In its first Bay Area visit in nearly a decade, Miami City Ballet gifted its audience with Jewels, a literally sparkling attraction among George Balanchine's many plotless dances. Against a simple black backdrop tattooed with a swirling constellation of lights, the 30-year-old piece still managed to look both traditional and modern. Traditional because its technical vocabulary demands virtuosity, especially from its women, and evokes the classical repertoire; modern because its beauty isn't merely decorative. Balanchine dispensed with narrative, took liberties with standard steps, mixed his composers, and still, instructively, created a coherent full-length work. The idea for the piece is said to have sprung from the choreographer's visit to Van Cleef and Arpels, but the ballet -- broken down into the sections "Emeralds," "Rubies," and "Diamonds" -- refracts not only the qualities of gems as Balanchine saw them, but the cultural traits he ascribed to his chosen composers.
Edward Villella, the dancer on whom Balanchine set the original male lead for "Rubies," is one of the few choreographers to boast a full production of Jewels in his repertoire: Many companies, including San Francisco Ballet, simply excerpt the vivacious "Rubies" section. Miami's production, though not flawless, was generous and appealing, and the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra's live performance did its musicality more justice than a canned soundtrack could have. The company's "Rubies" was particularly good. Though the presentation wasn't as technically assured as SFB's version a few seasons back, Miami's young dancers dazzled with a zesty attack and loads of charisma. Propelled by Stravinsky's Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, "Rubies" is Jewels' American section, all fearlessness and sass. Jennifer Kronenberg took the lead, whipsawing through arabesques and smoldering in her clinches with partner Arnold Quintane, while the corps' crisp, well-drilled timing framed Sally Ann Isaacks' leggy abandon.
"Emeralds," the opening section, is as cool as "Rubies" is hot, a vision of bejeweled ballerinas in lush green tulle. Set to Fauré's Pelleas et Melisande, it moves languorously, with seaweedlike port de bras for the corps, grueling adagio for the women, and not much for the men beyond hovering and hoisting. It was here that some of Miami's odd habits, particularly its wide-open fifths and bourrées, began to emerge. Extensions often looked labored, although soloist Mary Carmen Catoya eventually eased into hers. "Diamonds," meanwhile, saw some unsteady balances, but these were eclipsed by soloist Illiana Lopez's swift plunge into partner Franklin Gamero's waiting arms (Gamero himself turned in a dizzying string of coupé jetés and turns à la seconde). By the time the company waltzed across the stage for the courtly, white-gloved finale, "Diamonds" looked like the grand old Russian tradition Balanchine had envisioned, and the dancing effervesced like a good champagne.
It wasn't clear if the modest house on Oakland Ballet's opening night was due to the hype over Miami or the fact that Oakland's company seems consistently to be overshadowed by its bigger, better-known counterpart in San Francisco. Either way, too many people missed out on a stellar show. The program proved that the company -- led by principal dancer Joralle Schmalle after former director Ronn Guidi's retirement last winter -- can pick good material and dance it well. Case in point: Alonzo King's demanding abstract ballet Hovering Slightly Above Ground, a tangle of stabbing pointe shoes, angular shapes, sinuous partnering, and relentless timing that could easily trip up a lesser company. One minor spill aside, Oakland pulled it off nicely, led by powerhouse King dancer Xavier Ferla in a guest slot. Oakland managed not only the technical end but the more elusive style that makes King's work such a pleasure. They coaxed the melancholy out of Górecki's String Quartet No. 2, suspended the breaths built into the movement, stretched out into elastic partnerships, and flung themselves into the ferocious bursts of movement. With King's Lines Contemporary Ballet season pushed back to spring, fans in need of a fix need look no further than the Oakland-King collaboration slated for mid-November.
Lew Christensen's Jinx was everything that King's piece wasn't: a traditional story ballet set in a circus. But the story, of a spurned clown who wreaks havoc on the troupe, isn't fluff -- it's an unnerving take on the angry loner, steeped in the mythology of witchcraft. The divertissements are full of inventive tricks, like the spotlighted feet of dancing tightrope walkers, but it's the emotional wallop that lingers. The ringmaster's savage beating of the maligned clown still shocks and Mario Alonzo burned with Jinx's wrath as he exacted his revenge.
Knowing that it couldn't send a crowd out on that dismal note, the company closed the program with Val Caniparoli's Djangology, a gleeful suite of dances set to the vintage guitar jazz of Django Reinhardt. While not the most challenging piece in the repertoire, it worked perfectly well as a crowd-pleaser, juxtaposing classical dance with jazz-age jitterbugging. From the shimmying women's trio to Schmalle's loose-limbed breeze through "Nuages," it made the case for supporting our own.