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New York City Ballet - 'Double Feature'

By Jerry Hochman

February 19, 2005 -- New York State Theatre, New York City, New York

Unless you’ve been hibernating for the past few years, you know that Susan Stroman is the premiere dance/theater choreographer of the day, and justifiably so. With few exceptions, everything she touches turns to gold. She has a string of Broadway hits to her credit, not the least of which is “The Producers,” and her all-dance “contact” played to sold out houses and won several Tony Awards.  But to my knowledge she has not been known as a choreographer for a ballet company. She is now.

“Double Feature”, a pair of pieces on the same theme that she created for New York City Ballet last year (but which I was unable to see until its presentation this season) is a wonderful escape – just like the old-time “double feature” movie presentations that she uses as the theme around which her “double feature” ballets are constructed. No matter that there is little choreographically inventive or exciting about either piece – that’s not the point. And no matter that she may be criticized for focusing more on style than on substance -that’s not the point either. Stroman is a master of concept and execution. She creates and crafts entertainments. And her works, though more audience-accessible than some, are no less works of art.

In brief, “Double Feature” tells two stories in the style of grade-B silent movies. With few exceptions, everything is in black and white or varying shades of grey. A screen placed behind the action provides intermittent written commentary to explain or propel the action forward, just as in silent movies. And the musical accompaniment sounds like the kind of music that might have accompanied silent films (except the arrangements are infinitely richer and more evocative than one would have seen at a silent movie).

The first piece, titled “The Blue Necklace”, is a reinvention of Cinderella, but with enough subtlety that it also appears to fit neatly into the framework of silent film themes. In this story (the libretto, for this as well as the second piece, is by Stroman and Glen Kelly), a rising star named Dorothy Brooks has become pregnant. With no source of support, Dorothy is forced to give up her child. Dorothy decides, reluctantly, to leave the child on a church doorstep. Momentarily thereafter, a Mr. Griffith reluctantly deposits his own child on the church steps, but, seeing Dorothy’s child, changes his mind and takes both his child and Dorothy’s back home with him, to the consternation of his wife, who wanted to abandon her own child (whether out of lack of love or poverty is unclear – one of the few mistakes in the piece) but is now obliged to raise two of them.

Eventually, Mr. Gilbert dies, and little Mabel, Dorothy’s daughter, is raised by the widowed Mrs. Griffith. Mrs. Griffith treats Mabel like a servant, forcing her to remain closeted at home. Cinder-Mabel cleans house, and dreams of being a dancer. The “step-sister”, Florence, is an idiot. The story proceeds much like Cinderella, except the prince’s ball is a charity ball sponsored by Dorothy, the prince is Billy Randolph, a Fred Astaire-type movie star guest at the ball, and the glass slipper is a blue necklace that Dorothy left with baby Mabel at the church (the necklace is really blue – perhaps a nod to the occasional colorization in black and white movies).

The piece starts slowly, with short vignettes (again, much like in silent movies) recounting the preliminary events, leading up to the Cinderella story. Maria Kowroski, as Dorothy Brooks, was as much a fairy godmother as mother, and her dancing was lovely, but more restrained than Mabel’s (glowingly portrayed by Ashley Bouder). Megan Fairchild danced the “evil stepsister” Florence with delicious humor, and Damian Woetzel was the silky-smooth, debonair Billy Randolph. As Young Mabel and Young Florence, students Tara Sorine and Isabella Tobias were simply superb: their dance pedigrees are apparent. And it was wonderful to see Kyra Nichols once more (I hadn’t seen her dance for several years); she still looks fabulous, although her character, Mrs. Griffith, was more one-dimensional (stern) than it needed to be.

A choreographic high point of the piece, aside from Bouder in general and Woetzel’s effortless tour de force, was Stroman’s gentle treatment of Mabel’s release from captivity. Upon unlocking the house door (after finding a key left by her adoptive father, who anticipated his wife’s cruel heart), Mabel dances first out the door, then back inside, and then out again, like a caged bird suddenly released but not sure that it really wants to leave the cage that it has known all it’s life. It was a wonderful moment.

But perhaps the best part of “The Blue Necklace” was the meshing of Stroman’s choreography with the wonderful Irving Berlin classics, arranged by Mr. Kelly. The action came alive as dance theater, rather than just a mimicking of a silent movie, when Stroman’s steps merged with Berlin’s melodies. What may have been just a slick idea became enchanting.

“Makin’ Whoopee”, the second piece in the "Double Feature," is high quality slapstick choreography; more of an extended guffaw than the heart tickler that is “The Blue Necklace”. And because it is shorter and tighter, it appears somewhat better constructed. The story is simple – boy loves girl, boy can’t bring himself to propose to girl, boy inherits $7M (enough to rescue his law firm from a fate worse than malpractice) on condition that he marries by the end of the day, boy goes back to girl and proposes, girl rejects him because she thinks he’s only doing it for the money, boy seeks bride, brides come out of the woodwork because of the money, boy fails, but in the nick of time girl reconsiders and marries him. Ta da.

But “Makin’ Whoopee” is much more fun than that summary would indicate. Tom Gold, as Jimmie Shannon (the boy) made the most of the deceptively simple-looking choreography, dancing like some mad scientist’s hybridization of Baryshnikov and Buster Keaton. As Anne Winslow (the girl), Alexandra Ansanelli looked sugar-sweet, but didn’t have much to do other than look like the ballerina next door. Albert Evans, Seth Orza, and Arch Higgins shined as Shannon’s dancing legal eagles, and Dana Hanson, Ellen Bar, Jessica Flynn, Carla Korbes, and particularly, Rebecca Krohn did wonderful little comic cameos as girls whom Shannon attempts to propose to.

But the best part of “Makin’ Whoopee” was the extended gag of brides of all sizes, colors, and sexes emerging from the rafters in response to a newspaper article about Shannon’s $7M dilemma. The would-be brides, all dressed in bridal gowns (or reasonable facsimiles thereof), emerge first one at a time, then a few, then an onslaught. And suddenly, all these brides are chasing Shannon back and forth across the stage, mimicking scenes (and choreography) from Act II of Giselle. The brides were Giselle’s Wilis, and Shannon was Albrecht. From one glorious in-joke to another, it was all I could do to keep from laughing hysterically.

The piece succeeds on any level, with or without knowledge of the ballet references, but being able to get the joke made the dance all the richer. And, as in “The Blue Necklace”, Stroman’s use of supporting music (this time by Walter Donaldson, as arranged by Kelly), less lush but more effervescent than the Berlin music, matched the slapstick, hyper-energized style of the piece.   And then there was this dog. A real dog. Straight out of those cute trained dogs in silent movies. Rumor has it that he graduated last year from SAB, but that couldn’t be confirmed.

All in all, Stroman’s “Double Feature” is a delightful evening, or perhaps weekend movie matinee, at NYCB. Of course, we’ll never know if Balanchine would have appreciated Stroman’s style (though I suspect he would have), but Jerome Robbins most certainly would have loved it. Indeed, in addition to "Giselle," I saw echoes of and evolutions from both “Fancy Free” and “The Concert“ in Stroman’s choreography. Perhaps “Double Feature” is not blue blood ballet, but it is a ballet of deceptive character as well as pure fun, and a welcome addition to the NYCB repertory. I understand that “Double Feature” will be repeated during next spring’s NYCB season, and I would recommend it wholeheartedly. And bring the kids.

Edited by Staff.

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