With its premiere of George Balanchine’s ‘Jewels,’ the Sarasota Ballet becomes one of the few companies granted permission to perform the three-piece ballet.
While watching a recent rehearsal, the significance of the Sarasota Ballet’s upcoming performance began to truly sink in for Director Iain Webb.
In his 10 years at the helm of the ballet company, he’s accomplished a lot. But this achievement is especially momentous.
The dancers were rehearsing the finale polonaise procession in George Balanchine’s “Diamonds.” It’s a joyous, awe-inspiring spectacle, in which 34 dancers share the stage, performing complex, demanding steps in dazzling costumes for the ballet’s climax.
This isn’t the first time he’s seen them perform the ballet. In 2011, former New York City Ballet principal Suzanne Farrell invited the company to perform “Diamonds” with her company, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Balanchine had created the ballet specifically for Farrell in 1967. Balanchine, the Russian-born choreographer who co-founded the New York City Ballet, is remembered as a giant of the contemporary ballet world and is widely regarded as the father of American ballet.
Farell was his greatest muse.
The invitation was an honor. But this time, says Webb, it feels even more significant.
The Sarasota Ballet will perform “Emeralds,” “Rubies” and “Diamonds” on Friday, Dec. 16, as Balanchine’s iconic three-part ballet “Jewels.”
Many ballet companies perform the individual pieces, which are each capable of standing on their own, but to perform the entire ballet requires special permission from the George Balanchine Trust. The rare opportunity is regarded as the benchmark of a top-tier ballet company.
Webb couldn’t have been more excited.
“I was standing there, watching the rehearsal,” he says. “And I thought about how Danielle (Brown), Victoria (Hulland), Kate (Honea) and I have been here together — this is my 10th season. I said, ‘Could you ever imagine, nine years ago, that we would be watching this rehearsal and doing a ballet of this magnitude? It wouldn’t have even been a dream — not anywhere on the horizon. It really sunk in to see the Sarasota Ballet, en masse, doing this in a real home-team sort of way. It takes your breath away.”
With the Suzanne Farrell collaboration, 2011 marked the start of the journey. The following season, Webb added “Rubies” to the repertoire, and last season, the company performed “Emeralds.”
Aside from the honor that comes with the permission, which the trust granted the company after building trust over the years, seeing the ballet performed in its entirety offers dancers and audience members a new, fuller perspective.
“Every one of the ballets is great on its own,” says principal Victoria Hulland. “But I think they’re so much better together. You really see diversity between the three, and the styles he was going for, with the French, Russian and American. It’s really exciting.”
Inspired by a trip to New York City’s Van Cleef and Arpels jewelry store, Balanchine’s groundbreaking 1967 “Jewels” is a three-piece abstract ballet — called the first of its kind. Each piece evoked the spirit of its respective precious stone.
“Emeralds” is first. It’s the most romantic of the three jewels, a dreamlike piece featuring two principal couples, lots of pas de deuxs and solos and an equally tranquil score by Gabriel Fauré. It’s a reverent, tender piece of dance that eases viewers into the program.
The central piece, “Rubies,” is a flirty, jazzy, American-style work for eight female and four male dancers, led by three principals. With stylish costumes of short red tutus and comedic allusions to Broadway musicals, its playfulness is contrasted by Igor Stravinsky’s sharp score.
Like its namesake, the closing piece, “Diamonds,” is a rich, grandiose performance featuring glittery white-and-gold costumes and a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The most classical of the three pieces, it serves as an homage to Balanchine’s own Russian heritage and the ballet’s triumphant finale.
“It’s such an epic culmination,” says coryphyée Daniel Rodriguez. “It builds up to such a point. The piece has its ebbs and flows, but as you get to the big finale, you keep thinking, ‘It can’t get bigger than this.’ But it keeps building up. I get chills just talking about it.”
Like a lot of Balanchine’s choreography, the work is complex and physically demanding, and performing the three works together provides an added challenge. But with the performance, the Sarasota Ballet will be included among the world’s greatest ballet companies allowed to perform “Jewels” — The Royal Ballet will perform it in March; the New York City Ballet did it in October. Now, audiences can see the rare ballet right here in Sarasota.
“All of our hard work for the last 10 years has been leading up to this point,” says principal Danielle Brown. “It feels amazing to say we get to do this. And this is the way you want to see ballet: on a big stage with a huge company, live music and beautiful costumes. And it’s such a rare opportunity and an honor. This is as good as it gets.”