The legend is as follows: New York City Ballet cofounder George Balanchine was strolling down Fifth Avenue in the 1960s. The Russian-born choreographer was so dazzled by the shimmering stones in the Van Cleef & Arpels window that he was inspired to create his 1967 triptych ballet, “Jewels.”
The dancing is spectacular. It was both a critical and commercial success at the time of its premiere and has been revived dozens of times. The costumes, dripping with emeralds, rubies, and diamonds — or at least resin stones and crystals acting as stand-ins — are nearly as important as the dancing. Boston Ballet is currently performing “Jewels,” which runs at the Boston Opera House through Sunday.
Balanchine explained when the ballet debuted that it is not a literal ballet about the gems. Each stone represents a different composer: “Emeralds” is set to the music of Gabriel Fauré, “Rubies” to the music of Igor Stravinsky, and “Diamonds” to music by Tchaikovsky. At the “Jewels” premiere, Balanchine and Suzanne Farrell, his young prima ballerina in 1967, were photographed draped in diamonds from the Fifth Avenue gem boutique. It was a glimmering dream of high culture and commerce.
The original costumes, created by the prolific Barbara Karinska, are so intricate that many of them have been displayed in museums. The Boston Ballet’s costume shop has spent thousands of hours working on its own versions of Karinska’s designs.
The task of creating these ensembles is so taxing that Boston Ballet rented “Emeralds” costumes from the National Ballet of Canada ; the Boston workshop created the principal dancer costumes for “Diamonds”; those for “Rubies” were made entirely by the Boston Ballet five years ago.
“The costumes themselves are not difficult, but there’s a lot of jewels. When we did ‘Rubies,’ the volunteers spent almost 1,200 hours just sewing the stones on the costumes,” said Charles Heightchew, manager of costumes and wardrobe for Boston Ballet. “We made costumes for seven men and 12 women. This ballet is a huge undertaking.”
Even the rented costumes require preservation work, and are then fitted for the dancers.
“There’s a lot of maintenance on them because the jewels crack and they need to get replaced,” Heightchew said. “We have boxes of replacement jewels.”
Keeping these costumes sparkling is key because they anchor the abstract ballet and offer visual cues, along with the music, to Balanchine’s references in each movement.
“Each gem is paired with a different era,” Heightchew said. “And along with the music, the costumes are a key to letting you know what’s happening on stage. The emeralds represents 19th-century France, a romantic style. The rubies are his New York City American influence. The costumes are jazzy, fun, and sexy. Diamonds are his interpretation of imperial Russia.”
Because most of the gems are sewn on the costumes by hand, they remain intact throughout the performances.
“When you have a company of athletic dancers moving in costumes covered with 2,000 stones, it’s not unusual for a jewel or two to drop during a performance,” he said. “Trust me, there are far fewer jewels falling off in ‘Jewels’ than there are in ‘The Nutcracker.’ ”