In the spring of 1967, George Balanchine choreographed a work so conceptually unlike anything else in ballet it was premiered without a title. The ballet's three acts were called "Emeralds," "Rubies," and "Diamonds," and in rehearsal the whole was referred to as "Jewels." Suki Schorer has said of the premiere, "There was a kind of pandemonium in the theater that night," for it was only then that the dancers realized they were taking part in a masterpiece. The rehearsal title became official, and Jewels entered New York City Ballet repertory as . . . what exactly? The company's co-founder Lincoln Kirstein called it a "full-length ballet without a plot," and that's how it's been described ever since. And yet, the phrase contains not a glimmer of the ballet's vast holdings. In echoes, allusions, and refractions, it may be the richest ballet ever made.
One of the beauties of Jewels is that it gives pleasure on many levels, answering ever deepening analysis while also bringing the first-time viewer eyefuls of spectacle and sensuous color. The mysterious, misted greens of "Emeralds"; the sharp, rapping reds of "Rubies"; the icy sprays of "Diamonds"‹the atmospheric differences alone are sensational. Madame Karinska's splendid costumes suggest properties specific to each stone, yet there is continuity in the bodices, where all are necklaced with gems.
Jewels is most frequently discussed in terms of its divisions, its three acts representing the three cities in which Balanchine worked as a choreographer‹Paris, New York, St. Petersburg‹and also exploring national styles of classical dancing. In "Emeralds," set to incidental music that Gabriel Faure wrote for the plays Pelleas et Melisande and Shylock, we enter a fairy-tale forest that has the hushed, plush decorum of a Paris salon (Cartier? Dior? Laduree?). "Rubies," set to Igor Stravinsky's Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, is more 42nd Street, neoclassicism with a Broadway kick and hustle. And in "Diamonds," to music from Tschaikovsky's Symphony No. 3, we find ourselves in a windswept Winter Palace. The place is ghostly, deserted, then suddenly, radiantly royal.
With repeated viewings divisions dissolve and similarities emerge: shared tonalities between acts, recurring choreographic motifs. Note Balanchine's inventive use of ballet's academic alignments ecarte ("thrown open"), efface ("shaded"), and croise ("crossed").These are three of ballet's eight positions of the body, and they place the dancer on an angle to the audience, as if sheared in space. Balanchine is showing us the jeweler's cut and bevel inherent in classical technique, how it brings light and shadow to a phrase, and how it shows off the art's most precious gems: its ballerinas. The point is magnified in "Rubies," when a tall girl is cuffed by four men at the wrists and ankles and her legs manipulated into multifaceted extensions.
Musically, as well, the acts connect, especially "Emeralds" to "Diamonds." Hear the forests in the woodwinds and the far-off horns of hunt scenes. The call of the quest sounds through all three acts. And the object of this quest? As in Jacques Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann‹an opera Balanchine knew well, having made dances for productions in 1926, 1932, and 1949‹each act brings us a different ideal woman, a female enchanting or enchanted, to be captured and possibly feared. In "Emeralds," the "pretty song" solo Balanchine created for Violette Verdy and the clockwork imagery in the Mimi Paul "walking" duet both contain elements of Olympia, the unreachable Coppelia-like doll that initially bewitches Hoffmann. And mantrap "Rubies"‹"Scintille, diamant!"‹ who but siren-like Giuletta, the courtesan who helps steal Hoffmann's reflection? And the white flame in dazzling "Diamonds," it could be Antonia in the abstract, the chaste and transported young artist that Hoffmann hoped to marry.
Balanchine preferred not to explain his ballets‹what they meant, what he was thinking‹and with Jewels he was no different, insisting to the late Francis Mason that its dances had "no literary content at all." But structural precedents, pictorial influences, lyric refrains, and palpable metaphor, these his ballets have in abundance. We know that in the summer of 1965, when NYCB traveled to Paris on a European tour, Balanchine took the young dancer Suzanne Farrell to the Musee de Cluny. He was in love with her and wanted to show her the famous tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn.
"As we walked by the six huge hangings in the vaulted room," Farrell writes in her autobiography of 1990, Holding On To the Air, "he explained to me that five of them represented the senses. The last and most poignant has the beautiful but mysterious title A Mon Seul Desir ("To My Only Desire") and depicts the young maiden embracing a coffer of jewels, a gift from a lover perhaps. . . . George told me the legend that a unicorn can be captured only by a virgin; it will come and lay its head in her lap. He loved the title A Mon Seul Desir and said he wanted to make a ballet for me about the story of the unicorn."
Two years later, Jewels premiered.
The Cluny tapestries are comprised of six scenes. The first five are said to be influenced by the famous thirteenth-century poem Le Bestiaire d'Amour ("The Bestiary of Love"‹a philosophical flight about men, women, and various species of love and desire). These five tapestries represent the external senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, with each depicted on a floating island of greenery, arbored and bannered, alive with small creatures, and, of course, the lady and the unicorn. The enigmatic sixth tapestry, though subject to many interpretations, is understood to represent the internal sixth sense‹the heart‹which must reign over the other senses and control them. In fact, most scholars now believe this maiden is not receiving a necklace from the casket of gems, but relinquishing it‹an act of renunciation.
One can view Jewels as a trio of tapestries, woven through with the allegorical creatures of classical dance: sylphs and naiads in "Emeralds," sirens and firebirds in "Rubies," swans and the unicorn in "Diamonds." It is Balanchine's own bestiaire d'amour. And just as so many full-length ballets end with renunciation and loss, in Jewels, too, loss of the "Only Desire" is a recurring theme. For she, the ideal, can disappear with the mist, as in "Emeralds." She can lead one into trouble, as in "Rubies." Or she can ascend, as in "Diamonds," crowned in the high court of history‹Dante's Beatrice, Petrarch's Laura, Balanchine's ballerinas.
Six senses. Three stones. One heart. Jewels.
Laura Jacobs is the dance critic for The New Criterion. Her second novel, The Bird Catcher, is now out in paperback from Picador.