Jewels, Royal Opera House, London

A brilliant gem of a ballet
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The Independent Culture

Jewels glitters. Balanchine's 1967 work, a major acquisition for the Royal Ballet, has been carefully coached, framed with shiny new sets and starrily cast. It's an opulent spectacle, with a deepening sense of atmosphere. Dancing and choreography go from prettiness to power.

The special-occasion scale is part of the ballet's point. Balanchine created it for his own company, New York City Ballet, as an extravagant, evening-length display. It was an instant hit. In recent years, companies around the world have taken it up, including the Mariinsky (formerly Kirov) and Paris Opra.

Apparently inspired by a trip to the Fifth Avenue jewellers Van Cleef and Arpels, he created three linked, plotless works, each based on a different jewel. Each had a different composer and has come to be associated with a different country. "Emeralds", set to music by Faur, is distinctively French. "Rubies", danced to Stravinsky, has a jazzy American energy, while "Diamonds" looks back to St Petersburg.

With all its shimmer, Jewels isn't Balanchine's richest. The dances, always attractive, are sometimes just decorative. Yet each work reaches superb heights of style and invention.

At first, the Royal Ballet look too scrupulous in "Emeralds". Neither Tamara Rojo nor Edward Watson is quite at home in Balanchine. Her backbends are beautifully lavish, but she lacks grandeur. Leanne Benjamin and Ivan Putrov are more stylish, in a duet where their outstretched move arms in stages, like the hands of a clock. By the time Steven McRae, Laura Morera and Deirdre Chapman wind through an intricate trio, the ballet has come to life. The dancing is at once brightly phrased and misty.

"Emeralds" gathers intensity, its floating prettiness turning into something elegiac. As the three men pace slowly across the stage, the women joining and leaving them, "Emeralds" has become a green-tinted world of lost romance.

"Rubies" is the most popular section of Jewels, the one often staged as a separate ballet. It's full of off-balance moves, showgirl poses that have an exuberant innocence. Zenaida Yanowsky, big and bold, slides her feet apart as if to do the splits then bends in a spiky, deep pli. Around her, the corps de ballet skip and prance with bouncy attack. Carlos Acosta looks rushed by Balanchine's firecracker steps; he's soft where he should be sharp.

The knockout performance comes from Sarah Lamb. She snaps through the fast changes of direction, flipping from one pose to another with outrageous, musical speed. Her duet with Acosta is full of changes of balance, pushed to hair-raising extremes.

"Diamonds" has a marvellous pas de deux in a thinnish setting. Balanchine's corps de ballet dances are full of patterns, but they lack the magic of his Theme and Variations or Symphony in C. The dances for the central couple are extraordinary. The ballerina is both grand and free, sweeping into a pose and diving out of it.

Alina Cojocaru plunges and turns in Rupert Pennefather's arms, twisting to face him as he bends her back. She is assured and speedy, scampering through brilliant turns. Pennefather partners her with gorgeous chivalry, then bounds through his own virtuoso steps. Around them, the company dance with confidence and pride, with a filigree precision to the women's steps.

The new Royal Ballet production keeps the original costumes by Barbara Karinska, but adds new sets by Jean-Marc Puissant. Trying to keep a balance between upping the glitz and leaving room for the dancing, Puissant adds slightly too much detail. "Emeralds" and "Diamonds" have rippling curtain backdrops, with different chandeliers and extra glitter on the stage wings. "Rubies" has a fussier Art Deco cinema look, with pillars and geometric light fittings.

Karinska's costumes are Sixties extravagant. In each work, there's a distinctive shape to the women's dresses: long, romantic skirts for "Emeralds", short, fringed tunics for "Rubies" and tutus for "Diamonds". Colours are bright, paste gemstones everywhere. The women of "Rubies" have so many jewels on their short skirts that they actually rattle as they run off: a clatter of gems and energy.

In rep to 7 December (020-7304 4000)

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