George Balanchine’s “Jewels” was an instant hit with the unwashed public and some well-laundered reviewers on its premiere, in April 1967. Popularity tends to breed contempt in the arts, and Balanchine was said to have created “Jewels” after a visit to the New York jewelers Van Cleef & Arpels, a relatively crass inspiration as muses go.
But time has proved the public right. “Jewels” is an enduring beauty that, with the right dancers, is never stale. And the Paris Opera Ballet gives the ballet fresh nuances in a program, filmed live in November at the Palais Garnier, that does the PBS “Great Performances” series proud.
The dancing is unmistakably not that of the New York City Ballet, for which “Jewels” was created. It takes a few minutes to get used to the French dancers’ lush and, by New York standards, hyperactive arms. And it will probably take more than a performance or two to get used to the new costumes and the new jewel-spritzed backdrops for the French production, both designed by Christian Lacroix, that replace the dear old designs by Karinska and Peter Harvey. But the distinct beauties glow through each of the three sections, as homages to the cultural traditions of Balanchine’s adopted France (“Emeralds”), New York City (“Rubies”) and of the czarist Russia (“Diamonds”) in which he was raised and trained.
As ever, music plays an important role in Balanchine’s conceptions. The three scores — by Fauré, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky — are performed by the orchestra of the Paris Opera Ballet, conducted by Paul Connelly.
Balanchine created the lead female role in “Emeralds,” set to heartbreakingly sweet and meditative music by Fauré, for the witty French ballerina Violette Verdy, who danced with Conrad Ludlow, one of the great partners of the time. Clairemarie Osta is voluptuous in the Verdy role, the difference embodied in the way a set of quick, extended footbeats look almost like an afterthought. Her partner, Kader Belarbi, guides her through the choreography with just the right measure of ardor and complicity, later proving himself as a velvety technician in his own right. The musical phrasing in their pas de deux is a special pleasure.
The exquisite simplicity of the “walking” dance in “Emeralds,” a pas de deux that reveals a great deal about the warmth of Balanchine as a classical ballet choreographer and a human being, is perfectly captured by Laëtitia Pujol and Mathieu Ganio. The clarity of their dancing and the tactful close-ups of Pierre Dupouey’s camerawork and Emmanuelle Dupont’s editing prepare the viewer for the subtle and surprising reappearance of walking themes in the following two sections.
“Rubies” and its Stravinsky score are full of insouciant play, including jogging and jump-roping motifs, and a little grinding jazz sensuality. You could wish for slightly more astringency from the lead dancers — Aurélie Dupont, Alessio Carbone and Marie-Agnès Gillot — but the choreography’s effervescent sparkle is there. Ms. Dupont is intriguingly flirtatious, and Ms. Gillot stands out for the engaging unpredictability of the way her legs fling out into Balanchinian angles. Mr. Carbone is thoroughly believable leading the zesty male dance, and its solo, danced originally by the gutsy Edward Villella and as glinting as mica in the pavement.
The great fascination of the culminating “Diamonds” is the performance by Agnès Letestu in the role originated by Suzanne Farrell. Ms. Letestu appears to have the world’s most pliable mid-torso, seamlessly shifting her body’s direction 180 degrees without apparent effort. She performs with an almost prim spirituality that recalls not only Ms. Farrell but the tales of the nunlike Marie Taglioni, a mid-19th-century Paris Opera Ballet star. But it is a purity inflected with Gallic wit, as a perfectly timed close-up reveals at the end of her pas de deux with the fluid, quick-moving Jean-Guillaume Bart: Ms. Letestu accepts his final moment of homage as a charming impertinence.
No camera could do justice to the finale of “Diamonds,” with its building, coolly glittering climaxes and its massed dancers in white classical dress. They fill the vast-looking stage, and the camera cannot pull back far enough. But neither the intimacy nor the grandeur of those closing moments are lost. This “Jewels” is a sumptuous gift from “Great Performances.”
‘Jewels’ From the Paris Opera Ballet
PBS, tonight and Wednesday night at 10; check local listings.
Directed by Pierre Cavassilas; photography by Pierre Dupouey; edited by Emmanuelle Dupont; Josette Affergan, producer; Barry Shulman, series executive producer. Co-produced by the Paris National Opera and Telmondis in association with France 2; WNET, New York; and Opus Arte.