The atmosphere at Pacific Northwest Ballet’s opening night was celebratory. The festive attire in preparation for the post-performance gala, the anticipation of the coming 2017-18 season, the heavy publicity of a favorite ballet newly-updated—the air buzzed with excitement and the eager audience applauded every time the curtain rose on the three acts of Jewels. With new scenic and costume design by Jérôme Kaplan, patrons expected the spectacular. On many points, Jewels delivered. In certain ways, however, those high expectations weren’t quite met.
George Balanchine’s Jewels is a classic, originally premiering in 1967. Balanchine seems to be a particular favorite at PNB, and while the dancers often excel at performing his work, beginning the season with an all-Balanchine program, particularly one so well known, felt a little safe. Even the new costumes, which were very much hyped beforehand, were very reminiscent of prior productions. Though it’s clear that an extraordinary amount of work went into their construction, given Kaplan’s history of avant-garde design for productions like Roméo et Juliette and Cendrillon, they felt less than unique. The long, floaty skirts for Emeralds caught on the jeweled bodices, and their many layers obfuscated the movements of the dancers underneath. The seamed and textured bodices of the Rubies costumes, though more visually interesting perhaps than the original costumes, gave the dancers a somewhat boxy, rigid shape. That said, the sheer number of crystals sewn onto each costume is mind-boggling; the entire cast glittered intensely—and appropriately. An unusual choice—that worked—was pale pink for the Diamonds skirts, rather than white or cream, which danced gorgeously against a soft grey backdrop framed by an enormous gilded picture frame of the same dove color.
Jewels was certainly a visual spectacle. The dancing was often quite good, too. Though Emeralds was on the whole rather sleepy, Sarah Ricard Orza gave a particularly lovely show, demonstrating that she’d earned her promotion to principal—the announcement of which followed her performance. She used Fauré’s score to showcase her skill with phrasing, and displayed quiet musicality; her battements and developpés in particular had a breathy lift—they seemed to hang forever in the air. Noelani Pantastico, by contrast, seemed tentative, her effort showing through in difficult partnering sequences. The pas de trois with Leta Biasucci, Angelica Generosa, and Kyle Davis had more energy. The three had a charming spring in their step that was lacking in the rest of the piece.
Rubies provided a welcome jolt after the floaty, ethereal mood of Emeralds. Rachel Foster injected sass into her precise technique alongside partner Benjamin Griffiths, and Lindsi Dec’s lithe power was on full display. Pianist Allan Dameron commanded the Stravinsky score, and the piece whirled jazzily, a whole breathless unit. Ryan Cardea, Steven Loch, Price Suddarth, and Ezra Thomson (whose promotion to soloist was also announced at the performance) provided comic relief as a jaunty pack of bedazzled joggers. On the whole, Rubies was saucy and fun.
Diamonds provided a grand and opulent ending to the program. The large corps exhibited graceful precision, from the slow and stately beginning to the grand finale of the triumphant Tchaikovsky score. Karel Cruz’s performance was the highlight of the evening. He nailed his solo variations, sticking the landing on every tour en l’air and generally delighting with his virtuosity. Lesley Rausch, as his partner, was also wonderful, executing her variations flawlessly with a commanding stage presence. Cruz’s performance was what the whole evening should have been. He took the existing choreography and let his personality and technique shine through. Though Jewels provides moments for a variety dancers to shine, some of them were overshadowed by glitter and hype—and possibly tradition. PNB has some great talent. The dancers should have new opportunities to stretch themselves and showcase their unique flair. The technical strength of the company would be well served by taking more risks with works that step beyond the expected to move solidly into the future.
For audiences who know and love Balanchine and his Jewels, this new version from PNB should be pleasing, and those new to PNB’s productions may be impressed by the production value. Those looking for something fresh, however, may be a bit underwhelmed if they were hoping for a redesigned production that pushes the boundaries. Though the dancers on the whole performed their roles admirably, one might hope that they are given something more unusual to work with as a season opener next year.
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Jewels premiered September 22 and runs through October 1 at McCaw Hall. More information at pnb.org.