The New York City Ballet on Wednesday, January 2.

Watching Jewels, George Balanchine’s “first abstract full-evening ballet,” I always felt slightly overwhelmed, like there was too much happening on stage to process it all. Without really thinking about it, I had assumed the lack of narrative would make the ballet less busy, free as it is from the distractions of plot and character, but actually the opposite is true. A story organizes the action: you know who is important, where they’re going, and what the dance “means.” An abstract ballet strips that framework away, forcing you to make sense of everything on your own.

Thus deprived of my crutch, I enjoyed Jewels but felt a bit daunted by it. Of course I’ve seen abstract work before, but the sheer magnitude of this “full-evening” ballet made it feel different. But I had the music, beautiful and familiar, to lean on, and I had the company’s obvious familiarity with the work to lead me, and in the end, no degree of intimidation could dull the sparkle of Jewels.

Balanchine organized Jewels, a landmark of his oeuvre, in three acts. The first, “Emeralds,” uses a collection of incidental music by Fauré; the second, “Rubies,” uses Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra; and the third, “Diamonds,” uses Tchaikovsky’s third symphony. All that music was written during a sixty-year period, spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, yet the three composers were dramatically different, and Balanchine’s choreography reflects that.

The lush elegance of Fauré’s compositions inspires a lovely, mysterious set of dances, romantic but formal, following the long lines of the composer’s melodies with the dancers’ lithe bodies. Stravinsky’s playful yet cerebral score (a product of his neoclassic period) yields jaunty, even jazzy steps—popped hips, coquettishly arched backs, knees bent over pigeoned toes. Tchaikovsky’s rich, ice-queen romanticism produces the kind of too-perfect beauty—traditional and Russian, with a grand corps de ballet—that seems eerie and other-worldly in its perfection.

Technically, there’s not much to unify the three acts (they were originally conceived as separate works), but the externalities of the ballet—the glittering, conceptual sets and Karinska’s exquisitely detailed costumes—help hold it together. Each act also has a subtle geometric quality—in the positioning of the dancers and the angles of their bodies—that seems to suggest the bevels and cuts of the gem namesakes. At one point in “Rubies,” one ballerina is even held at the wrists and ankles by four men and rotated through a series of extensions, like a jeweler showing off the facets of an expertly cut stone. 

I loved the musicality of “Emeralds” and Teresa Reichlen’s spirited, who-needs-a-cavalier solo in “Rubies.” I loved the sweeping pas de deux of “Diamonds,” which featured the majestic Wendy Whelan, one of the few dancers I can recognize immediately from the far reaches of the fourth ring. It’s hard not to see and hear echoes of Swan Lake, my favorite ballet (I’m boring like that), in the sea of white tutus and the aching romance of Tchaikovsky’s melodies.

I never really got past the feeling that details of Balanchine’s choreography were flying past me, but so what? As I left the theater, I reminded myself that Jewels is central to the New York City Ballet’s repertory, so I’ll undoubtedly have the opportunity to see it and be overwhelmed by it many, many times in the future.

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