Sparkling Jewels and Balanchine’s babies

by Meredith Brooks

George Balanchine’s full evening work Jewels, first staged complete in 1967, is now in the repertoire of many major ballet companies around the world, most notably at the Paris Opera Ballet and Royal Ballet.

Both companies do excellent versions, but there is nothing to compare with the genuine article by New York City Ballet, as danced for six performances this month at Lincoln Center.

I saw two superb casts: last Saturday, June 4 (Abi Stafford and Jenifer Ringer in Emeralds, Ashley Bouder, Gonzalo Garcia and Teresa Reichlen in Rubies, Maria Kowroski and Charles Askegard in Diamonds) and then last Wednesday, June 8, with Rachel Rutherford and Ringer (Emeralds), Sterling Hyltin, Garcia and Reichlen (Rubies) and Sara Mearns with Jonathan Stafford in Diamonds.

Before the Saturday performance, the School of American Ballet, which feeds NYCB, had the first of its annual workshop performances, giving its senior students, generally 17-19 years, a chance to perform on the Julliard stage with a live orchestra.

These dancers are definitely still students, although particularly well trained and talented ones, with all the usual nerves and caution that entails.

There were a couple of very accomplished dancers, almost company ready, who I imagine will appear among the City Ballet apprentices next season.

But the relevance of this show to this reviewer is the exhibition of pure Balanchine technique-in-training.

Even the tiny girls who ran on stage in Circus Polka are getting a grounding in Balanchine. This lifetime of drilling in the distinctive use of back and arms, the lightning petit allegro and the attack and speed across the stage is why City Ballet looks different.

The vast majority of the company, and pretty much all of the corps, went through SAB. Balanchine is in their bones.

Other companies basically fake it (except perhaps Boston, San Francisco and Pacific Northwest, all Balanchine-based companies) no matter how good their dancers and how well they are rehearsed.

Saturday night’s performance was exceptional. The corps, the same both nights, deserves special mention. Stylistically coherent and in unison, I didn’t see a step out of place.

There can’t be many companies where the corps of 16 men can execute triple pirouettes, finishing to the knee, in perfect synchronisation and pristine placement. I didn’t see anyone fall out of them either night.

But to the principals.

To my mind, Emeralds is the hardest of the acts to win. Most of the corps work is endless boureeing, stepping it out, so they have to work hard to keep it smooth.

The first couple have some really difficult (clunky even) choreography and it doesn’t easily flatter them.

Abi Stafford was probably the weak link of Saturday evening; she was stiff and looked awkward in the shoulders.

Rachel Rutherford on Wednesday was significantly better, with a lovely line and considerably more ease.

Both were partnered by Sebastien Marcovici, perfectly competently (this whole ballet is very much about the women). The (very pleasant) surprise to me was Jenifer Ringer in the “walking” pas de deux and a lovely solo to the “Sicilienne” (from Faure’s Pelleas and Melisande).

I usually find her too reserved, but she was beautifully lyrical with a fluid port de bras and a rippling spine. She repeated this in the second show, just as gorgeously.

The undoubted star of Saturday’s show was Ashley Bouder in Rubies. This was one of those rare performances where there is no conscious “dancing”; she just lived the part.

The movement seemed to just burst out of her, as if it were something she couldn’t stop. I didn’t see her think about a step. It was astonishing.

Garcia kept up with her pretty well – it’s a fast attacking tour de force for both dancers – but he was clearly overshadowed.

Sterling Hyltin later in the week was a disappointment (the only weak spot in that evening). She is quite mannered and has an annoying smirk.

Her “cuteness” somehow reflected on the corps as well; they veered towards a cheesy cheerleader style that wasn’t evident in the earlier performance.

Both casts of Diamonds were brilliant. This role was made for Maria Kowroski but I’ve seen her dance it before without the confidence and precision of this season.

Kowroski is extraordinarily long legged and loose limbed and cannot make an ugly shape. But she can struggle with control, although not this evening; right on balance, beautiful lines, flawless turns.

Lyrical, effortless and seamless. Charles Askegard was much better than expected in his variations (I’ve never been a fan) and was an exemplary partner.

I anticipated that Kowroski would be hard to match but Sara Mearns was a revelation. She has been a principal for only three years but she was perfect. Mearns is a lot more compact than Kowroski and dances with a more classical, less Balanchine style (I’d love to see her in a traditional Swan Lake).

She also punctuates the movement more, with more attack, a little more abandon, and with a hugely articulate spine. It was quite different but absorbing. Jonathan Stafford partnered her beautifully.

These were two special performances.

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Teresa Reichlen and company,
Rubies from Jewels, New York City Ballet
Photo: ©Paul Kolnik

Sterling Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia in Rubies, photo © Paul Kolnik

Jonathan Stafford and Sara Mearns in Diamonds, from Jewels, photo © Paul Kolnik