Jewels, Royal Opera House, London – review

As an alternative to – and escape from – the inevitable Nutcracker, the Royal Ballet this year proposes Jewels, Balanchine’s celebration of scores by Fauré, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, whose worlds he explores in blissful choreography. So Emeralds evokes fin de siècle sensibilities, Proustian subtleties and shadowed regrets, Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes, all implicit in Fauré’s theatre-music. And hugely difficult it is to bring off. Its heart was originally Balanchine’s French ballerina, Violette Verdy, whom we saw as music personified in elegant dance – and how sadly her spirit and her grace were missing at Tuesday night’s revival, which, save for Laura Morera’s beautiful phrasing and sensibilities, was numb, with Edward Watson wasted in this galère.

To the rescue came the cast of Rubies, led by Sarah Lamb, Steven McRae, Zenaida Yanowsky, who sped through Stravinsky’s Capriccio for piano and orchestra, and told us that life and dance were not extinct. Yanowsky blazed her trail. Lamb was quick-witted, bright-footed, though not quite as saucily provocative (“hard-boiled “ was the 1930s phrase) as New York casts. But it was McRae, tremendous in brilliancy, clarity, sheer dam’ joie de danser who galvanised the choreography, astonishingly so in his exit in the penultimate moments of the piece. Pirouettes, which most danseurs offer in a uniformly presto line, McRae timed from a cool beginning into an impossible accelerando into the wings – exact with the music, exact with the spirit of the dance. Sublimest artistry.

And then Diamonds, that homage to Mariinsky ballets, Balanchine’s lifeblood. It demands grandeur, high romance, tremendous schooling, Petersburg air in its lungs. (The sublime Olga Smirnova showed us why during this summer’s Bolshoi season.) The Royal Ballet proposed Marianela Núñez on finest form, radiant, with Thiago Soares her cavalier, the cohorts of a dutiful and disciplined corps de ballet, a quartet of women soloists who may have degrees in grinning, and what seemed a reluctance to allow the dance to speak bravely.

Fine orchestral playing under Valery Ovsyanikov, with Robert Clark a grand Stravinsky pianist. Cluttered and provincial design in the outer movements, whose acreage of curtaining and wonky chandeliers lower both artistic tone and temperature.

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