Los Angeles Times dance critic Lewis Segal says that "Jewels," George Balanchine's storyless three ballets-in-one, has become "The Mt. Everest of 20th century ballet, the jewel in the crown, the work that major companies must conquer in order to define their mastery" and has replaced "Swan Lake" as the ". . . enduring standard of excellence. . . ." I think Mr. Segal is correct. The prowess of the Paris Opera Ballet on this DVD shows that this is a dance company which performs at the highest levels of proficiency and authenticity; it has scaled Mt. Everest.
Other reviewers of this DVD have for the most part focused their criticisms on the solo dancers. These reviewers praise the principals for their technical capabilities and how well they execute Mr. B's steps. But Balanchine also demanded that the ensemble dancers exhibit a high level of classical technique and do the steps he intended. The corps of the Paris Opera Ballet do justice to Balanchine's choreography. When I go to see a ballet or when I view a recording of a ballet, I often watch the ensemble dancers more than the soloists. The corps of this troupe is among the best.
In "Emeralds," ten corps women do various steps that complement the dancing of the soloists. For Balanchine, every dancer on stage is an integral, essential part of the dance. The corps de ballet is not for him simply backdrop or scenery for the main event; it actively participates and performs moves that other choreographers only give to principal dancers. The corps women spend a lot of time up on pointe: the most common step is pas de bourree couru and they do it beautifully. As for the principals, Laetitia Pujol is fluid in attack but is trifle too emotive. "Don't act," Balanchine advised his dancers, "just do the steps!" Clairemarie Osta and Kader Belarbi do the steps all right, but they can't seem to walk on the beat of the music as they enter and exit in their "Nocturne" pas de deux. Both soloists and corps do considerable off-pointe walking. In one sequence the women and soloists move "through the arches" of the up-raised arms of the corps women. A fast-paced pas de trois, rendered suavely and persuasively by Eleonora Abbegnato, Nolwenn Daniel, and Emmanuel Thibault, provides a shift in mood and in choreography from the more relaxed and lyrical romanticism that dominates most of the ballet.
"Rubies" is hot, quicksilver dancing for soloists and ensemble alike. Many balletomanes and critics suggest that "Rubies" is representative of America. The principal dancers themselves and ballet director Brigitte Lefevre allude to this, calling the ballet an "American musical comedy" with Broadway overtones. Perhaps. The music and choreography are not by native-born denizens of Tin-Pan Alley but by two classically trained Russian émigrés. Balanchine said he only tried to express Stravinsky's music. Etoile Aurelie Dupont rightly points out that this ballet is still modern, forward-looking, and "multifaceted." Balanchine liked to say that ballet is woman; but in "Rubies," ballet is man and woman, separate and equal entities. Soloist Alessio Carbone is not just a cavalier whose sole function is to support the ballerina and stand behind her inconspicuously. The woman in this ballet is not a princess who is put up on a pedestal to be admired by her consort. "Rubies" showcases male bravura dancing and Carbone is equal to the task. In this neoclassical abstraction, the speed and agility of the dancers are tested. Scoring high marks is the most Balanchine-like principal, Marie-Agnes Gillot. She dances as the leader of the corps of eight women and four men and is never on stage alone except for a brief moment at the end of the second ensemble section. As the corps prepares to strut off into the wings, she slides into an open leg position that immediately becomes a plie, does an arabesque-penchee, turns, does another arabesque-penchee, slides again into the split leg position with subsequent plie, followed by a third penche arabesque, turns again, and exits. At times she and the ensemble execute the same steps simultaneously while on other occasions she and the corps do a type of contrapuntal dancing. In this ballet we also get to see all of the female dancers' legs without the encumbrances of either romantic or classical tutus. Gillot and Dupont have long shapely legs and they use them to great effect by executing high kicks(front and back), impressive extensions, and other complex moves. Both have very beautiful "singing legs." The tune they sing, though, is not an aria but an Ella Fitzgerald scat.
In "Diamonds" Balanchine honors Petipa and Ivanov, the renowned choreographers of the late 19th century Russian Imperial Theaters. The corps women, used more extensively in "Diamonds" than in the other two ballets, demonstrate just how adroit, delicate, and artful their ensemble dancing is. The first scherzo of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 3 (2nd movement) features an all female corps of twelve ensemble dancers plus two soloists. These "ballet blanc" women, clad in white classical tutus are swan maidens: they thrust out their chests, wave their arms, and nicely reel off some grands battements, emboite moves, and turns of various types. They also do a good deal of walking and running. Incidentally, Balanchine always considered walking and running legitimate ballet steps and not just transitions from one step to another. Arlene Croce says that in "Jewels," "The choreography 's binding theme is walking . . . a theme that bridges the evening's three sections." In the second scherzo (Tchaikovsky's 4th movement), four demi-soloists do pique arabesque moves, pas de chat, chaine turns, and pique tours in addition to other steps too numerous to mention. I haven't counted the number of separate steps but it seems as if "Diamonds" has more steps in it than most full-length 19th century narrative ballets. The final movement (Tchaikovsky's 5th movement, a polonaise) looks a lot like the entrance and procession of the royal court and fairy-tale characters in "Sleeping Beauty" (danced to another Tchaikovsky polonaise). Agnes Letestu, the female lead in "Diamonds," confirms that there are many other references to "Sleeping Beauty" in this ballet. The finale fills the stage with 32 corps dancers and two soloists. In this emotionally charged dramatic ending, we see the women in classic rows with the men at the sides; they unite with their partners with kneeling, rising, promenading, and spinning galore. The finale ends with rows of men and women striking various poses in slow 3/4 time and then as the music speeds up to the original tempo, the dancers form an inverted V wedge in which the ensemble women are in a tendu pose while the men kneel beside them. The soloists are centered in the V wedge holding the same pose as the corps as the music concludes. Every time I see this majestic ending, I feel a joyous passion aroused by the interplay of great music and of beautiful bodies in motion. Balanchine knew precisely the emotional effect that filling the stage with a large number of dancers would have on the audience. Lincoln Kirstein said that it was "one of the best examples of Balanchine's applause-machines."
The Orchestra of the Opera national de Paris led by Paul Connelly gives us polished musical gems. The Stravinsky piano concerto, "Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra," is a sheer delight. The pianist (Jean-Yves Sebillotte) and the woodwind players are noteworthy for the transparency of their playing and how deftly they articulate the nuances of Stravinsky's score.
A documentary of Balanchine and his style ("George Balanchine Forever") by Reiner E. Moritz is included on the DVD. It would be wise to view it before watching the ballet. The female etoiles, ballet director Lefevre, longtime Balanchine assistant Barbara Horgan, TV director Pierre Cavassilas, and set/costume designer Christian Lacroix all provide valuable insight about Balanchine, his "American" style of classical dancing, and each ballet. The dancers were coached on Balanchine technique by former principals of the New York City Ballet or had the opportunity to view recordings of these ballets.
Go out immediately and buy this emotion provoking recording. Only sitting in the theater seeing a live performance of this jewel would be better.