Wednesday, May 20, 2020

A Glittering Revival of Balanchine’s “Diamonds”

The ninth program in the “Digital Spring Season” of the New York City Ballet (NYCB) returned to the full-evening Jewels, created by George Balanchine, with a performance of the last of the three ballets in the set, “Diamonds.” This follows up on the performance of “Rubies” presented in the fifth program, making “Emeralds” the only one of the three not scheduled for “digital” performance. Set to Igor Stravinsky’s “Capriccio” for piano and orchestra, “Rubies” was a distinctively American offering, bringing modern ballet technique head-to-head with show-biz hoofing. This contrasted sharply with its predecessor in the Jewels ordering, which drew upon music by Gabriel Fauré for a sublimely intimate French perspective.

“Diamonds” put the cap on the cycle with a dazzling salute to Russian traditions, the traditions in which Balanchine first exercised his talents as both dancer and choreographer. As could almost easily be guessed, Balanchine selected music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, choosing his Opus 29 (“Polish”) symphony in D major but discarding the first of the symphony’s five movements. This was not the first time that Balanchine had tinkered with a Tchaikovsky score. In the very first ballet he created in the United States, “Serenade,” he reversed the order of the last two of the four movements of Tchaikovsky’s Opus 48 score. Given that Opus 29 begins with a funeral march, one can appreciate Balanchine’s excision, even if it upset the symmetry of Tchaikovsky’s plan. (Those who know their Balanchine know that, when he set his "Scotch Symphony” to Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 56 symphony in A minor, he similarly dropped the first movement because he felt, correctly in my own opinion, that it did not lend itself to choreographic interpretation.)

What remains of Opus 29 are two ternary-form movements separated by an Andante elegiaco, which is devoted entirely to a thoroughly ravishing pas de deux adagio. The second ternary-form movement, a Scherzo, interleaves the male and female variations with four demi-soloist couples. The symphony’s final movement then sets a grand finale, filling the stage with a generously-sized corps de ballet while also allowing the pas de deux soloists their own razzle-dazzle coda. This all climaxes in stunning unison work as “all hands” join forces in the stately recapitulation of the the final movement’s second theme. Balanchine not only knew every note of this symphony but also knew how to make every note register with both ear and eye.

The “all hands” concluding coda of Balanchine’s “Diamonds” (screen shot from the video being discussed)

If the “Digital Spring Season” account of “Rubies” never got the underlying rhetoric of raucous humor, the execution of “Diamonds,” captured on video from the same Jewels performance on September 19, 2019, fired reliably on all cylinders. The “mapping” of the pas de deux over the final three movements served as a spinal cord to support the opening elegance of the corps work and the varied deployment of resources across the final two movements. As seems to have been consistently the case, Balanchine always knew how to take his cues from Tchaikovsky, making for some of the most richly imaginative engagements between music and dance; and the pas de deux interpretations by Sara Mearns and Russell Janzen reminded every attentive viewer of just how personal Balanchine’s choreography for soloists could be.

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