All That Jazz (Again) at the New York City Balletby Evan Namerow
Well, you can say this for Susan Stroman: she’s consistent. In late January the Broadway director and choreographer unveiled her latest contribution to New York City Ballet’s repertory: another clichéd, sleepy Broadway-ballet fusion. Great.
“For the Love of Duke” was presented on a triple bill of contemporary works (No Balanchine in the lineup! A rare event). Christopher Wheeldon’s arresting Polyphonia is now a decade old, but still looks strikingly fresh. And Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH (2008) mixes wit and lyricism, punctuated with meditative moments. Seen alongside these layered, complex gems, Stroman’s premiere felt dreadfully old, and out of its depth.
“For the Love of Duke” brings Stroman’s experience working with City Ballet full circle. The two-part, one-act ballet includes Blossom Got Kissed, which she created for the company in 1999 for a larger ballet called Duke!. Both Blossom and the new part of the ballet, called Frankie and Johnny…and Rose, are set to a variety of music by Duke Ellington.
Artists have the freedom to edit and re-visit their work over time, and Stroman’s approach of mixing and matching sections of ballets is intriguing. But the results are dull. Each piece has a jazzy 1930s feel to it, and both suggest (irritatingly) that women’s lives are unfulfilled without men—though the smarter gals realize that they’re not always worth the effort.
Frankie and Johnny…and Rose showcases a comedic love triangle. Johnny sleeps with Rose, then tries to get rid of her when Frankie shows up; chaos ensues as the women compete for his attention, with Johnny attempting to keep both. Eventually, the women leave him in the dust, call a truce, and become pals. The three dancers (Sara Mearns, Tiler Peck, and Amar Ramasar) use a low-level platform as a bed and miniature stage, set under a starry sky designed by Mark Stanley. The David Berger Jazz Orchestra performs behind them; such lovely orchestration deserves better choreography. When Frankie unexpectedly enters, Johnny abruptly pushes Rose off the platform and out of the audience’s sight. Moments later, she pops back up, cutely angry. Their playful romp goes on a bit too long—there are only so many meaningless jazz kicks and fouetté turns a girl can make—or take. The hot pink and purple dresses and sparkly tights don’t help.
A dancer who has no rhythm until she gets smooched sums up Blossom Got Kissed. It’s a cloying story that strives for laughs, the humorous moments failing to resonate on an overcrowded stage. Six women in vibrant red dresses rhythmically swing their legs, while Blossom (Savannah Lowery), wearing a puffy blue bodice and tutu, has two left feet. Each dancer and her male counterpart take turns at wowing the audience with splits and audacious lifts. The repetition is tiresome—even the dancers looked bored. Lowery couldn’t convey Blossom’s gawkiness on her own, but in a duet with Robert Fairchild, they naturally looked uncomfortable due to their height difference (on pointe, she towers over him).
Stroman’s choreography never shows us anything other than Broadway pizzazz: “Look at me! I’m here to impress you!” In spite of their disparate plots, both parts of For the Love of Duke have the same choreographic formula. At a mere 30 minutes, I had had more than enough.