Balanchine rocks

Houston Ballet's precious Jewels is a real gem

Houston Ballet's precious Jewels is a real gem

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In "Emeralds" section of the Balanchine ballet, Karina Gonzalez, from left, Joseph Walsh and Nozomi Iijima are "Jewels" Photo by Amitava Sarkar
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Melissa Hough and Connor Walsh in "Rubies," a section of the Houston Ballet production of "Jewels" Photo by Amitava Sarkar
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Jun Shuang Huang and Mireille Hassenboehler in the third-act, "Diamonds" Photo by Amitava Sarkar
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Bling isn't really my thing. In fact you might even say I'm ornamentally challenged. But when the curtain lifted like the lid of a fine jewelry box, revealing an arrangement of Houston Ballet's glittering "Emeralds," my inner Material Girl was tickled pink. Without hesitation, I accepted all three acts of George Balanchine's precious Jewels.

Considered the first "evening-length, plotless ballet" and a crowned bijou of Mr. B's repertoire, Jewels is a timelessly chic gift with all the significance of an heirloom. Former dancers from the Balanchine fountainhead New York City Ballet, Elyse Borne and Maria Calegari, staged the ballet and coached HB's dancers who have been cutting their chops on other Balanchine works in preparation for this unveiling. These efforts have paid off. The company was polished and ready for the showcase by opening night.

Ivory drapes adorn a bare stage to spectacular effect for the three-act ballet, divided into sections of "Emeralds," "Rubies," and "Diamonds." Nothing more is needed to ooh, aah, and ogle the sumptuous feast of color or this choreographic gem.

Jewels is an ode to three eras of ballet, three locales where Balanchine worked and lived, three distinct musical moods, and three flavors of women. With little surprises embedded among the jewels, there's something for everyone in this multifaceted display.

With flourishes of gesture and earthy calls of a French horn, "Emeralds" captures the rural ambience of the Romantic ballet. Its female inhabitants are the girl-next-door type. Melody Herrera glows with the dreamy innocence of a young maiden. Amy Fote's turn as ingénue is less wistful, she’s actively seeking love. Her "walking" duet seems a bit fragile but she shines elsewhere with a leggy brilliance. Joseph Walsh is perfectly cast, an elegant suitor for the nymph-like mesdemoiselles on each arm. In this act, the geometry of Balanchine's design is striking as the creatures count down to twilight.

"Rubies" grabs the audience with its first sciatic swivel. Balanchine's choreography playfully interacts with Stravinsky's brash and jazzy Capriccio for piano and orchestra in this sultry New York-style showstopper. Connor Walsh and Houston Ballet newbie, Melissa Hough, make a sassy pair in their sultry duet and Kelly Myernick looks especially statuesque as she is manipulated by (or is she manipulating?) four strapping lads. There is no wonder why this centerpiece is an audience favorite and the company looks good wearing it.

Where "Rubies"is a pique-lover's dream, thrusting dancers around the stage with this power turn, the "Diamonds" enchantress, Mireille Hassenboehler, chaines dizzyingly to Tchaikovsky's familiar cascading flute. This is classical Russian ballet, full of aloof passion and processional glory. Audiences know where to clap. They get the pas de deux and the wintery landscape, offset here with a rich Wedgewood blue backdrop. They get to watch Jun Shuang Huang fly around the stage in a traditional managès. And the sheer number of dancers is a fantastic reminder that one can never have too many diamonds.

Speaking of which, husbands, boyfriends, and lovers may sigh with relief to know that Jewels “rocks” as a night out but, if your main squeeze is of the ornamentally aware variety, don't skip the anniversary gem.

Nichelle Strzepek writes about dance education on her blog, DanceAdvantage.net