June is usually the month when the toll begins to tell on dancers' bodies.
The ballet season is drawing to a close, everyone is tired, injuries are up and there are more sudden cast changes than in Gordon Brown's Cabinet. But then along comes Jewels, George Balanchine's grand and demanding triptych, and it feels as if the season's just beginning. The work was new to the Royal Ballet only 18 months ago, but at Tuesday's revival opening the company claimed it as its own with a force that lifted you out of your seat.
Few ballets cram as much variety into one evening. It's three separate ballets, really, linked by a gemstone theme, supposedly inspired by a visit to Van Cleef & Arpels in the 1960s. (The founding father of American ballet liked to drape his current wife in expensive sparklers, and insisted that all his female dancers wear diamond ear studs, though most could only afford paste.)
I have to own up to a difficulty with "Emeralds", the opening section and Balanchine's homage to all things French. It's serene and supremely civilised, but its score – a patchwork of mostly little-known Fauré – seems to me a soggy thing: dank where it could be dark, misty where it could be clear, and on the whole, obscure.
Yet if anyone can win me over to its poetry, it will be Tamara Rojo and Leanne Benjamin, who between them explore the gamut of the delicate shadings of "Emeralds" with a wondrous elegance and control. Rojo holds the still, pale centre of the piece, soft-armed with lids lowered, as daisy-chains of girls around her wilt exquisitely and the dynamic level of the music retreats so far that at one point you're left with only the drumroll of 32 bourréeing shoes in your ears. Benjamin is deliciously arch as she walks regally on pointe through a duet, like a medieval lady with her squire.
The central section, "Rubies", is not just from another country: it blasts you into another century. Stravinsky's jazzy Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra is delivered with terrific panache (the conductor is Valeriy Ovsyanikov), and when Alexandra Ansanelli, a scarlet woman in every sense, bowls on stage she proceeds to knock spots off every other performance in recent memory. Whether posing mock-coyly with Betty Grable legs, shivering her hips to make the gems on her tunic rattle, or flipping up her legs friskily behind her head, she's so the ultimate Manhattan goodtime girl that her partner, Carlos Acosta, looks dazed with pleasure. Her reckless speed risks a tumble at any moment, and this is as exhilarating as it gets.
Back on stage after serious injury, Alina Cojocaru was understandably cautious in "Diamonds", the choreographer's homage to Russian highclassical style. As in a formal courtship, Cojocaru's white-tutu'd ballerina begins remote and chilly, then slowly, magically, yields and glows as Tchai-kovsky's Symphony No 3, along with Rupert Pennefather's dashing consort, warm her heart. After the final mass polonaise, all joy and ease and dazzling silver light, my own felt fit to burst.
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