Jewels

Choreographed by George Balanchine

Royal Ballet

Royal Opera House

(2011)

Review by Vera Liber

Jewels closed the Royal Ballet's 2009 season on a high. Now it opens with great élan Dame Monica Mason's valedictory 2011/2012 season, promising treasures old and new, before she hands the baton after ten years at the helm to new artistic director, Kevin O'Hare, in July 2012. The full company on display in an evening of quintessential ballet, one can only admire the quality of dancers under her ten-year stewardship and its repertoire.

And see with fresh eyes the wonder that is Balanchine: his musicality, his range, his precision of form, line, shape, and timing, his remarkable additions to the idiom in this triptych of abstract ballets, each a link in the chain of his experiences, influences and inspirations - French classical ballet, Imperial Russia, and the New World of Broadway and Hollywood musicals.

Worship at the faux temple of ostentatious wealth and glitter? Maybe, but Balanchine's jewels were his ballerinas. It hardly matters that soloist Ryoichi Hirano has to step in for injured principal dancer Federico Bonelli in Emeralds: Balanchine's men are often the mere elegant clever settings, consorts to supreme beings.

But soloist Alexander Campbell, new from Birmingham Royal Ballet, deserves a mention and a welcome - he makes his mark with effortless ballon.

Hirano's height, matching the tall Nehemiah Kish, adds to the symmetry of the art nouveau stage picture, the frame for the petite but sturdy Tamara Rojo and the waif-like willowiness of Leanne Benjamin, who return in the pensive introspective Emeralds. In shady glades memory and dreams take gentle flight.

Music is of the essence in any Balanchine work, but in this 1967 creation, it leads the way. Fauré's music for Pélleas and Mélisande the mood and underlying narrative of Emeralds' courtly pavanes, its La Mort de Mélisande end full of loss and longing. The final image is of three men, arms outstretched towards a vision that has eluded them, perhaps.

Solos, trios, pas de deux, quatre, and six, septets, all the facets of dance are refined and extended. Turn them this way and that, each gem gives off its own unique spark and fire. In art deco Rubies an effervescent Steven McRae, new to his role, almost outdazzles the women, statuesque Zenaida Yanowsky, and sparkly Sarah Lamb. Stravinsky's syncopated American rhythms, his 1929 Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra (piano solo by Robert Clark), draw from McRae a dangerously swift and witty performance.

All spiky legs and sexy hips, Zenaida Yanowsky is the speakeasy vamp, men hanging on to her every limb, as she runs rings around them, and Sarah Lamb its streetwise girl on the make and in a hurry to get there. Lamb's pas de deux with McRae is superb. Corks out of the same bottle, the Australian and the American make a wonderful match.

Cut and set diamonds in Russian are called brillianty… The brilliant Alina Cojocaru and Rupert Pennefather return in Diamonds, the defining ballet of the evening. Shivers run down the spine, as they slowly wend their romantically reticent way towards each other in diagonal across the stage, in love with Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 3 in D, op.29. Now this is real traditional ballet, simply breathtaking, sad and stately, lyrical, passionate, and Russian.

Cojocaru's dancing melts the heart, and Pennefather's princely bearing adds to the illusion of fairytale romance. Her solos are outstanding, phrasing supreme, balances stronger than ever, lyricism unmatched, the distilled essence of nineteenth century classical 'white' story ballets.

She has lost the tentativeness of 2009, giving a more assured performance, though the demands of the part are obvious. A grand finale with seventeen couples filling the chandeliered stage: this is indeed a ballet for the tsars of Russia.

Grandeur, poise, showcase eloquence, one can only look, listen, and lose oneself in the beauty of Balanchine's neo-classicism, a paean to the beauty of ballet and its interpreters.

Beauty even in walking, as his ballerinas tiptoe in time to the music, they the very air itself in thrall to its sound, with and in the music, made visible for our world-weary eyes.

"Jewels" is in rep till 5th October 2011