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New York City Ballet

'For the Love of Duke', 'Sluaghter on Tenth Avenue', 'West Side Story Suite'

by Colleen Boresta

May 29, 2011 matinee -- David H. Koch Theatre, New York, NY

The program consisted of two masterpieces by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins (Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and West Side Story Suite) and one very forgettable ballet by Susan Stroman (For the Love of Duke). I loved Stroman’s choreography for the Broadway musicals Contact and The Producers. I was entranced by her two act ballet for the New York City Ballet, Double Feature. I am very happy that the New York City Ballet will be reviving Double Feature during their 2012 spring season.

That being said, For the Love of Duke is a very slight ballet set to the iconic jazz rhythms of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. The work is divided into four parts. Part I is called Frankie and Johnny and Rose. Johnny is two-timing both Rose and Frankie, pushing each girl behind a bench when the other comes into view. At the end of Part 1, both Rose and Frankie wise up to Johnny’s true ways. They are replaced, however, by a third girl named Sunset. Part II, entitled Sunset, adds nothing to the already threadbare plot of the ballet. In Part III, Johnny’s Lament, Johnny wonders why all three women have left him. Part IV is called Blossom Got Kissed. The audience is introduced to Blossom, a clumsy girl who is turned into a dancing star after being kissed by a musician.

As already stated, For the Love of Duke is a very flimsy work with fantastic music, tremendously talented dancers and extremely repetitious choreography. If only the choreography had lived up to the Ellington/Strayhorn score and the power of the dancers performing the steps! All the cast is spectacular – Amar Ramasar as Johnny, Tiler Peck as Rose, Sara Mearns as Frankie, Lauren Lovette as Sunset, Savannah Lowery as Blossom and Robert Fairchild as the musician. Hopefully someone will soon create a ballet worthy of these dancers’ talents and abilities.

Now on to the masterworks. George Balanchine’s Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is a show within a show. It was originally created for the Broadway musical On Your Toes in 1936. Slaughter is a perfect blend of Balanchine’s choreography and Richard Rodgers’ music.

Slaughter on Tenth Avenue tells the story of a ballet company premier danseur (Russian of course) who wants to get rid of his chief rival. That rival, Phil Dolan, has choreographed a new jazz piece in which he will also star. The Russian pays a hit man to kill Dolan at the exact moment the character he portrays commits suicide. That way, everyone in the audience will think that the noise they hear is the fake gunshot. Unknown to both the danseur and the hit man, a member of the company has eavesdropped on the entire plot.

The ballet choreographed by Phil Dolan is about a hoofer who falls in love with a stripper working at a dingy speakeasy during the Prohibition era. Enraged by the Hoofer’s attention to his Striptease Girl, the Big Boss tries to kill the Hoofer and ends up killing the stripper. In despair, the Hoofer is supposed to shoot himself. A note, however, is given to the “corpse” by the ballet member who eavesdropped on the Russian danseur’s plans. She passes the note to the Hoofer. It warns him not to shoot himself. He should keep dancing until the police can arrest the hit man, who is seated in a box at the theater. When the police finally arrive, Dolan collapses with relief and exhaustion.

As the Striptease Girl, Sara Mearns is unbearably lovely. Her long legs, which seem to go on to eternity, show off her high kicks to their best advantage. Mearns’ gorgeous backbends highlight the suppleness of her upper body. Andrew Veyette’s Hoofer stands out for his stylish tap dancing and his goofy, but endearing, take on the role.

Anthony Huxley, Troy Schumacher and Giovanni Villalobus are very funny as the high flying “three blind mice” policemen, who can’t see the patrons and workers at the speakeasy hiding right under their noises. The bartenders, Justin Peck and Andrew Scardato, dance smartly in unison and sweep up the dead bodies with aplomb.

In a surprise bit of casting, New York City Ballet’s Ballet Master in Chief, Peter Martins, plays the Big Boss. He mimes the role with power and precision. There was no announcement either in the program or from the stage that Martins would appearing in the May 29th matinee of Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. The entire cast seems to get a kick out of seeing their ballet chief perform with them.

The program ended with Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story Suite. In 1995 Robbins staged West Side Story Suite for New York City Ballet. It is a compilation of six numbers from the musical West Side Story, plus a new solo for Tony to “Something’s Coming”.

West Side Story Suite is an updated Romeo and Juliet story, with Puerto Rican gang members (the Sharks) as the Capulets and white gang members (the Jets) as the Montagues. Tony, the best friend of Riff, the leader of the Jets, falls in love with Maria. She is the sister of Bernardo,

leader of the Sharks. The Jets and Sharks get involved in a rumble and Bernardo kills Riff. In a fit of agony over the death of his friend, Tony kills Bernardo. This version of West Side Story, however, ends on a hopeful note. The Jets, Sharks and their girls dance together to the music of “Somewhere”.

West Side Story Suite is an energetic ballet which showcases virtuoso male dancing. Chase Finlay is a very young, optimistic Tony. The way he leaps toward the sky in his “Something’s Coming” solo is both poignant and exuberant. As Riff, Andrew Veyette leads the Jets with his bravura dancing. Veyette also has a strong singing voice, which he uses to great effect in “Cool”. In the role of Bernardo, Amar Ramasar scowls appropriately while dancing up a storm.

The ladies also do their part to make West Side Story Suite memorable. Georgina Pazcoguin’s Anita is reminiscent of Rita Moreno’s performance in the movie version of West Side Story. (I never saw Chita Rivera, Broadway’s original Anita, in the role.) All flashing limbs and brazen attitude, Pazcoguin belts out a wry and cynical “America”. The Latin ladies accompanying her are all excellent, especially Gretchen Smith, the naïve yet hopeful Rosalia. Lauren Lovette’s Maria is breathtakingly pure and innocent.

Even though West Side Story Suite changes the ending of the musical West Side Story, I tear up every time I see the concluding “Somewhere” ballet. The combination of Leonard Bernstein’s lushly beautiful music and Jerome Robbins’ transcendent choreography transports me to that wonderful “place for us”. It’s only for a few moments, but they are such glorious ones.

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