SALT LAKE CITY — There’s a reason George Balanchine’s full-length ballet, “Jewels,” makes only rare appearances. Most companies are kept longingly at bay for one major reason: They lack the manpower.
“I’ve been anticipating being at a place where we could undertake it,” says Ballet West’s artistic director, Adam Sklute. “It requires a huge corps and has much more than the usual amount of strong principal roles.”
In other words, a company that mounts “Jewels” needs more than just a handful of powerhouses in its artillery — it needs to be teeming with them.
As Ballet West prepares for its Utah premiere of “Jewels” at the Capitol Theatre, principal dancers, soloists and demi-soloists are stretched to their limits. Although familiar with the “Emeralds” section, which the company debuted as part of last spring’s mixed-bill program, dancers have just recently become acquainted with the other two sections of the triptych: “Diamonds” and “Rubies.”
Sandra Jennings, a former dancer for New York City Ballet and member of the Balanchine trust, has spent much of her spring in Salt Lake City staging “Rubies” and re-polishing “Emeralds.” At a Monday afternoon rehearsal last week, Jennings scrupulously combed through a pas de deux between real-life couple Hailey Henderson Smith and her husband, Easton Smith.
“Lift your head a few degrees” and “Your right hip needs to be pointing slightly more downstage” are tweaks so slight as to make you wonder at their necessity. But Balanchine choreography is sacred text, and Ballet West is counting on adding this work to its regular repertoire.
“Although most companies can’t undertake the program, practically all major companies have 'Jewels' as part of their regular repertoire,” says Sklute. Within the last five years, the Bolshoi, New York City Ballet, Mariinsky, Pacific Northwest Ballet, London’s Royal Opera House and San Francisco Ballet have presented it.
Joined loosely by the suggestion of gemstones, muses that Balanchine became fascinated with, the full-length abstract ballet is, in all other respects, three separate works.
As always, music plays an important role in his design, and with “Jewels” this is never truer. Set to familiar music by three composers — the romantic Fauré, the classic Tchaikovsky and the inventive Stravinsky — each ballet evokes a different mood and nods to ballet’s historical timeline.
While so much choreography plays off music, Balanchine was a master of exploring music through choreography. Recently, Ballet West performed Fredrick Ashton’s “Cinderella” to the music of Prokofiev.
“Balanchine’s approach is totally different,” Sklute says in comparing the two. “Ashton makes you see what you’re hearing, Balanchine makes you hear what you didn’t hear before.”
Perhaps that is part of the enduring mystique of “Jewels.”
“Emeralds” evokes 19th century France: sensuous, floating, delicate, hinting of hushed intrigue and clandestine meetings.
“Rubies” springs forward to the Jazz age, articulating a love affair with American charisma through high-energy, ever-changing rhythms and vivacious unpredictability.
“Diamonds” is grand finale-like. Bouncing backward to high-imperial Russia when Tchaikovsky and Petipa were at their height, the courtly, technical, extravagant and presentation-centered work wows as diamonds are meant to.
It’s no coincidence that Balanchine’s early training was in his Russian homeland, early career included Paris and high career in the United States. His experience and love for all three transcends in “Jewels” as a life’s tribute to his broad range of experience.
If you go…
What: Ballet West’s “Jewels” by George Balanchine
Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 West 200 South, Salt Lake City
When: April 5, 6 and 10-13
How Much: $19-$80
More information: call 801-355-ARTS or visit www.ArtTix.org or balletwest.org
Ballet West’s second annual “Family Series” will kick off during the same weekend with its world premiere of “Aladdin.” Running just over an hour and featuring Ballet West II, the series is tailor-made for young ones and the young at heart. Following a marketplace youth, a whimsical genie and an entire cast of colorful, magnificently costumed characters, Aladdin strives to win the love of his beautiful princess and spoil the plans of the wicked sorcerer. Set to a mishmash of famous orchestral selections from Dvorak to Sibelius, “Aladdin” runs April 6-9 with tickets ranging from $15-$35 at the Capitol Theatre.