Susan Stroman Dukes It Out

The choreographer does Ellington; plus work by Wayne McGregor and George Balanchine

I saw Susan Stroman's two-part For the Love of Duke as the closer to a mostly kid-friendly New York City Ballet matinee that began with George Balanchine's Stars and Stripes, followed by Wayne McGregor's Outlier. To my left sat an intent, straight-spined little girl and, behind me, a very small boy who exhibited a surprising gift for imitating the timbre of a couple of the instruments in the onstage David Berger Jazz Band. Duke's first half, "Frankie and Johnny . . . and Rose," is new; the second, "Blossom Got Kissed," premiered at NYCB in 1999 on a program featuring Duke Ellington's music. Stroman's Broadway smarts sharpen the dramatic and comedic points of this slight, crowd-pleasing work set to fine old tunes by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. She's a pro at applying gloss to clichés.

A wide, low bench not only enables "Johnny" (Amar Ramasar) to slide pretty "Rose" (Tiler Peck) along it, strike an arabesque over her, and fall on top of her; he's also able to shove her over its back and out of sight when "Frankie" (Sara Mearns) sashays on. The trio relies less on the interesting steps these terrific dancers might do (but don't) and more on the comedic possibilities and Ramasar's happy-go-lucky charm. After unsuccessful bouts of hide-the-girl, the two women bond (sort of) and forgive their two-timing guy, but (surprise!) up from behind the bench pops a skinny chick in red to end the story with a joke. (Best not to wonder, children, what she's been doing back there all this time.)

Although she's carried off by Ramasar, this anonymous dancer links us to "Blossom Got Kissed" and a whole row of cookie-cutter women in red, who edge Blossom (Savannah Lowery) off the bench they sit on so pertly. She's been foolish enough to come to this club in a puffy pale blue dress and be taller than any of them. What struck me as sweet back in 1999 now seems a bit silly. The six women and their identically attired partners "got that swing," and each pair can show off a little (one woman high-kicks the hand her swain holds up), but Blossom's an unbelievable klutz—can't even slap a foot against the floor in time. That is, until Robert Fairchild (purporting to be the band's triangle player) gives her a little lesson, calls for Isaac ben Ayala's bluesy piano, and appreciates her ballet chops; then, after Jimmy Madison's brushes begin to tickle the cymbals, he drops to one knee and kisses her hand. That's all it takes; she whips off that blue schmatta to show the slinky red outfit underneath. Bring on the horns!

Dance of the two-timer: Mearns and Ramasar in "Frankie and Johnny...and Rose"
Paul Kolnik
Dance of the two-timer: Mearns and Ramasar in "Frankie and Johnny...and Rose"

For the Love of Duke has a relaxing effect after McGregor's Outlier. Before McGregor was appointed resident choreographer at Britain's Royal Ballet, his own Random Dance presented his AtaXia at the 2005 Lincoln Center Festival. That fascinating, disturbing piece was inspired by people with a debilitating neurological condition, while in Outlier, he seems to be contorting the NYCB dancers' bodies just because he can (and they can). The music is Thomas Adès's rich and powerful Concerto for Violin—Concentric Paths, and most of the projections on the backdrop (by McGregor and Lucy Carter) show glowing concentric circles.

The 11 splendid dancers ripple their bodies like snakes and entangle in knotty ways. The first pas de deux is arresting, strangely hushed. Its music—a recorded excerpt from Cliff Martinez's score for the film Solaris—sets a misterioso tone with its high, soft sounds. Craig Hall begins by placing one hand speculatively on Tiler Peck's midriff, and their duet is full of gentle, experimental touches. There's little tenderness, however, between Ramasar and Ashley Bouder or between Fairchild and Maria Kowroski (she doesn't like his hand on her ribcage), although something like solicitude invades the complexities of Hall's duet with the eloquent Wendy Whelan, who makes every body-tormenting move seem of her own devising, her own need.

McGregor transforms the stage into a somber game board, in which individuals invade duets to turn them into trios, solitary figures lurk in orbits of their own, and a trio is multiplied by three. That some people wait on the outskirts while others are thrown into conjunction suggests that chance—even the chance to choose—plays a role in this world (are you loving it, kiddies?).

The program's opener, Stars and Stripes, reinforces one thing: George Balanchine knew how to enthrall a crowd with dazzling drills, patterns that turn themselves inside out, jokes, virtuosity to burn, and charm aplenty, while still creating endlessly surprising, musically revealing steps. When he brought into a ballet the theatrical devices and showy ideas that would have delighted Broadway audiences, he didn't dumb down his choreography. Stroman's work, clever though it is, doesn't provide dancing that enlarges and deepens the story it tells.

 
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