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Robert Abrams
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New York City Ballet - Double Feature

by Robert Abrams
January 25, 2004
Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc.
140 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023

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New York City Ballet
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New York State Theater
20 Lincoln Center
New York, NY 10023

New York City Ballet - Double Feature


presented at the New York State Theater, Lincoln Center
New York, New York

Robert Abrams
January 25, 2004

The Blue Necklace

Conductor: Andrea Quinn
Music by Irving Berlin
Choreography by Susan Stroman
Libretto by Susan Stroman and Glen Kelly
Music Arrangements by Glen Kelly
Orchestrations by Doug Besterman
Scenery by Robin Wagner
Costumes by William Ivey Long
Lighting by Mark Stanley

Dorothy Brooks: Maria Kowroski
Mr. Griffith: Jason Fowler
Mrs. Griffith: Kyra Nichols
Young Mabel: Tara Sorine
Young Florence: Isabella Tobias
Mabel: Ashley Bouder
Florence: Megan Fairchild
Billy Randolph: Damian Woetzel

Ensemble: Faye Arthurs, Katie Bergstrom, Saskia Beskow, Sophie Flack, Jessica Flynn, Amanda Hankes, Dana Hanson, Sterling Hytlin, Glenn Keenan, Lauren King, Carla Körbes, Rebecca Krohn, Ashley Laracey, Savannah Lowery, Lindy Mandradjieff, Teresa Reichlen, Stephanie Zungre, Antonio Carmena, Ask la Cour, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Kyle Froman, Craig Hall, Stephen Hanna, Jerome Johnson, Austin Laurent, Seth Orza, Allen Peiffer, Amar Ramasar, Henry Seth, Aaron Severini, Jonathan Stafford, Sean Suozzi, Christian Tworzyanski, Daniel Ulbricht, Adrew Veyette

The songs: Alexander's Ragtime Band, Always, What'll I do?, How about Me?, Slumming on Park Avenue, Let Yourself Go, Everybody's Doin' It Now, All Alone, The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing, Mandy, Steppin' Out With My Baby, You're Easy to Dance With, No Strings, How Deep is the Ocean.

Anticipation lay over the audience in the New York State Theatre like an exhalation coming in from the cold, slowly preparing and warming upwards to the last ring. My grandmother commented that today's performance was obviously something special. "I've been to many ballets," she said, "and I have seen it busy, but not like this."

The ballet started with a strobe effect playing on a forward scrim to make it look like the title of an old silent movie projected at the pre-1929 standard frame rate of 16 frames per second (fps). The scrim rose to reveal a stage full of dancers moving with 1920s arm styling, also bathed in the film effect strobe. This special effect was shortly faded out in favor of more normal stage lighting. Had they kept it up for the entire ballet, it would have been an annoying gimmick, but used as it was it did a great job of setting the character of the work, dazzling the audience in the process, and then stepping back to allow the dancers to do what they do best. All of the costumes and props were fashioned in shades of black, white and grey, giving the production a convincing black and white film look.

This ballet is about Dorothy Brooks, an actress and dancer who falls on hard times and gives up her baby, Mabel, to whom she gives a blue necklace. The story follows the lives of Dorothy and Mabel as they wend their way to a melodramatic conclusion. While some of the plot is carried by pantomime within the dancing and the dancing itself, much of the weight of the plot is carried by scene titles, commentary and dialog (and a picture or two) projected onto the screen at the back of the stage. These projections function exactly as they would have in a silent movie. Narrative in dance, as I am wont to ramble and rant about, is an element I like to see, but I also recognize that it is not dance's main strength, and if done poorly gets in the way of the dancing, or, to paraphrase Saskia Beskow, it fosters the creation of ballets in which there is not as much dancing as a dancer might prefer. Double Feature's use of titles was an effective way to carry the plot, freeing the dancers to dance. Another of what might be called "assisted narrative ballets" was the well implemented Carnival of the Animals. While Double Feature can clearly serve as an archetype for the creation of future ballets, it also lets modern audiences see silent films in a refreshed light. I know something about film, having produced a series of films starting in the 5th grade (if you are nice to me, I will arrange a screening of The Mad Chicken, First Brigade or the science education spoof Newton: The Man and His Laws; I also shot and edited the Swango video, but that hasn't been released yet). My educated guess is that people today view silent movies as technologically deficient precursors to today's special effects laden, all-talking and rarely-dancing movies. In their day, though, silent movies were viewed as a great innovation not just because they were a technological marvel compared to what had come before, but because they were a transportable art form that spoke in a new universal language. Double Feature provides evidence that silent movies do indeed have artistic validity on their own terms.

Just as you can create great art within the discipline of MOS (moviespeak for Mitt Out Sound), you can also create great sets and costumes within the discipline of black and white. Robin Wagner and William Ivey Long have certainly done that here. The opening number starts with a bevy of dancers decked out in black sparkle tutus and short bob hairstyle black wigs. (And just to prove there is a website for just about everything, check out www.bobpage.de.) Dorothy Brooks entered the stage in a white with silver diamond patterned tutu. Later, when she gives up her baby, she wears a grey (but shining) cloak that covers her and then spreads out like wings when she twirls. The grey apartment interior of the Griffith family looked a little like the apartment in the Honeymooners, but more rundown because of the gaping holes in the walls. (Or maybe they weren't that poor, but they were renting from my former landlord who took about a year to fix a hole in the wall.) On the other hand, one of the hidden blessings of such a poorly furnished apartment is that there is plenty of space to dance. The grey centered palette was also used to good effect to create a busy street on a bright spring morning with reporters leaping con camera, school girls in their uniforms, soldiers, and rich people in top hats.

