Ballet West's 'Jewels' a sparkling success

Published: Monday, April 8 2013 11:20 a.m. MDT

Jacqueline Straughan and Ronnie Underwood in “Rubies,” one of three works on George Balanchine’s “Jewels.” (Erik Ostling) Jacqueline Straughan and Ronnie Underwood in “Rubies,” one of three works on George Balanchine’s “Jewels.” (Erik Ostling)

Of George Balanchine’s 1967 premiere of “Jewels,” the distinguished critic Clive Barnes penned: “It is open to doubt whether even George Balanchine has ever created a work in which the inspiration was so sustained, the invention so imaginative or the concept so magnificent.”

Ballet West communicated that sentiment during its opening weekend of the three-part ballet, which runs through April 13 at Capitol Theatre.

The vastly different personalities of each section are tied with some loose thematic threads like jewel-encrusted costumes and period nods. But those factors, be they worthy of our attention, don’t nudge ballet companies to add it to their repertoire. It becomes part of the rotation simply because it’s back-to-back Balanchine: a heavy helping of his choreographic genius in a single evening.

Jacqueline Straughan and Ronnie Underwood in George Balanchine's Jacqueline Straughan and Ronnie Underwood in George Balanchine's "Jewels." (Erik Ostling)

Dancers have a love-hate relationship with the work. It’s a marathon — a virtual sweat storm often masked in subtlety and restraint. They must bring out nuances in the music never noticed before, and many aficionados have the original cast of ballet legends firmly planted in their heads to which no other dancers can quite live up to. Done right, however, the sense of achievement for an artist is pinnacle.

The first act, “Emeralds,” features an all-green set, with dancers in long tulle skirts. Their demure and languid movement is thought to resemble a 19th-century French ballet school. Floating bourrées that leave the corps en pointe for an age and delicate, measured steps to the music of Fauré create a perfumed garden where evocative color and subtleties seem effortless but are surprisingly hard to get right.

Emily Adams and Adrian Fry (Saturday evening cast) are particularly well-suited to the task. I have never seen a lovelier Adams. She was perfectly cast with her regal bearing and soul-searching eyes. Her whole body seems to sigh from step to step, rising and falling with such reach and depth — it's definitely one for her highlight reel.

Fry, too, is a poetic dancer — a perfect blend of power and grace. He’s lyrical and smooth, moving with precision that somehow manages not to feel guarded or trained into him.

The second act, “Rubies,” accompanied by Stravinsky's Capriccio, is jazz-infused, playful and angular — an audience favorite. Elizabeth McGrath won the solo female role, trotting on to the stage, stretching and preening into perfect sharpness with a well-played sauciness and wry sense of pulse.

Lead couple Jacqueline Straughan and Christopher Sellers tag team with a devil-may-care showmanship. Sellers’ movement is big and exuberant, where Straughan’s has the lithe folding and unfolding sensation that plays up her magnificent extension.

Finally, the evening crescendos with the grandiose “Diamonds” section in a distinct nod — Tchaikovsky score and all — to classical Imperial Russian ballet. Dressed in sparkling white tutus encrusted with gems, the corps begins a long waltz that threads intricate patterns, paving the way for a romantic pas de deux between Easton Smith and Haley Henderson Smith. The technique is show-stopping.

The husband and wife duo are a resplendent, regal pair. Their solos each garner wild applause, but their chemistry together is even more spectacular. Finally, the grand polonaise occurs, a true pomp-and-circumstance event that fills the stage to capacity.

If Balanchine’s “Jewels” is a mountain to be climbed for every major company, then Saturday evening’s performance was a monument to Ballet West’s success. Let's hope the company will summit the work again and again.

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