Friday, June 21, 2024

A Sparkling Jewels Crowns the National’s Season

Svetlana Lunkina and Spencer Hack with Artists of the National Ballet of Canada in "Emeralds" from Jewels. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)
“A ballet may contain a story, but the visual spectacle, not the story, is the essential element.” – George Balanchine

The National Ballet of Canada has saved its best for last, closing the 2023-2024 season with a dazzling revival of George Balanchine's three-act masterwork Jewels. This plotless full-length work, performed at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre until June 22, demands its dancers fully embody a prismatic array of distinct styles – the gossamer lyricism of "Emeralds," the jazzy insouciance of "Rubies," and the imperial grandeur of "Diamonds," each act inspired by a different orchestral piece and Balanchine’s fascination with the gemstone jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels. Over the course of the two-hour program that opened last Saturday, the company met this challenge with nuanced, musically attuned performances that showcased their versatility and depth of talent. Crucially, they adhered to Balanchine's vision of ballet as a visual art form where the choreography, not the narrative, takes precedence.

The dreamy “Emeralds” opened the evening, transporting the audience to a misty forest glade animated by sections from Gabriel Fauré's Pelléas et Mélisande opera and Shylock Suite as played by the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra, David Briskin conducting. Svetlana Lunkina was iridescent as the principal ballerina, her airy port de bras and transcendent lyricism radiating the elusive allure of French perfume. Lunkina's expressive delicacy harkened back to Violette Verdy's revered interpretation in the original 1967 production of Jewels at New York City Ballet. Partnered by an attentive and elegant Spencer Hack, she exuded a sublime serenity that evoked another world.

The second couple, Tina Pereira and Donald Thom, provided a mesmerizing contrast. Despite being pregnant, Pereira absolutely relished the iridescent sensuality inherent to this pas de deux – conceived as a lover's stroll – as if she had nothing to lose. Rippling across the stage on the tips of her pointes, Pereira appeared to savour each lyrical movement, inspiring in the audience a similar feeling of joyous abandon. The effervescent trio of Miyoko Koyasu, Hannah Galway and Isaac Wright were equally carefree as they flitted across the stage like woodland sprites in a verdant grove. Designer Karinska's diaphanous tutus contributed to the evocation of a poetic dreamscape, their glittering designs sparkling against the beige curtain plainness of a set bathed in jewel tones by lighting designer Robert Thompson.

Then came the explosive dynamism of “Rubies,” where the tutus were replaced by short fiery red tunics to showcase flashy legwork. Propelled by the jagged rhythms of Igor Stravinsky's Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, Koto Ishihara was incandescent as the showgirl lead, her firecracker technique matched by partner Siphesihle November in a dazzling game of bravura one-upmanship. The statuesque Monika Haczkiewicz, with her elongated lines ideally suited to the role often undertaken by taller ballerinas, commanded the stage, her coquettish charm exuding an audacious sensuality that teased out the nonchalant bravado of Balanchine's off-kilter choreography.

The grand finale of “Diamonds” evoked the opulence of Imperial Russia, its sweeping patterns and crystalline configurations unfolding to the majestic melodies emanating from the last four movements of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Third Symphony. Heather Ogden brought regal poise and exuberant lyricism to the lead role, effectively embodying the "diamond-like prism effect" of constantly separating and reuniting forms that Balanchine muse Suzanne Farrell — the original “Diamonds” ballerina — has claimed to admire. While partner Ben Rudisin at times seemed less self-assured, Ogden maintained a commanding presence throughout, appearing as multifaceted and polished as the precious stone she flawlessly represented.

Soloists along with members of the corps  provided strong support, their own precise formations and exuberance capturing the neo-classical ballet’s boldness and grandeur. The male dancers especially impressed with their airy jumps, soft landings and musicality, exemplifying “Diamonds” ' understated elegance. This level of stylistic command extended to their performance of Jewels as a complete work. As danced by the National Ballet, Jewels emerged not just as an archival piece, but as a living, breathing work that still resonates with audiences today. Nearly 60 years later, it remains a gem of a ballet.

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer on staff at The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1985 to 2017. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she is a two-time recipient (2020 and 2014) of Canada’s Nathan Cohen Prize for outstanding critical writing. In 2017, she joined York University as Editor of the award-winning The York University Magazine where she is also the publication’s principal writer. In 2023, she published her latest book, Fashioning The Beatles: The Looks That Shook The World.


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