Classic Christmas ballets are usually plot-driven and inspired by fairy tales, but there is a plot-less ballet on at the moment at the Royal Opera House in London that, though inspired by something unusual, is equally sparkling, magic and glittering - George Balanchine’s Jewels.
The choreographer created it in 1967 for the New York City Ballet, taking inspiration from the beauty of the gem stones he saw in the windows of jewellers Van Cleef & Arpels.
The piece - the world's first abstract ballet and the first full-evening plot-less ballet, being pure dance with no literary content - is divided in three movements each of them dedicated to a different gem, "Emeralds", "Rubies" and "Diamonds", and characterised by music by different composers, Fauré, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky respectively.
Each section also salutes a different era in classical ballet’s history - nineteenth-century French school, the modern New York scene and therefore Balanchinian style, and Petipa's Imperial Russian ballet.
The different movements are also characterised by different dance styles and costumes (green tulle skirts, dynamic red stretchy costumes and flat white tutus) and also hint at distinct periods in Balanchine’s own life and at the three dance schools that influenced his career – the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, the Opéra in Paris and the New York City Ballet.
When it was first staged, the ballet proved extremely successful, with the mid-section Rubies being widely appreciated for its modern dance movements, broken lines, off-centre weight placement and syncopated accents that referenced the rhythms of jazz, hinting at the influence of African-American dance on Balanchine's work.
This new production by the Royal Ballet that staged it already in 2007, features the original costume designs.
A short yet very informative video by the Royal Opera House (embedded at the end of this post) takes the viewer behind the scenes revealing some of the secrets behind the Jewels costumes.
Stones, gems, crystals and sequins may create lovely effects when hit by the lights, but costume designers must also consider the problems, accidents and malfunctions that specific elements applied to a costume may cause to a dancer or to their partner while energetically moving on stage and find practical solutions to sort them out (and this is something that all those fashion designers devoted to over-embellishments should also start considering on a functional level...).
Costume jewellery often appears in ballets in the form of tiaras, crowns and headdresses, but usually it has got a merely decorative function and doesn't add up to the story. In this case instead the jewels become the subject of the piece, assuming an anthropomorphic value and turning into the protagonists of the piece.
Image credits for this post: preparations in the costume department for The Royal Ballet's Jewels. Photo by Rob Moore.