The Balanchine ballet Jewels, premiered in 1967, was this genre’s first three-act abstract work. Connecting the parts only through the artifice of contrasting gem colours – emeralds and the music of Faure, rubies with Stravinsky and finally diamonds, set in gold and white and silver to the rich tones of Tchaikovsky. This great performance art is synaesthesia in action, a gorgeous blending of colour, sound and movement which sometimes overwhelmed my own senses and occasionally did not.
Seeing Jewels performed this week by the Kirov Ballet at The Lowry, I was struck by how particular are the individual perceptions of synaesthetes.
Having had the extraordinary good fortune also to have seen the Kirov Ballet, again with the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, in the New York City Center just a month ago, I could compare my response to their performance then of shorter pieces and narrative ballet – Fokine‘s Le Spectre de la Rose, the exquisitely danced Dying Swan and Chopiniana – with that of the Lowry ‘abstract’ Jewels ballet programme.
These previous pieces had a logic and formulation quite independent of my own. Only when I was presented in The Lowry with the overt conjunction of colour, sound and movement for its own sake did I become aware yet again of my life-long synaesthetic tendency.
Put simply, I can immerse myself in a ballet story according to someone else’s prescription. The creator of the dance has the floor.
But when confronted with another’s interpretation of what sounds ‘look like’ and how music ‘moves’, I’m at a bit of a loss to understand how the colours and jemstones were selected. Faure is not emerald, he’s citrine and alexandrite; Stravinsky is indeed quite ruby, but with deep-toned garnet, and his undertone is a fierce andesine-labradorite, not creamy gold; and whilst I can cope with Tschaikovsky as diamond, gold and silver, I’d rather he were the bluest sapphire and Brazilian tourmaline.
All of which tells us nothing, except this: synaethesia is an individual thing, and it’s quite involuntary.
For me, this aesthetic confusion is just quite an interesting aspect of my perception, when I have occasion to notice it (most of the time, it’s just too much part of my daily experience to be aware of). But for some few very gifted people it’s obviously a central and compelling force in their lives.
… and creativity
I dare say Balanchine was a synaesthete; how else could he have dreamt up Jewels?
The multi-sensory neural wiring of synaesthesia, though probably less unusual than was first thought, can be challenging on occasion. Nonetheless it’s surely a blessing for us all, not least when it results in the creation of performances which exist solely to celebrate art forms for their own sake.
Sometimes it’s good – in our various and individual ways – to see art just as art.