David Koch Theater, New York, NY; February 2, 2014
The successful rendition of a venerable ballet, even a contemporary abstract one, depends as much on the quality of specific performances as on the choreography. You can’t have one without the other. Indeed, although the choreography is the essential frame, the performances of it can make a mediocre ballet look better than it is, or a masterwork look tired or worse.
Of course, magnificent performances can also add luster to an existing choreographic gem. So it was with yesterday’s New York City Ballet performance of George Balanchine’s “Jewels.”
“Jewels” is a known quantity in many venues across many continents, and has been for many years. I’ve reviewed the ballet, or parts of it, several times previously, and did not expect to consider it again during NYCB’s Winter 2014 season. But yesterday’s performance of the third segment in the trilogy of finely-danced choreographic gems merits special attention, and significant acclaim.
My bent, at least at the corps level, is to notice promising ballerinas rather than danseurs. But in one of this past season’s performances of “George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’,” I saw Russell Janzen, a member of the corps, dance the Cavalier in the Sugarplum Fairy Pas de Deux, and commented favorably on his performance, which to my knowledge was his first in a featured role.
Yesterday, Mr. Janzen took another step, assaying the lead male role in “Diamonds,” opposite Teresa Reichlen. It was an auspicious debut. Mr. Janzen, whom I previously described as a redwood tree of a dancer, is one of those rare male dancers who can execute cleanly, partner unobtrusively but confidently, and look noble rather than full of himself. His execution was a bit wooden (but in no way mechanical or vacant), and it seemed that his legs tired a bit toward the end. But he did everything he was supposed to do, exhibiting exceptional clarity of form, and appropriate presentation of, and attention to, his ballerina. Indeed, I found his partnering to be flawless – except at one point toward the end I saw him fail to keep Ms. Reichlen centered during a series of turns (there was no danger – she was just a bit off center). He was on it immediately, and corrected it immediately – in the next series of turns he kept her ramrod straight.
This was considerably more than a promising debut. Mr. Janzen looks younger than his capabilities would suggest, and with increasing opportunity and experience he will doubtless add a measure of excitement that isn’t yet there. But he already exhibits the qualities of a danseur noble. Once again, NYCB provides the opportunity to watch a dancer grow before our eyes.
However, yesterday’s story was not just Mr. Janzen. Ms. Reichlen is that rare ballerina who can look both aloof and engaged at the same time. [Don’t ask me to explain; it just is.] But she’s never haughty on the one hand, or overly emotional on the other. She dances with serenity. And for whatever reason – confidence in her young partner, comfort in having a partner taller than she is en pointe, or simply her own maturing as a dancer – hers was a superb performance. Of the three NYCB ballerinas who I’ve seen dance this role in recent years, Ms. Reichlin’s portrayal was the purest, the most human, and the most appropriately regal throughout the piece. Between seeing Ms. Reichlen and Mr. Janzen, and hearing the glorious Tchaikovsky music (from “Symphony No 3 in D Major”), it was a thrilling conclusion to the day’s program.
“Diamonds” was set up by a fine performance of the gem that preceded it. “Rubies” is a rich, sensual, electric, and sophisticated creation to Stravinsky’s “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra.” Sterling Hyltin and Andrew Veyette (to my recollection the first time I’ve seen either dance these roles) were as scintillating as the score. For Ms. Hyltin, exceptional execution is nothing unusual – but she adds pizazz and intelligence that put her in a league by herself. And as I’ve previously observed, although she’s physically diminutive, in whatever she does she dances larger than life. Mr. Veyette is a jack-of-all-trades who seems to do everything right, and although he was not quite as fast as one or two others I’ve seen in the role, his crisp execution matched that of Ms. Hyltin, and the difference was hardly noticeable.
“Emeralds,” the opening jewel, is the most difficult of the three for me to appreciate. Choreographed to excerpts from Gabriel Faure’s “Pelleas et Melisande” and “Shylock,” its roots are in French classical ballet, but the casual viewer wouldn’t know that. “Emeralds” is set in a shadowy, shrouded, otherworldly-looking area, and has a somber, almost maudlin tone. The setting could be intended to represent a dense, emerald-green forest glade, befitting the story on which the former composition is based – but to me it also resembles a blue/green underwater grotto of sorts, or a verdant island from which there is no escape. Regardless, though muted, it’s gorgeous (scenery by Peter Harvey), as are the emerald-laden costumes (by Karinska). Ashley Bouder and Jared Angle danced the lead couple’s role with polish as well as an undercurrent of deep emotional consequence, but although not inappropriate, Ms. Bouder’s dour demeanor seemed to me overdone. Sarah Mearns, ably assisted by Jonathan Stafford, danced her role without added emotional emphasis, and executed the role’s celebrated walk en pointe across the stage with aplomb.
The featured dancers supporting the leads in “Emeralds” were Ashley Laracey, Antonio Carmena, and Erica Pereira, each of whom added effervescence that lifted the mood considerably. Lauren King, Ms. Laracey, Megan LeCrone, Brittany Pollack, Daniel Applebaum, Cameron Dieck, Allen Peiffer, and Andrew Scordato led the supporting dancers in creating the rich atmosphere of “Diamonds.” And Savannah Lowery did a fine job as the rock-solid yet vibrant third lead in “Rubies.” Andrews Sill conducted the dazzling NYCB orchestra through each facet of the performance.
One last observation. Yesterday was Super Bowl Sunday. Nevertheless, only a few miles from the stadium where The Game was played, the D.H.K. Theater was essentially filled to the brim – I saw only a few scattered open seats in the rear sides of the orchestra and fourth ring. Even the fifth ring, which usually can only be seen when the fog lifts, was occupied. Balletgoers are a dedicated bunch – and, as it turns out, a perspicacious bunch too. Unlike the Event across the river, “Jewels” was thrilling to watch and considerably less expensive. And although its audience may have been blown away by the quality of the choreography, the sets, and the dancers, “Jewels” wasn’t a blowout.