Backstage

Happy Birthday Jewels!

Behind the scenes of Balanchine’s ballet — By Louise Ebel

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of George Balanchine’s Jewels, the Paris Opera is presenting the famous 1967 triptych which entered the Paris Opera Ballet’s repertoire in 2000 with costumes and sets by Christian Lacroix. Writer of the Miss Pandora blog, Louise Ebel slips into a tutu and takes us behind the scenes of the ballet.    

There is something unusual about Jewels in that it does not have a storyline in the true sense of the term. There is no narrative to act as a pretext for the shimmering cavalcade of costumes and dance steps; the intended effect is purely visual, or at least that’s how it seems at face value. Don’t look for a mythological figure or a hypothetical historical heroine with a tragic destiny, because legend has it that the Russian choreographer drew his inspiration from the shop windows of the luxury jewellers along Fifth Avenue, just as Truman Capote set Holly Golightly's tired eyes sparkling in Breakfast at Tiffany's. The comparison is a fair one, if only because the scene appears to be taken directly from the film. Listen to what Balanchine himself had to say: “I don't remember what made me stop that morning: there was a window with diamonds, another with emeralds, and yet another with rubies (…) I was hypnotised”. And so began the adventure that would become Jewels. When I visited the Opera Garnier’s dressmaking department, its director Xavier Ronze told me about the special performance that had featured jewels from Van Cleef & Arpels. One can only imagine how magnificent that was!

Jewels is a sequential work that can be interpreted on three different levels. Not only is it a tribute to the shimmering beauty of precious stones, it is also a summary of the style of the world’s greatest schools of ballet and a symbolic and emotional biography of its creator. The three tableaux are not merely a hypnotic eulogy to gems, however glittering those may be. They also represent an ideal and cosmopolitan gallery where jewels intermingle with tulle and dreams with memories. Set to an air from Gabriel Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Emeralds opens the Balanchine ball: dressed in celadon-toned tulle dresses streaked in darker shades of green, and sprinkled with shimmering dew-like droplets, the dancers recreate the romanticism of the French School, the era of Les Sylphides and its muse Marie Taglioni. If green is not a colour one would usually consider “typically” French, it reminds me even more of emerald, of those massive malachite pillars you find in the Orthodox churches of Saint Petersburg, and where, during my visit there last winter, I realised how much influence this uniquely Russian art had had on the stylistic revolution brought on by the Ballets Russes which Balanchine joined in Paris in 1924.

And so onto the second tableau: And we find ourselves in Manhattan. Balanchine – like many European artists before him – tried his luck in America. He began his quest by founding an American School for Ballet funded by several wealthy patrons and continued with the creation of numerous choreographic works for Broadway and even Hollywood, whilst establishing two ballet companies along the way. It was the era of jazz and the Broadway musical and a time of collaboration with Stravinsky whose staccato music served as the score for the tableau. In short, it was a time of extraordinary vitality which broke with the European tradition and which Balanchine would choose to translate in Jewels through the bedazzling allure of rubies. Here, the spider-like grace of the long tulle petticoats gives way to the impish vitality of scarlet one-piece costumes embroidered with fuchsia pearls, that could almost have been worn by the chorus girls in the films of Fred Astaire.

Costumes de Diamants, préparés pour les représentations de Joyaux
Costumes de Diamants, préparés pour les représentations de Joyaux © Audrey Marchand

Back to a more conventional ballet with Diamonds which appears to be the highlight of the performance with over thirty dancers present on stage. If in the complex art of jewellery-making, diamonds often serve as a pedestal to the rubies and emeralds set around them, for Balanchine, there was no doubt that these dream jewels sparkled in the firmament. Because in essence Jewels is about a dream. Diamonds, which on paper evokes the Russian School of the Mariinsky Theatre, is not so much a chronological reminiscence born of the Balanchine legend, but rather, more of a window into a lost world; an imaginary parenthesis where the fairy-tale magic of the imperial ballets—which seem ethereal and incandescent, as if blurred by memory—intertwine with the vision of an ideal ballet, the very allegory of an art which practically touches the intangible. It would be a mistake to look on Jewels as a mere display of technical and visual prowess because if the work is soon to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary it is because, through its almost transgressive blend of tradition and modernity it embodies a remarkable stylistic and geographical history of ballet into which slips the more modest story of its creator: a choreographer from Saint Petersburg who made his debut in Paris before settling in New York. As such, is Jewels the triptych of this triad of dance? Or is it is a tribute to the muses who marked the life of an indefatigable seducer who dedicated his ballet to three dazzling étoile dancers? After all, aren’t jewels the most sensual adornment for women?

