Luxury merchandise has always had pulling power. Had George Balanchine, in New York in 1967, tried to market his latest work on the basis of its being the world's first full-length abstract ballet, audiences might have stayed away in droves. As it was, he announced that it was inspired by the contents of a shop the high-class jeweller Van Cleef & Arpels, which had just opened a branch on Fifth Avenue and it was an instant and rapturous hit.
Now, 40 years later, Jewels has entered the repertory of the Royal Ballet, bringing with it a strong whiff of conspicuous spending. Sponsored, in part, by the posh people's bank Coutts, used as a launch pad for a new range of (mostly hideous) ballet-inspired gewgaws by Van Cleef & Arpels, the first night staffed by leggy promotion girls dressed in origami tutus fashioned from the Financial Times, you could be forgiven for dismissing the whole event as an exclusive schmutter-fest. Isn't this the sort of thing Tony Hall, Covent Garden's tirelessly democratic chief exec, has been trying to play down for years?
The good news is that the quality of Jewels shines through. And while The Royal Ballet has not always looked comfortable in choreography made for New York's leggier, zappier dancers, the contrasting styles of Jewels' three movements each representing a different period of ballet history allows it to claim the work as its own. "Emeralds" is French Romantic, all drifting sylphs in a woodland glade; "Rubies" is hard-edged Manhattan modernism, with jutting hips and showgirl pizzazz; and finally "Diamonds" presents the glittering high classicism of Imperial Russia, vision scene and wedding duet in one. Music by Faur, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, though less even in quality, completes the allusions.
"Emeralds" looks ravishing framed by Jean-Marc Puissant's new set, Lalique lamps and acres of gauzy grey curtaining setting off the deep lustre of Karinska's frocks. But it struggles to achieve lift-off under the meandering pall of the Faur extracts (I hadn't ever come across his incidental music for the play Shylock and now I know why). Tamara Rojo holds the still, pale centre of the piece, soft-armed and serene, as the lines of girls around her wilt prettily and the dynamic level of the music retreats so far that at one point you're left with only the soft drumroll of 32 bourreing shoes in your ears. The famous flute tune of Faur's Sicilienne brings a welcome melodic wake-up and the precision-dancing of Leanne Benjamin and Ivan Putrov an all-too-brief fillip, but then it's back to dark-green melancholy a bit like being buried alive in moss.
"Rubies" is not just from another country, it blasts you to another century, big, brash and blaring. Stravinsky's Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra thumps its opening tattoo like men in a strip joint banging on a table. Zenaida Yanowsky, legs to the armpits, a literal scarlet woman, poses mock-coyly like Betty Grable, or spreads knowing thighs in a deep, rectangular squat. For both chorus and soloists at the Royal Ballet, "Rubies" opposes just about everything they have ever been taught all jazzy staccato, off-balance and on-the-skew. Yanowsky, with her sardonic cool, is pitch-perfect, but the smaller, cheekier Sarah Lamb, American born, runs her close, prancing like a circus pony or flirtily dodging the grasp of the volcanic Carlos Acosta. His costume, on this occasion, does him no favours, and even threatens to cramp his style. The girls' tunics, by contrast, look great but clatter noisily, so weighty are they with gems.
But nothing in "Rubies" prepares you for "Diamonds", the exile's homage to the grand old St Petersburg of his youth. It was also the smitten choreographer's offering to his muse, his queen of diamonds, his very own living Odette and Aurora all in one, the American ballerina Suzanne Farrell.
It's not that the steps are especially difficult. It's creating a convincing emotional story with them that's challenging, and Alina Cojocaru rose to that challenge magnificently. Paired with Rupert Pennefather's first-class substitute prince (both her usual partners being injured), she began frozen, remote and formal. She then warmed and glowed and yearned. By the climax of the adagio she and we were quite dizzy with ardour. The whole company fizzed in response. Paste diamonds they may be. But this is the real thing.
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