Officials of the Sarasota Ballet are touting this weekend’s performance of George Balanchine’s “Jewels” as a significant step in its evolution.
The audience at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on opening night probably didn’t care all that much about that aspect of the evening. What was no doubt more important to most of them was that they saw a glorious and gorgeous evening of dance from the ballet and heard an exquisite performance from the Sarasota Orchestra..
Van Wezel was virtually full for Friday night’s opening performance. If similar numbers attend the Saturday matinee and evening performance, about 5,000 people will have seen “Jewels.” That’s a huge number for dance in this area.
It’s hard to imagine that any of them will say they’re disappointed.
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Balanchine premiered “Jewels” in 1967 — its 50th anniversary will be coming up in April — and even getting the rights to perform it has come to indicate that a ballet company has achieved a level of national artistic. Only a handful of companies in the country have earned the Balanchine Trust’s approval to perform the entire work.
“Jewels” is actually three one-act ballets, titled “Emeralds,” “Rubies” and “Diamonds.” They’re plotless and abstract, which was an innovation in classical ballet a half-century ago. The titles refer to design elements, specifically costume colors, rather than thematic or narrative aspects.
The stage for all three is simple, framed by white curtains (lighted in a champagne color for “Emeralds” and a rose tint for “Diamonds”) with a solid-color backdrop.
“Emeralds” is set to lovely music by French Romantic composer Gabriel Faure. The choreography and the dancing are eloquent and beautiful, but the design of “Emeralds” makes it the least visually interesting of the three pieces. The stark, solid green screen backdrop dominates the stage and matches the colors of the ballerinas’ costumes.
But the ballet itself is a thing of gasp-inducing beauty, with graceful pas de deux and ensemble work. As is so often the case with Balanchine, the movement seems to be a visual extension of the music.
“Rubies” couldn’t be more different. The music, Stravinsky’s “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra,” is brash and unconventionally beautiful. The difficulty of performing the piece has to be obvious to anyone who has even a rudimentary familiarity with music, but the Sarasota Orchestra, conducted by Ormsby Wilkins, is at ease with the rhythmically and tonally challenging passages as well as the segments of delicacy.
The choreography blends modern dance vocabulary and classical elements in a lighthearted and often overtly humorous piece, and the dancers perform it with the requisite strength and grace, and just the right emotional attitude.
“Diamonds,” with an ice-blue backdrop and sparkling white costumes, is set to Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 3 in D Major.” Tchaikovsky wrote the music to many of the world’s most famous ballets, but even his symphonies seem perfectly suited for dance. His innate sense of movement, combined with the distinctive musicality of Balanchine’s choreography, make “Diamonds” the perfect climax to a thrilling evening.
The casts for Saturday’s performances differ, but on Friday evening some of the most notable performances came from Kate Honea, Danielle Brown and Edward Gonzalez. But there were almost no weak moments in any of the performances,
The Sarasota Orchestra has never sounded better, and its varied and virtuosic performance would have stood alone as a concert, apart from the triumphant evening of dance.