Emerald green, ruby red, sapphire blue, and white diamonds — all those colours shimmering in sporty silk were worn on stage as dancers responded to the icy tinkle of music by Philip Glass. The balletic presentation by Benjamin Millepied and his L.A. Dance Project was the final work in a series commissioned in 2013 by high jewellery house Van Cleef & Arpels. And as the audience at London's Sadler's Wells cheered the dancers to the echo, the show brought down a metaphorical curtain on a ballet connection that started back in 1967. That was when the legendary choreographer George Balanchine, inspired by the colourful jewels in a Van Cleef display on New York's Fifth Avenue, first translated sparkling stones into dance in the three-act ballet, Jewels.
The London evening featured three separate pieces, starting with Millepied's "Hearts and Arrows" — a vigorous piece also set to Philip Glass, in which the dancers' movements in black-and-white checked sportswear complemented the leaping figures. "On the Other Side", the first performance of the final ballet in the Jewels trilogy, was a different facet of jewellery inspiration that featured dancers in colourful costumes playing against a backdrop as fresh and Spring-like as its floral colours.
At the heart of the new ballet was the collaboration between Van Cleef and Millepied, whose decade-long role as a dancer at the New York City Ballet was crowned by his choreography of the film Black Swan (2010), where he met his wife, the actress Natalie Portman. The impetus to meld jewels with dance came from President and CEO Nicolas Bos, whose role at Van Cleef is a rare combination of both creative director and chief executive. He had a mission: to re-imagine the original ballet/jewels partnership in a way appropriate to the modern world.
"I developed a relationship with the New York City Ballet and we discussed the idea of creating a new production of Balanchine's Jewels," Bos said. "We thought it would be interesting to try to recreate the context that provided the collaboration behind the trilogy. Keeping the structure, the association with the colour, with the music and the dimensions, all on his terms, was meant as a tribute to and continuation of Balanchine. That was the starting point four or five years ago — and this is the final act." Benjamin Millepied's vision was more abstract and he explained what he saw as the major difference between his approach and that of his predecessor. "Balanchine pitched (Gabriel) Fauré and (Igor) Stravinsky and I think these were the right composers for what the stones expressed to him," Millepied said. "In the costumes he is very literal, as in the rendition of diamonds."
The French-born choreographer, now based in Los Angeles, continued: "Here, it is more about the symbolism of the stones and the idea of spring, of hope and love. At the end, there is an idea of uncertainty. So I would say that the piece is a combination of what the music expressed to me and what I am interested in. The personality of the dancers really inspires my work and the three pieces show my journey as a choreographer and an evolution of the things that I explored." The London evening started with the graphic, visual modernism of Hearts and Arrows, followed by a very different and dramatic ballet called Harbor Me presented by choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
But where in this powerful and athletic dancing were the jewels in all their glittering glory and exceptional craftsmanship? The elegant evening at Sadler's Wells had not even one small showcase of stones, emerald or otherwise, although I had seen that morning in the windows of Van Cleef's Bond Street store, a modern version of the tutu-clad figure that had been in the jewellery house's repertoire since the 1940s. Nicolas Bos explained that the Van Cleef/ballet collaboration has no tangible connection, although over eighty years the house had "really tried to interpret the movement, the lightness, and the femininity of the ballerina". "But what matters is that it is part of the world we are designing," Bos continued. "What we find absolutely fascinating is the original cross-inspiration and collaboration with the House back in 1967. There is the element of the precious stone that kind of formed the language. But it didn't come at all as an instrument to promote rubies or emeralds. Taking inspiration from stones was not about celebrating jewellery. It has helped to create a piece that was abstract and disconnected from the narrative." Bos then referred back to the 1967 Balanchine version of the ballet, saying that it was not cutting-edge contemporary, but rather brought an element of surprise and structure that was inspired by the jewels.
"The stone has a very powerful sense of emotion which is something that I was absolutely fascinated by," Bos said. The original Jewels does not convey the colour or the facets - but it does convey the power, strength and history." For this ballet performance, three things stood out — beyond the power of dance itself: the chilly, evocative music of Philip Glass; the extraordinarily colourful backdrop by Mark Bradford, like a map of a joyful world; and the vivid outfits, body-conscious to reflect the perpetual movement, created by Italian designer Alessandro Sartori, known for his work with Italian menswear company Ermenegildo Zegna.
"It was all silk with different weights and effects," said Alessandro, who had worked previously with Millepied at the Venice opera house. On stage, the ever-moving figures wore clothes that were sporty, close to the body, shimmering in movement, suggesting an abstract connection to nature and its buffeting winds. Occasionally, the silken sheen gave the tilt of a cut stone.
But at the heart of the evening, which included an elegant dinner backstage with the cast, friends and supporters, was not jewellery, but the art of dance. "It's been an interesting journey thinking about these three works," Millepied said, who plans to put the three Jewels works together in a single evening next year, possibly even bringing them together without an intermission.
"I really think this piece is an exceptional work of music, almost an hour long, exciting and quite a challenge for the dancers," Millepied continued. "The Philip Glass music carries so much atmosphere. But it is all about fine balance, emotional and visual elements, and transitions. There is always the inspiration from the jewels but also there is an evolution for me as a choreographer. It is really interesting to see the final work. I think that the more I choreograph, the more I am focused on transitions - to keep the interest and surprise." Now, it is up to Van Cleef to take inspiration in reverse: to use this exceptional collaboration to bring the power of dance to diamonds, rubies and emeralds.