In Step with the Spectrum: Balanchine’s ‘Jewels’ (online) at the SF Ballet

“If I gave you diamonds and pearls/
Would you be a happy boy or a girl/
If I could I would give you the world/
But all I can do is just offer you my love”

– Prince, “Diamonds and Pearls”

It’s easy to for us adults to forget how new everything appears in the eyes of a child. Both have had their entire lives to observe and interact with the world, but they do it from radically different vantage points. Being an adult is (thinking that) you know what images and symbols represent; that’s great for being able to easily recognize danger, but it can frequently rob you of the joy of experiencing the new.

Color is one of the fundamental elements that are ingrained into most of us very early. The spectrum has millions of variations that are added to every day, yet most of the solid primaries are as familiar to a child as their own name. Colors can say quite a lot with very little, yet two cultures can interpret the same color entirely differently (in Christianity, white is traditional for weddings, baptisms, and; in Hinduism, white is worn for funerals).

Making an immediate connection between color and emotion was clearly on the mind of George Balanchine when he conceived of Jewels: A Ballet in Three Parts. Though the title and its three chapters allude physical elements, the three chosen are too specific to the RGB color model to have been a coincidence (granted, a diamond doesn’t have a specific color, but it’s still represented here with blue).

The result, as produced by the SF Ballet, is fun jaunt through the concepts of structure and reaction.

The production opens with the segment chronologically produced last: “Emeralds”. As staged by Elyse Borne, Sandra Jennings, and Susan Touhy, a nearly all-black background is broken up by the twinkle of green, like stars in the cosmos. A gigantic emerald chandelier hangs overhead, almost seeming like an inverted version of the crown worn by Misa Kuranaga. Her duets with Angelo Greco, as well as several other couplings, are suggestive of formal courtship, albeit with a hint of exploration.

San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine’s “Emeralds” // Choreography by George Balanchine © The Balanchine Trust; Photo © Erik Tomasson

It reminds one of the awkwardness of dating, which often seems so easy for those who look happy from the outside.

Although recent SF Ballet streams have also featured pre-filmed footage specifically made for the streams, those were in the forms of short films. “Emeralds” was shot this past January, and it’s odd seeing a newly-shot piece on the War Memorial stage playing to a crowd that isn’t there. Complex numbers finish without the expected applause, which is only heard (pre-recorded) at the very end of the show. It’s a valid attempt, but the illusion would have been better if the applause appeared more frequently or was jettisoned all together.

Nevertheless, Kuranaga and company remain in top form whilst wearing Haydee Morales’ recreations of Karinska’s white and green threads.

Nest up is the 2016 archival footage of “Rubies”. Though there’s no chandelier this time, this one also features a black background pierced by the apparent twinkling of stars. So too was Karinska’s costuming a combination of white tights with red tops.

WanTing Zhao (center) and company in Balanchine’s ‘Rubies’ // Photo © Erik Tomasson

In the West, we associate red with passion, desire, and sin. As such, Balanchine’s choreography takes on a notably more “seductive” style when our company begins breaking off into pairs. One particular sequence sees WanTing Zhao the center of attention for a collection of eager young men. And the score’s use (conducted by Martin West) of Stravinsky Capriccio takes on a particularly “devilish” quality in the context.

Like “Emeralds,” a form of courtship is the focus, but the more prurient aspect is no less a valid form of courtship – it’s what most people have in mind after the traditional “flowers and candy” part is over.

The segment is also noticeably shorter than “Emeralds”, but it was nice to hear a live audience cheering on the company in the manner they deserved.

The show concludes with “Diamonds”, the blue-tinged segment that sees two of Judith Fugate’s chandeliers hang above either far side of the stage. Whilst all of Karinska’s costumes have had a formal quality to them, those of the final segment are particularly regal – primarily white, with blue reflecting onto them.

Sasha De Sola and Tiit Helimets in the finale from Balanchine’s Diamonds // Choreography by George Balanchine © The Balanchine Trust; Photo © Erik Tomasson

This costuming and set design reflect the formality of the dancing. The courtship and seduction of the preceding chapters gives way to “traditional” commitment and pairings. No wonder this chapter was named “Diamonds”, it seems as if the characters are trying to put a ring on it.

To the credit of the creators and producers, it never feels as if this is the “right” choice. What I mean is, there’s no suggestion that this sort of coupling invalidates the others. If there were only one way to do something, that would be the only way it’s done. Humans have been trying this relationship thing for several-hundred thousand years now and we still haven’t figured it out.

But, like the colors they represent, courtship is adaptable to nearly all situations. So too, has the SF Ballet found a production that’s as suggestively complex as it appears technically simple. Gems are natural elements, used for currency, spirituality, or even simple geology. Any number of scientists can tell you what they’re made of, but what each individual thinks about them says a lot more about that person than maybe even they realize.

GRADE:                                             B

Jewels: A Ballet in Three Parts is scheduled to stream until the 21st of April on the SF Ballet website.
The show runs 1 hour 31 minutes with no pre-programmed intermission.
For access and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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