Jazz and ballet are uneasy partners. Getting down isn’t part of the classical lexicon. On NYCB’s “Tri-bute to Ellington” program, Wynton Marsalis blows soul out his trumpet. His score for Peter Martins’s 1993 Jazz is as rich as a cake laced with bourbon, hot as a New Or leans Saturday night. Despite the dancers’ verve, the ballet keeps them above that gorgeous heat—jabbing a foot into it here and there.
Marsalis’s expert new composition for orchestra, Them Twos, suits ballet, and Martins, better. The sound, less steamy, is allied to a variety of traditions in American music. Into the changeable scene created by Mark Stanley’s lighting, Martins sends a parade of amorous du-ets reflecting his skill and sensitivity to the dancers. Janie Taylor and Sébastien Marcovici seek each other with time-honored ballet myopia, then excitedly get acquainted. He spins her off like a top and drops to his knees (what a girl!), hand over his heart. Miranda Weese is dreamily lovely; Nilas Martins carries her around a lot so she needn’t bother touching the ground. Drums, whistles, and handclaps announce Maria Kow-roski, a demanding sorceress in a long black coatdress (Alain Vaes designed the costumes). Charles Askegard offers himself to be enlaced by her limbs, or she grabs him to tangle with. He’s sunk. Yvonne Borree wears practically nothing, and Nikolaj Hübbe likes making her leg swing around and lash him. Darci Kistler plays muse to Jock Soto’s wandering sleepwalker, bourréeing ribbons around him, lying athwart his shoulders, and draping him in her long, long hair.
A choreographer working with jazz has to keep the groove going. What makes “Blossom Got Kissed” (Susan Stroman’s third of the premiere Duke!) the hit of the evening is that she always—somehow, somewhere—honors that groove. (It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.) Broadway work has made her theatrically canny, her comedy as sharp and sweet as it gets. The opening picture tells all: six women in red perched on a bench and, at one end, Kowroski in William Ivey Long’s pale blue De gas tutu. Naturally they edge this square off the bench; naturally they and their sharp-dancing guys shrug helplessly at her flat-footed attempts to nail it. Robert La Fosse to the rescue! He stops the onstage band, expertly led by David Berger, and gives the girl a friendly lesson and a kiss. Off comes that tutu!
Each of Duke!‘s three choreographers takes a different approach. In “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” La Fosse affectionately creates the zesty ambience of a ’40s night spent lindying, with men flipping women head over tail and sliding them between their legs. Glamorous Heléne Alexopoulos descends from the bandstand to Askegard’s arms, Jenifer Ringer and the irrepressible Arch Higgins have a go, Kurt and Kyle Froman tap (fuzzy acoustics undermine their duet). Garth Fagan matches suaver Ellington (from The Far Eastern Suite) with more sophisticated choreographic ideas. His elastic style of modern dance, with its long, off-kilter balances, hanging-in-air leaps, and soft-jointed ease, is clearly still a challenge to his splendid cast, but, hey, when Midsummer Night’s Dream ends this anniversary season, the dancers will have man aged 100 ballets! Pray for them.
Twyla Tharp understands jazz deeply—how to sink sensuously into it, pounce on a syncopation, and, noodling about, suddenly uncoil an attack. Push Comes to Shove (1976) was her third adventure in meshing ballet with her own juicy style, using both a 1919 rag by Joseph Lamb, and Haydn’s sunny Symphony No. 82. The ballet originally showcased ABT’s uncanny new star Mikhail Baryshnikov. With bursts of cranky virtuosity, shrugs, deft games with a derby, moments that trapped him in an onrush of dancers, she gave him an onstage crash course in ABT repertory and American jazz. Dancing boiled around him. The perky female ensemble operated in the teeth of chaos. Nothing turned out as a Russian classicist might expect, not even the bows.
No stranger to jazz, Ethan Stiefel copes superbly with Push‘s challenges. “OK, what’s next?” he seems to say, even as he registers puzzlement over a wayward feat he’s just spat out or a ballerina who requires manhandling. Susan Jaffe, Amanda McKerrow, Maxim Belotserkovsky, and the corps are adroit at Tharp’s slippery games (maybe McKerrow overdoes the foggily romantic persona a little). The revival of Paul Taylor’s beautiful Airs is mostly fine (especially Gil Boggs and Tamara Barden in Taylor’s springy, quick-footed duet). Airs, of course, speaks in a different tongue, conjuring an idyllic community stirred by Handel breezes and skimming a forgiving earth.