If there’s a better 20th-century ballet than “Jewels,” I haven’t seen it. George Balanchine’s evening-length showstopper premiered at New York City Ballet in 1967, three pieces — “Emeralds,” “Rubies,” and “Diamonds” — that illuminate every facet of the master’s genius. Boston Ballet first performed “Jewels,” triumphantly, in 2009, its final season at the Wang Theatre. Now the company is presenting Balanchine’s triptych as the Boston climax of its 50th anniversary season, and the production, led on opening night by a dynamic Misa Kuranaga in “Rubies” and a sublime Kathleen Breen Combes in “Diamonds,” speaks to how far Boston Ballet has come in 50 years.
At first glance, “Jewels” might look like three ballets rather than one. “Emeralds,” to music by Gabriel Fauré, seems to be taking place in an Arthurian French forest; it’s courtly, medieval. “Rubies,” to Stravinsky’s “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra,” is 42nd Street, all neon lights and Broadway pizzazz. “Diamonds,” to the last four movements of Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, is the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, a grand ball in tsarist Russia.
But throughout the evening, men are the hunters and women are their quarry. Balanchine may have had the unicorn tapestries in Paris and New York in mind: the women paw the earth and pony-step, and the corps’s brief unicorn pose in the opening section of “Emeralds” is mirrored by the ballerina in the pas de deux of “Diamonds.” Even when the women are captured, the men wind up kneeling in adoration. “Jewels” is also unified by the four elements. “Emeralds” is earth and water, “Rubies” is fire, and “Diamonds” is air.
Balanchine set “Emeralds” to music from Fauré’s incidental music for two theater pieces, Maurice Maeterlinck’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” and Edmond de Haraucourt’s “Shylock.” It’s a dream ballet whose characters — women and their cavaliers — move as if in a trance.
Thursday night, Ashley Ellis and Yury Yanowsky were grounded and yet liquid as the first couple. (Mélisande, who loses her crown in a well and her wedding ring in a fountain, appears to be part water fairy.) Dancing the role Balanchine set on former Boston Ballet artistic director Violette Verdy, Ellis was willowy soft in the port de bras of the Prélude and then in her spinning solo. Yanowsky, in the same part he danced in 2009, was far more commanding this time out.
As the second lady, Lia Cirio wafted through the Sicilienne and then, with Lasha Khozashvili, sleepwalked hypnotically on pointe in the Nocturne. The “clock” movements that Cirio mimicked with her arms and legs and the repeated distant horns suggest that time — and hunters — have come to the forest. Set to “The Death of Mélisande,” the unnerving final section of “Emeralds” sees the ladies go off in one direction while the men kneel facing opposite, as if in search of the Eternal Feminine rather than the women they’ve just danced with.
“Rubies” is Balanchine’s salute to the Broadway chorus line, with pelvises shifting as quickly as Stravinsky’s score changes time signatures. Boston Ballet’s corps ladies pace and prance and kick like Rockettes. I wondered whether Dusty Button might be too reserved to portray their sashaying, shimmying leader, but she tapped her inner showgirl. Near the end of the first movement, where four hunters hobble the lady and put her limbs on display, Button was steady and insouciant, and then she floated through her difficult set of pliés and flat-footed penché arabesques. As the Adam-and-Eve couple who tango, skip rope, and make like bronco busters, Kuranaga and Jeffrey Cirio were close to perfect, pushing their choreography to the limit, Kuranaga playfully seductive, Cirio innocently comic. Freda Locker gave point to her piano solo without pounding, and she was as tongue-in-cheek as Stravinsky could have wished.
“Diamonds” is an austere celebration whose centerpiece is the “Andante elegiaco” slow movement. As the principal lady and man enter from opposite corners of the stage, to the call-and-response of bassoon and horn, you wonder whether the hunter has captured the unicorn or vice versa. Breen Combes, reprising this role from 2009, was skittishly spontaneous, both animated and enigmatic, plunging into penchée arabesque one moment, nuzzling Alejandro Virelles the next. Virelles shone in the control of his jumps and his soundless manège during the Scherzo.
In the exuberant concluding polonaise, Balanchine’s homage to the great Petipa, the 16 couples sizzled through Tchaikovsky’s fugue as Breen Combes cancan-kicked like the “Rubies” ladies. Jonathan McPhee and the Boston Ballet Orchestra, superb all evening, had no trouble shifting first into the majestic chorale and then into the fleet-footed coda. Balanchine conceived this finale as the apotheosis of dance. Boston Ballet made it look divine.Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.