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A Balletic Homage to Silent Film: Susan Stroman's Double Feature at New York City Ballet

by Tonya Plank
January 31, 2008
Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc.
140 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023

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Broadway choreographer and sometime Ballet maker Susan Stroman has created a delightfully fun homage to silent film with her ballet, DOUBLE FEATURE, for New York City Ballet. As the name implies, the ballet is comprised of two separate stories. The first, "The Blue Necklace," is a melodrama that tells the story of an actress/ dancer who regretfully gives up her baby for a career, becomes a starlet, and is reunited in a tear-jerking, climactic scene with her daughter when she is grown. The plot proceeds as follows: the actress, Dorothy, leaves baby Mabel on church steps, where she is found by a man whose wife demanded he abandon his own daughter there, but the man, unable to do so, brings both babies back home to the immense anger of the wife. After the husband dies, the wife turns into an evil Cinderella-esque stepmother, doting on her own daughter, Florence, while relegating Mabel to the role of maid. Years later, a ball is held in Dorothy's honor, which Florence and the evil stepmother attend, concocting a scheme for financial gain to make Dorothy think Florence is her own daughter. But Mabel escapes and ends up at the ball, where her dancing makes clear it is she and not Florence who is her mother's daughter. Mother and daughter are reunited and all is happy.

This first "feature," by far the weaker of the two, was slowed-down by the lack of actual dancing as well as authenticity from some of the dancers. Apart from opening and closing ensemble numbers – the first involving a group of chorus girls, the last waltzing couples at the ball – dancing was sacrificed for melodramatic miming. From the husband's attempt to convince his wife to accept Mabel, to the stepmother's abusing Mabel and fawning over Florence, to Dorothy's being told she can't both dance and have a child – some of the main action was told not through dance but through mime. And when there was dancing, some of it was insufficiently character-driven. When Ashley Bouder, as grown Mabel, escaped her stepmother's house and emerged at the ball, the way she sexily swung her hips and wore a broad smile across her face, it was more as if she was dancing "Rubies" from JEWELS or TARANTELLA. Bouder's Mabel was not an ingenuous girl who has just, wide-eyed and inquisitive, ventured for the first time into a high-society ball where she is frightened of being found by her evil stepmother; this was simply a show-off. Bouder's dancing was characteristically technically perfect and visually spectacular, but this was the place for a quieter, subtler, more innocent kind of charm.

On a more positive note, however, Maria Kowroski, who danced the part of Dorothy, was more dramatic than usual, as her heartbreak upon leaving her infant daughter on the church steps clearly registered on her face, as did her disappointment-turned-acceptance of the horrendous dancing exhibited by Florence, whom she initially believes is her long-lost daughter. Skyla Shreter, a talented young dancer who is still in the School of American Ballet, performed beautifully as young Mabel. And Megan Fairchild's frighteningly dorky, hilariously inelegant stepsister completely stole the show as she tried in vain to dance with Dorothy's beau, a dashing Damian Woetzel. She bumbled about the stage with her feet so awkwardly pointed in, at one point I thought she might twist a kneecap.

The second ballet, "Makin' Whoopee," was much more fast-moving and fun. A slapstick comedy, it involves a sympathetic Charlie Chaplin-esque hero, Jimmie Shannon, who wishes to marry his sweetheart but cannot find the courage to pop the question. But when his uncle dies and leaves him a large inheritance — which his law firm desperately needs to pay off a debt that if unpaid will result in jail — but conditions that inheritance on his imminent marriage, all manner of comedy breaks loose as he returns to his sweetheart but is ridiculously inept at making his intentions clear, then is forced to find a bride by other means.

There could not be a more perfect lead for this ballet than soloist Tom Gold, on whom Stroman created it. He had everything from the straight-kneed, hobbled Chaplin-esque walks to the sweetly pathetic mannerisms down pat. When he tried to propose to his sweetheart but hopelessly bungled it with his blubbering, sadly put his head in his hands upon realizing he won't marry in time to inherit the much-needed money, and tried to escape an avalanche of ballerina brides, one wanted both to cry for and laugh at him at the same time. Amar Ramasar and Robert Fairchild danced his lawyer colleagues, the former's comically dramatic ability shining through each time he took the stage. Ramasar also has the ability to change styles at a moment's notice: at one point he and Fairchild performed a funny, pretend tango, in an attempt to illustrate to Jimmie how he must seduce a woman, and, while Fairchild's movement was completely balletic, Ramasar's was virile, sexy, and characteristically tango while still managing to be silly enough to induce laughter from the audience. Both Fairchild and Ramasar, along with Gold, did a spectacular job launching into a cartoonishly fast-paced, silent-film-style Charleston, demonstrating their need very quickly to find ways to come up with money. Adding to the cute hilarity is a dog – a real one – who has taken a licking-faced liking to Jimmie, as well as several greedy male brides who will stop at nothing to marry a millionaire, the funniest of whom is Justin Peck whose large, muscly torso makes his lovely bridal gown all the more comical. At points during the search for a bride, one is reminded of Jerome Robbins's sailors' attempts to woo women in FANCY FREE. Stroman's ballet vocabulary is not as rich as Robbins' and the choreography less varied, but her heightened sense of the theatrical and the comical more than made up for that. "Makin' Whoopee" is a splendid homage to slapstick that had the audience roaring with laughter and applause throughout.
Tiler Peck and Tom Gold in NYCB's Double Feature: Makin' Whoopee

Tiler Peck and Tom Gold in NYCB's Double Feature: Makin' Whoopee

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Kolnik

Ashley Bouder in NYCB's Double Feature: The Blue Necklace

Ashley Bouder in NYCB's Double Feature: The Blue Necklace

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Kolnik

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