An insider's report from the Opera Garnier’s costume department

To mark the revival of Jewels, I had the pleasure of asking Xavier Ronze, head of the Opera Garnier’s dressmaking departmen,t a few questions. I also had the chance to discover the different skilled professions that make up the Costumes Department and meet the talented personnel who work together to create the magic we see on stage.

For the first French production of Jewels in 2000, Christian Lacroix was invited by the Paris Opera to design the costumes. It was a creative process mixed with reproduction, because under the watchful gaze of the Balanchine Trust, the couturier was obliged to respect the artist’s original vision. This production is far from being the first for the designer from Arles (let us not forget his passion for working in the theatre nor the huge impact that costume designer Christian Bérard has had on his career). With considerable humility, he sees himself as a “re-creator”, interpreting Balanchine’s work, finding the right balance “between reconstitution and evocation, classicism and modernity, fidelity and personal impressions”. It is a credo not so far removed from Jewels and its numerous sources of symbolism.

Once the costume designs are complete, the sketches are sent to the “Départment Flou” (the loose-fitting Department) for the women’s costumes and the “Départment Tailleur” (the tailoring department) for the men’s. Once the cast has been chosen, the costumes must be sewn as soon as possible in order to be ready for the costume rehearsals. Beyond the aesthetic aspect, the costumes must take into account the ever-changing movements of a dancer’s body. They need to be custom-fitted and tight enough to ensure that they do not work loose before the end of a performance.

© Audrey Marchand
Costums for the production of Diamonds.
© Audrey Marchand
The costumes for Rubies, in crimson-toned satin embroidered with tulle, lace, sequins and pearls. The day this report was made, the costumes for Emeralds were on loan for a performance in New York.
© Audrey Marchand
The milliner's department where the dancers' headdresses are made. For Jewels the dancers wear a tiara in each tableau. Originally, when Balanchine came up with the idea for the ballet after gazing into the shop windows of three jewellery stores along Fifth Avenue, the centre of each window featured a magnificent tiara.
Costumes de Diamants, préparés pour les représentations de Joyaux
Costumes de Diamants, préparés pour les représentations de Joyaux © Audrey Marchand

Next we go into the Decoration Department where all the dyeing takes place.

© Audrey Marchand

In addition to dyeing, this department is also responsible for making a variety of jewellery, which has to be as realistic as possible. It also creates masks, helmets and other outlandish accessories, making it a truly extraordinary place to visit! On discovering the tiaras stockpiled by the dozen, I couldn’t help but think of the heroines of the grand operas of the second half of the 19th century. Indeed, a few years ago, there was a wonderful exhibition dedicated to this amazing collection of jewellery.

© Audrey Marchand

The incredible sight of a profusion of petticoats and doublets which seem to slumber as they wait to be worn again. In this odd room with tutus stretching up to the ceiling, the costumes for the numerous on-going productions at the Opera Garnier are stored.

© Audrey Marchand

Louise Ebel on the Palais Garnier's stage 

Finally, last but not least, the magazine Octave suggested that I pose in a costume created for the Opera Garnier, and so I had the pleasure of slipping into this number worn during the "Défilé" of the opening gala. As if that wasn’t lucky enough, we also had the incredible opportunity that day of having the Grand Foyer and the Grand Staircase all to ourselves, in that brief space of time after the daytime tours end and the theatre opens for the evening performance. How exciting to go through the door into the wings of the theatre and follow the green neon access ramp only to find myself—and not without trepidation—on that famous stage! Since I have only ever had two classical dance classes in my life, there are as many differences between me and a ballerina as there are between an alley cat and a panther. However, since taking up this exacting discipline at the ripe old age of 29 obviously required me to swallow any pride, I had no shame in presenting myself here as a little brat dressed in a tutu. While I tried with all my will to recreate the meagre repertoire of poses I studied in class, I thought of the ghostly atmosphere that reigned in this majestic hall with its heavy bronze candelabras, and I found myself imagining La Casati dressed as the Comtesse de Castiglione slowly climbing the white marble steps, "out of some imperial sepulchre", and much later, in 1998, John Galliano recreating for Dior that moment which only the walls of the Opera can remember. I also thought to myself that perhaps Cléo de Mérode had stood and spoken with Léopold of Belgium here in this very corner of the Foyer. Who knows? I suppose I could also mention Pavlova, Nureyev, Baryshnikov or some of the more recent étoiles, but I could only think of my own personal pantheon. The history of the Opera Garnier is so dizzying, so steeped in the past, that it should be left in peace.

Your reading: Happy Birthday Jewels!

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