds’: A Lost World

Olga Smirnova, Bolshoi: “You might look at the ballerina as someone who is cold, maybe even too cold, but that is the way that diamonds shine, with a cold shine.”

When Balanchine entered the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg in 1913, the students, considered members of the czar’s household, were conveyed to the Mariinsky theater in chocolate-box-like carriages that bore the imperial double-headed eagle insignia. That didn’t last long. Four years later, after the Bolshevik Revolution, Russian ballet became part of the Communist state. In 1924 Balanchine decamped for Germany and then France. “Diamonds” is a tribute to the lost world of the Imperial Ballet — a gleaming, grandiloquent elegance, remote but tinged with melancholy.

“As in the big classical ballets, everything exists only to put attention on the ballerina, and the partner exists only to capture her attention,” Olga Smirnova said through a translator via Skype from Japan, where she was performing “Swan Lake,” a ballet that is echoed in “Diamonds.” The key is the music, Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, written just before the composer undertook “Swan Lake.” “In the adagio of ‘Diamonds’ there is this feeling that you are singing the music,” Ms. Smirnova said. “I have a similar feeling dancing the adagio in Swan Lake, because of the way the movements are built into the musicality.”

The music she is referring to unfolds during a slow, mysterious pas de deux that begins with the two dancers’ walking toward each other ceremonially and ends with the man on his knees in a gesture of self-abnegation. “She’s really like a queen,” Ms. Smirnova said. “Sometimes she can permit herself to be sentimental, but not too much.”

Three Troupes, One Ballet

All three ballerinas said they were curious about what it would be like to see their companies, each a representative of one of the ballet’s facets, performing side by side. “I’m only in the first ballet,” Ms. Gilbert said, “so you can be sure I’ll be in the wings every night, watching the rest.”

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