George Balanchine’s three-part ballet, "Jewels," broke new ground when New York City Ballet premiered the work in April 1967. For the golden anniversary this year, major ballet companies from around the globe have been celebrating it.
Pacific Northwest Ballet, a company rooted in the Balanchine tradition, will mark the occasion by opening its season this month with all new costumes and scenic design by renowned French scenic designer Jerome Kaplan. This major endeavor has required countless hours of thoughtful planning and preparation, as well as oversight by the Balanchine Trust in New York.
“Jewels” derives its name from the gemstones — emeralds, rubies and diamonds — that inspired each of its three sections and adorned the costumes designed by Barbara Karinska, a famous ballet costume designer with a decades-long association with Balanchine and the New York City Ballet.
“I started planning for this three years ago after the last time PNB performed ‘Jewels.’ I realized the ballet was becoming a signature work for the company,” said PNB artistic director Peter Boal. “Our own designs would ensure a permanence and uniqueness.”
For its 2009 and 2014 performances, PNB principal dancers were coached by five former New York City Ballet dancers, who had originated roles. That polishing paid off. The title alone of a New York Times review by its chief dance critic, Alastair Macaulay, who saw three of the 2014 performances, says it all: “Original Balanchine Stars Help Turn Much-Loved ‘Jewels’ into Heirlooms.”
In 2015, Boal began speaking with Kaplan, who created all new sets and costumes for PNB’s “Giselle,” about a “Jewels” redesign.
Kaplan recalls that his initial enthusiasm was followed by a case of serious nervous jitters in an e-mail interview.
“’Jewels’ is one of the masterpieces of Balanchine, and revisiting it is almost a sacrilege for certain people,” he said. “To tell the truth, when Peter Boal asked me, I was immediately enthusiastic and accepted his offer with joy. Then I began to realize the difficulty and the risk, knowing that some aficionados would not spare me, and I even tried to withdraw from the project! Then Peter convinced me to do it.”
A visit to the costumes-in-progress at PNB’s Phelps Center and Mark Zappone’s Studio Z last month revealed that there won’t be any surprises in the color scheme for those already familiar with this ballet. The Emeralds costumes are still green. Rubies are red, and Diamonds, white. It’s in the design where Kaplan has applied his distinctive touch and updated them for the 21st century.
The most striking feature of the original Karinska costumes for the ballerinas was a “necklace” of large ornamental gems that created the neckline. In Kaplan’s redesign, that’s gone. Instead, many small ornamental gems are affixed to the bodice.
“For the costumes, I tried to keep the essence of Karinska's original creation,” he said. “I focused on the silhouette and retained the original colors. The dancers are the jewels. That's why I designed no defined lines between the skin and the costume. Their costumes are like a second skin, and the stones are almost encrusted on their body.”
A member of PNB’s costume shop said there are 4,500 such gems applied to the Emeralds costumes alone. For the men’s Diamonds costumes, Mark Zappone located shimmering brocade fabrics in San Francisco and an ornamental trim from a local fabric store in Renton.
Regarding the sets, Kaplan provides this overview of his approach.
“I thought of the whole evening as a whole scenographically,” he said. “I found it interesting to start with a black space (Emeralds) and finish in a white space (Diamonds). This creates a kind of crescendo towards light and beauty, which seems to me Balanchine's intentions.”
The middle section is Rubies, and Kaplan went with contrasting black and white for it.
Like the ballet’s choreographer, Kaplan let the music by Gabriel Fauré, Igor Stravinsky and Pyotr Illyich Tchiakovsky influence his artistic choices. The designer also was very attuned to Balanchine’s choreography, watching recordings of various “Jewels” productions dozens of times.
“My work is more and more a matter of feeling and intuition, and it is sometimes very difficult for me to explain how things have taken shape,” he said. “Everything comes from music and choreography. I just try to put both those elements in value and, of course, to help the dancers feel beautiful and technically comfortable.”
Shimmering and glittering on a stage filled with gems and Kaplan’s designs, PNB’s dancers will not only feel, but also look radiant for this opening and for years and years to come.
PNB will present George Balanchine’s “Jewels” at McCaw Hall, Sept. 22 – Oct. 1. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit PNB.org. To comment on this story, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.