A few reasons to see Double Feature, Susan Stroman’s take on silent films, at New York City Ballet this week: chorus girls, dressed in sparkly black and sporting Louise Brooks wigs, wheeling and kicking in The Blue Necklace (the first half of the bill); a horde of extravagantly costumed brides of both sexes leaping in pursuit of the hapless, suddenly wealthy hero of Makin’ Whoopee (the second offering); Tom Gold playing his heart out as that hero (modeled on Buster Keaton in Seven Chances); skinny-legged young Tara Sorine bounding around the drab apartment as Mabel, the Cinderella heroine of Necklace, in an astounding display of nature over nurture (the mother who abandoned her was a dancer); Damian Woetzel in an easygoing charm solo of skips, sautés, and leaps as the prince-cum-movie star; the wacky pas de deux he does with Megan Fairchild as the favored sister who can’t dance for beans; Irving Berlin’s tunes (orchestrated by Doug Besterman); and an acrobatic, scene-stealing Boston bull terrier. I don’t count it a great pleasure to see Kyra Nichols play Necklace‘s step—sorry, adoptive—mother, although some might. Stroman gives her only glares, gestures, and folded-arms stances to reveal her wicked heart; her arabesques still reek of virtue.
This full-length work, preening its expensive black-and-white feathers (scenery, Robin Wagner; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Mark Stanley) in the middle of NYCB’s superb Balanchine centennial, obliquely honors the fact that Balanchine worked on Broadway and in Hollywood, and illustrates the theory that blockbuster-scale ballets draw large crowds. Time will tell. Meanwhile, Mr. B. may be turning as many sauts de basque in his grave as Stroman’s dancers string across the stage (it’s a favorite step).
What’s surprising about Double Feature is how thin some of the material is, dramatically and choreographically. Some action drags; at other times important facts are only hinted at in the projected titles. “Dorothy Brooks” (Maria Kowroski) somehow goes from being an unwed mother fired from her showbiz job to starring in movies. The glam party scene where grown-up Mabel (Ashley Bouder) reveals her inherited skill has no life. Couples waltz or stand about inertly until the end, when one pair after another peels off from the ensemble for a smart exit duet. In Whoopee, Gold’s character, who must marry to inherit the $7 million he needs to save his business, proposes to no fewer than five women (nice character bits but timed a bit sluggishly) before finally winning his love (Alexandra Ansanelli).
Combining two lively mute arts is a bright idea. Too bad ballets don’t hire show doctors.
When I say David Parker makes you laugh, I don’t mean the audience is in stitches—just that an intermittent current of guffaws, giggles, and snorts of pleasure accompanies his dances. Parker is a serious choreographer with eccentric ideas and a refined sense of irony. Poignancy is not excluded. I can understand why his small Bang Group has been a hit in so many countries.
At the heart of the repertory are Parker’s duets with Jeffrey Kazin, which explore contention, affection, and eroticism with choreographic wit and a few nods to slapstick. In Friends of Dorothy, the two stomp out determinedly bumptious country rhythms to “Barn Raising” from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. But after a small shoot-out, the slighter Kazin ends up draped over tall, sturdy Parker’s shoulder, sliding into awkward rearrangements of position and carried around arched in delighted flight as Jane Powell’s soprano soars “Somewere Over the Rainbow.” In Slapstuck, hoofing Parker literally can’t get free of Kazin; they’re wearing massively Velcro-ed suits. In addition to no-hands lifts, Parker—a rhythm fanatic—joins to taps, claps, snaps, and slaps the riiiiipp of myriad tiny hooks and loops coming apart. The men have to crawl out of their clothes to separate, but by then even their handshake is magnetically charged.
Parker plays with and against musical sentiment. While Frank Sinatra croons “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” Marta Miller, Amber Sloan, and Emily Tschiffely, in slinky black dresses, fold and unfold on the floor and crawl buggily around. In another short interlude, Tschiffely engagingly enacts shyness, ambition, limited grace, and determination in curious accord with Ethel Merman’s a capella belting of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (she looks in her armpit and under her skirt for the audiences that don’t come).
Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto doesn’t just incite hyper-romantic angst in Kazin, Parker, Sloan, and Mary Cochran, but ensnares them and won’t let them go, even from clinches (this piece, Enough, is the only Parker work I’ve seen that doesn’t present messy points cleanly).
Cracked, excerpts from Parker’s Nutcracked, takes on Tchaikovsky’s Christmas ballet in versions by Ellington and smarmier ones, some with banal English words. Kazin and Parker feel free to do the “Trepak” as a tap dance on a special little floor, while singing “Hark to the sound of the balalaika . . . ” I’d like to see the whole thing, if it’s all as good as the teeth-to-teeth rose-passing in “Waltz of the Flowers” or the grand pas de deux for Kazin and Parker, in which their thumbs in each other’s mouth are the principal partnering hold (the term “finger turns” acquires a whole new meaning).