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.
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.
Next we go into the Decoration Department where all
the dyeing takes place.
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.
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.
Louise Ebel on the Palais Garnier's stage