Why you should watch Paris Opera Ballet's shimmering Abu Dhabi production

The neo-classical ballet Jewels is abstract but full of meaning - it will appeal to connoisseurs and first-timers

Hannah O’Neill and Hugo Marchand perform the Emeralds movement in the production, which is set to music by Gabriel Faure OnP
Hannah O’Neill and Hugo Marchand perform the Emeralds movement in the production, which is set to music by Gabriel Faure OnP

The Abu Dhabi Festival will wrap its latest edition with a glittering performance by the Paris Opera Ballet this weekend. The acclaimed French company, that works on both performance and educational programmes, will perform the neo-classical staple Jewels on March 29 and 30 at Emirates Palace.

Created by master choreographer George Balanchine, who is hailed as the father of American ballet and is co-founder of the famed New York City Ballet company, Jewels is a tribute to the contours and wonder of precious stones.

A non-story with meaning

Rumour has it that Balanchine got the idea for the show after stopping at the storefront of French jewellers Van Cleef & Arpels to admire the items on display. This uncorked the inspiration for a full-length play, from the routines and costumes, right down to the music score.

With its premiere taking place in April 1967 in New York, Jewels was described as the first full-length abstract ballet. The three movements in the show are named after precious stones – Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds, specifically – and feature a distinctive soundtrack, as well as choreography from diverse eras and jewel-themed costumes.

Despite its success, Balanchine wasn’t comfortable with the label given to the work. “What is abstract?” he said in a television interview. “I say that it is concrete and not abstract. The critics mean story-less, but there could be a meaning in it. When people meet, that person gives a hand and the girl embraces it – that means there is a meaning in it. And when it comes to a dance duet, that is love story, almost. So really, how much more story do you want?

A work of various textures

That’s the beauty of Jewels. Like the stones, the production has a wide appeal. Anyone who is new to ballet will appreciate the surface-level aesthetics of the free-flowing ­choreography, performed by technically brilliant dancers, as well as the varied music score by three of the world’s most heralded composers: Gabriel Faure, Igor Stravinsky and Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

If you are more of a connoisseur of the art form, and a fan of Balanchine’s work, there is a lot to dig into. Jewels is a deeply rewarding insight into the man and his craft. Over the regal score by Faure, Emeralds recalls Balanchine’s love for French culture and glamour and pays tribute to 19th-century dances from the French Romantics. Rubies, which is powered by Stravinsky’s sprightly score (written in France between 1926 and 1929) takes us into the red-drenched urban world of the US, before you settle into the wintry charms of the final act, Diamonds. It recalls the grandeur of imperial Russia and particularly its cultural centrepiece, the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, where Balanchine was trained.

Paris Opera Ballet is one big family

It is that mix of artistic flare and commercial appeal that allows Jewels to retain its regular place in the Paris Opera Ballet’s repertoire. The company’s dance director and former performer, Aurelie Dupont, describes the production as “a complete work”.

“It is ideal in that it appeals to dance connoisseurs and those who are not,” she says. “That’s why I encourage the public to come and see this show and discover this world of wonderful dances, costumes and such beautiful music.”

Dupont says audiences will get a taste of the company’s dancing legacy when the curtains are drawn in Abu Dhabi. “Ballet in France has great importance and international respect,” she says. “We have a legacy of 350 years and that means we also evolve with newer creations.”

Education is also a central part of the Paris Opera Ballet, with life for the 154 professional dancers in the ­company about more than rehearsal and performance. “It is like you are part of one big family with a common goal,” says star ballerina Dorothee Gilbert, who in September will celebrate her 19th year with the company. “We all want to develop to more interesting roles as we progress,” she says.

Gilbert says a working day in the company depends on the kind of show that is being performed. “For a classic ballet, we have a dancing lesson every morning, and then a rehearsal in the afternoon,” the dancer says. “This will be followed by a couple of two-and-a-half hour rehearsals with the ballet group.”

However, more than technical prowess, Gilbert says the company instills in its dancers a sense of focus born of a common artistic goal, and that this will be on display in Abu Dhabi this weekend.

“Whatever happens during the show, we will display solidarity and have a positive energy to perform at our best each time. This is the force that unites us all,” she says. “When we are on stage we feel like we are living in a world of our own. We are not influenced by anything outside, whether it’s politics or any other issues. We feel protected in our world.”

Jewels by Paris Opera Ballet is Friday and Saturday at Emirates Palace, at 8pm. Tickets begin from Dh175 at www.abudhabifestival.ae

Published: March 28, 2019 06:30 AM


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