Emeralds for Fauré, Rubies for Stravinsky and Diamonds for Tchaikovsky

Apart from painting, jewellery is not that much represented in the other arts. In music, for example, there are clear mentions to gems and jewels on many lyrics but it is a performing dance piece that features jewellery as the key element of an artistic piece: "Jewels”, a ballet by George Balanchine. A 21th century reinterpretation of this piece brings together names like Van Cleef & Arpels, Benjamin Millepied and the famous composer Phillip Glass, all for the sake of gems.


 The 1941 "Danseuse Espagnole” pin
© Van Cleef & Arpels









Several links can be recognised between the gem and jewellery world and music. Perhaps the more obvious one is the iconic “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” interpreted by Marilyn Monroe on the Howard Hawks' musical “Gentlemen Prefer Blonds”, released in 1953. With a far more interesting substance, the 1960's witnessed the development of an idea of producing a ballet where jewellery, specially a selected group of gemstones, were the central theme of the piece. This happened by a fortunate chance when two outstanding figures met: Claude Arpels (1911-1990), nephew of the founder of the centenary French based early 20th century Van Cleef & Arpels, and Georges Balanchine (1904-1983), the famous St. Petersburgh born choreographer and co-founder of the New York City Ballet, held as a world reference on the contemporary dance scene. The occasional meet happened in New York City, where Balanchine had moved in 1933 and where Claude Arpels lived since 1939 to manage the 5th Avenue flagship store and his company's US market. They immediately connected at an intellectual and artistic level and discovered that both shared a common passion: gemstones.  From this ongoing close relationship a rather bold dance script was made where the costumes, that is to say the dancer's visuals, were jewels and, by coincidence or not, there were just like the early 1940's Van Cleef & Arpels ballerina clips (see above). The ballet "Jewels" started here.

George Balanchine was known for his superior musical background, having been a key figure in the advancement of abstract dancing where the relationship between music and movement played a more important role than scenography, performance stage design and costumes. His dance performance "Jewels" by the New York City Ballet that had its premier in April 1967 at the New York State Theater, has three acts, or movements, each one dedicated to a single gemstone and a selected composer: in the first act, the emeralds are danced to the sound of excerpts of the Pelléas et Méllisade and Shylock by Georges Fauré (1845-1924), the French composer known for his short but emblematic Requiem in D minor. In the second act, the Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), one of Balanchine's favorites, offers motion to rubies and, finally, in the third act, diamonds with their brilliance and sparkle are choreographed around the Synphony nº 3, in C major by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). Without any story line or plot, this ballet is an interesting challenge for the spectator as three completely different musical styles are interpreted in a peculiar way according to the sounds, where the movements are enriched by the visual differences in costumes and on-stage lights on the three distinct acts.

Leta Biasucci and Jonathan Porreta, from the Pacific Northwest Ballet, performing the act Rubis
with music by Stravinsky during the ballet Jewels by Balanchine. Photo Angela Sterling

The acclaimed Ukranian born costume designer and 1948 Academy Award winner for best costume design in Victor Fleming's Joan of Arc, Barbara Karinska (1886-1983) had a key role in the first performance of "Jewels". Each costume dressed by every dancer in each act was meticulously designed, with green tulle skirts for emeralds, short red dresses for rubies and classical white tutu skirts for diamonds. According to Claude Arpels, these costumes sublimely represent the sparkle, colors and life of precious stones and jewellery, transforming the dancers into living jewels.  This dance performance by Ballanchine became truly popular and was revisited allover the world by numerous dance companies.


The Ballerinas by Van Cleef & Arpels

Three ballerinas from the Ballet Précieux collection in white gold, rose cut diamonds, rubies and emeralds, representing the thee acts of "Jewels" by Belanchine ©  Van Cleef & Arpels

These iconic pieces by Van Cleef had their debut in the early 1940's in the United States, designed by Maurice Duvalet, master jeweler John Rubel and Louis Arpels, brother of the founder and Claude Arpels' uncle, the young man with a known passion for ballet and opera. Rubies, emeralds and diamonds were then set in platinum and offered colour and life to small delicate ballerinas designed in different classical dancing positions. At the headquarters in the Place Vendôme in Paris, these models were reinterpreted for the European market using gold instead as a precious metal. The pin depicted below, in gold set with rubies, was manufactured in 1945 and it is probably from the Paris workshop. The opening image of this essay is, on the other hand, US made and using platinum, dated 1941, being one of the first ballerinas ever to be made.

Alfinete Bailarina em ouro e rubis,
ca. 1945, Van Cleef & Arpels
© Sotheby’s

In 2007, Van Cleef & Arpels, in collaboration with the London Royal Ballet, celebrated the 4oth anniversary of the premier of  “Jewels” with the launch of the Ballet Précieux Collection with emeralds, rubies and diamonds, just as in the dance performance.
More recently, the House challenged the French dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millepied, current director of the Ballet de l’Opéra of Paris that became a celebrity for his colaboration in the acclaimed motion picture by Darren Aronofsky “Black Swan” in 2010, to reinterpret Georges Balanchine's "Jewels". The result was a triology named “Gems” performed by the collective LA Dance Project in Paris in 2013, playing the first act “Reflections”. This revisitation of Georges Balanchine's masterpiece has a clearly contemporary language and has contributions of artists from other disciplines, with a special mention to Phillip Glass, the composer that authors the music of the second act of the triology “Hearts & Arrows”. Themes like the String Quartet No. 3 from the soundtrack of “Mishima” by Paul Shrader (1985) performed by the Kronos Quartet, is a good example of this collaboration between contemporary cutting edge artists and the universe of gems and jewellery that celebrates the name of  George Balanchine. Music, dance, light, gems and jewellery in a rather unique fashion all together.


adapted and translated from the author's article at "Espiral do Tempo", Torres Distribuição, no. 53, pp. 150-153 (Dez. 2015)

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