The Bolshoi’s Jewels, with Smirnova the glittering centrepiece

There were at least two compelling reasons to see the Bolshoi Ballet’s performance of Balanchine’s Jewels, filmed in Moscow last month and screened last weekend in Australia.

The first was to witness the extraordinary 22 year old dancer, Olga Smirnova, and the second to see Sergei Filin, the Bolshoi’s artistic director, on stage again, talking about the ballet with Katerina Novikova, the company’s multilingual spokeswoman.

Novikova introduced the ballet and chatted in Russian, English and French with great fluency with both Filin and Merrill Ashley, who, with Paul Boos, staged the Diamonds section of Jewels.

Sandra Jennings staged Emeralds and Rubies.

Filin, wearing dark wrap around glasses, seemed both serene and poised a year after the acid attack that damaged his eyesight so badly.

Incidentally, it’s recently been announced that he will be one of the judges in the Youth America Grand Prix next April. His sight in one eye is now good enough for him to judge the competition according to a spokeswoman for the Prix.

Smirnova will dance at a gala to mark the 15th anniversary of the Prix in New York.

In 2011, Smirnova graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St Petersburg and joined the Bolshoi the same year on the invitation of Filin.

As you’d expect from a Vaganova graduate, her technique is impeccable but her performance in the ballerina role in the final section of Jewels, Diamonds, went far beyond that in terms of her charisma and stage presence.

The Bolshoi stage is huge, but Smirnova’s presence was so powerful that it seemed she owned the stage.

At first she appeared almost too regal and distant, but, gradually, she connected more and more with her partner, Semyon Chudin, to move from low beam to full beam. She danced with every part of her body, with remarkable use and control of her epaulement, her back, head, neck and focused eyes.

The only dancer that has made the same spine tingling impression on me was Sergei Polunin who I saw at the Royal Opera House shortly before he left the Royal Ballet. I’ve not seen Smirnova on stage but now that’s a must.

As for the Bolshoi’s interpretation of Jewels, choreographed on the New York City Ballet in 1967 by Balanchine, the company seems more at ease with the bookends, Emeralds and Diamonds, than it does with the red centre, Rubies.

Emeralds, as has been written so many times, signifies the elegance and calm of the French ballet style, while Diamonds acknowledges the importance of Marius Petipa and the Russian Imperial age.

Although Balanchine himself claimed it wasn’t intended, Rubies has always been linked with his love of his adopted country, the United States, and his affinity with Broadway shows.

In 1967, Rubies must have seemed the most innovative and showy of the trilogy, with all that skipping, bent elbows, flexed wrists, and high kicks, but danced today by the Bolshoi, it seems strangely dated, despite the joyful performance of the principals, especially Ekaterina Shipulina.

The women’s short, Christmas-red dresses with layered skirts finished with a sliver of sparkly fringe were not as chic as the Paris Opera Ballet’s or the original Karinska designs worn by the Mariinsky Ballet and Royal Ballet, (although the men’s Rubies costumes by Karinska are not the most flattering.) In 2000 the Paris Opera Ballet danced Jewels for the first time with the elegant costumes by Christian Lacroix.

(Both the Mariinsky and Paris Opera productions are available on DVDs).

The Bolshoi costume designs for Jewels are by Elena Zaitseva and the sets designer is Alyona Pikalova.

For Emeralds and Rubies, the backdrops are five towers of glittering emerald or ruby squares that resemble giant bracelets, but for Diamonds, the setting reverts to a ballet cliché, a blue backdrop with stars.

My most loved moments in Jewels are when the women walk slowly on pointe as if in a dream and the inspirational finale of Diamonds when all the dancers enter in a polonaise and at the end, as one, acknowledge both audience and ballet history with a luscious reverence.

2 Comments

  1. Adrian Ryan
    Posted February 20, 2014 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    Before I shuffle off this mortal coil, there are two things I hope to experience : a performance of “Les Biches” [anywhere] and the entry into the repertoire of The Australian Ballet of “Jewels”. I believe we came to close to the former under Maina Gielgud’s reign but I have never heard any whispers that “Jewels” was close to being staged here although we did get “Rubies” as danced by Pacific Northwest Ballet in Melbourne in 1995. I often run through prospective AB casting in my head for “Jewels”. In addition to the 2 dvd’s you mention, Valerie, there is one containing the Emeralds and Diamonds section in a studio version as performed by NYCB in 1977. From the versions I have seen I much prefer the Karinska original costumes.

  2. valerie
    Posted February 21, 2014 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    Adrian, when I was writing about Jewels the Australian Ballet was in my mind and I wondered why the company had never brought it into the rep. In my opinion Rubies would be the hardest section to cast not just the principals but the ensemble. And then there’s the question of fielding at least three casts of principals and soloists for all three sections. But mainly I wondered about the cost of it. Three repetiteurs were needed in Moscow and Barbara Horgan, the so-called gatekeeper to the Balanchine repertoire was in the audience there when it was filmed in January. The Royal Ballet’s production in 2007 required four repetiteurs. But I hope, like you, that one day the Australian Ballet will stage it – surely it would be a major box office attraction and a sparkling Christmas treat!

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Emeralds, Bolshoi Ballet, photo © D.Yusupov

Emeralds, Bolshoi Ballet, photo © D.Yusupov

Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin, Diamonds, Bolshoi Ballet, photo © Elena Fetisova

Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin, Diamonds, Bolshoi Ballet, photo © Elena Fetisova

Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin, Diamonds, Bolshoi Ballet, photo © Elena Fetisova

Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin, Diamonds, Bolshoi Ballet, photo © Elena Fetisova

Ekaterina Shipulina, Rubies, Bolshoi Ballet, photo © Mikhail Logvinov

Ekaterina Shipulina, Rubies, Bolshoi Ballet, photo © Mikhail Logvinov