All of the dancers danced Ms. Stroman's engaging choreography very well. Ashley Bouder was particularly brilliant. I have seen her dance in smaller roles before. In the role of Mabel she reached a new level. (You can also see her in the still photography ballet "The Kingdom of the Sun Sprites".) Since I have a pragmatic epistemology and believe in examining my own subjectivities, I will admit that I am predisposed to like her dancing, having worked with her before. That being said, there are two sources of evidence supporting my positive appraisal of her performance. First, I was not the only one who thought she was wonderful. I spoke to a few people in the Green Room during intermission who praised her work unbidden. One person, who was clearly knowledgeable about dance, said she had seen Ashley perform two or three years ago and remarked approvingly on how much her dancing has grown in that time (which also goes to show that NYCB is maintaining Balanchine's original mission of not only presenting great dancers but developing them as well). Second, there are certain key indicators of dance ability whose presence is as close to an objective statement of high quality as one can get in an otherwise subjective art form. One of these indicators is a dancer's ability to hold herself en point on one leg. At the top of this arc, the dancer should be perfectly still for what appears to be an extended length of time (even though in reality it is only a second or two). Ashley executed several of these moments to perfection. Subjectively, it would be proper to describe these as perfect moments of elation. She danced with grace mixed with an enigmatic smile. I also liked her sharply accented hand gestures in the party scene. Her leaps were beautiful too. Damian Woetzel, Ashley's dance partner in this ballet, first appears in a dream sequence in which he looked like he was channeling Tommy Tune. He and Ashley performed effortless lifts. They were both dancing with confidence and a consistently beautiful line amidst large quantities of theatrical ground fog. Later on in the party scene, Damian danced with a breezy way of stepping and leaping. He launched into a powerful spinning leap, and then landed with a perfectly balanced stop with flair. He spun on one foot perhaps 15 times in a row. All in all, he was quite masterful. The crowd responded to his efforts with pleasure and enthusiasm. Kyra Nichols had a base, conniving dance style. By "base" in this case I mean that it fit with the greedy nature of the character she played, and in contrast to the elegant, upper crust, waltz-rooted style of the other guests at the party. Taken in combination with her work in Carnival of the Animals as the Cuckoo Bird, Kyra once again showed that she does a great job conveying a range of emotions. Megan Fairchild, as Florence, poured great skill into making it look like she was dancing badly as she was put to the ultimate dance test by Billy Randolph (Damian Woetzel). Her role called for her to produce a comic effect, which she did by making it look like she was always slightly off balance, as well as by using right angle foot positions and arm styling. At the very end of the party scene, the ensemble peeled out from the crowd in twos. Each couple gave a short, but well executed, sequence as if to remind the audience of NYCB's depth of talent.

The choreography was just as good as the individual dance performances. The opening sequence incorporated nice variations in tempi, not to mention a fine kick line. More subtle, but perhaps even more of a choreographic accomplishment, was the way that the dancers combined with the lighting managed to rotate the perspective from front to back without actually rotating the stage itself. In another notable sequence later on in the ballet, Maria Kowroski used a series of small steps to agonize across the stage en pointe. After Mabel escapes from the apartment to head to the party, she exits the stage with a beautiful sequence of three small leaps followed by a big leap. The opening of the party scene was an impressive number with solo turns, big ensemble sections and a Broadway-esque finale. The sequence leading up to the final triumphant image of the ballet was well done as well, sliding from a Broadway to a ballet modality.

The mood of the music and dance fit together.

Finally, as if to prove that silent film, and thus other non-talking art forms, are perfectly capable of tackling deep philosophical issues, The Blue Necklace dives right into the nature versus nurture debate, landing squarely on the side of nature. The young Mabel dances around the apartment when Mrs. Griffith isn't around. Since the ballet makes it clear that Mrs. Griffith favors her own daughter, Florence, it is unlikely that Mabel was given dance lessons. If this is true, the implication is that dance talent is genetic because Mabel (danced by Tara Sorine) seems to have come by her charming technique without training. That part of dance ability is hereditary is certainly believable, and the part that isn't can be filled in with the willing suspension of disbelief that one ought to bring to the movies with the popcorn in order to get to Tara's compelling level of proficiency.

The Blue Necklace is easily one of the top ten dances I have seen in the past few years. I have only one minor suggestion. When Florence is dancing her test, trying to convince Dorothy that she is Dorothy's daughter, Megan Fairchild's interpretation of the role made it seem that Florence danced without malice. It was true that young Florence was bratty towards young Mabel, but Florence had the deception at the party thrust on her by her mother. She did not appear to have the kind of evil intent that is often attributed to Odile in Swan Lake. At the end of The Blue Necklace Dorothy sees Mabel dance. She doesn't exactly have proof of who is her daughter, but she takes the necklace from Florence and gives it to Mabel, the message being that a mother can see the truth. This is a fine sentiment, and the ballet works with this choice. However, Florence seems to be a character capable of growing. I would have had her remove the necklace herself, perhaps holding it away facing stage left (Dorothy is stage right), so it becomes a private moment of decision in the middle of a public space, rather than an act of submission. That way the ballet could show Florence's growth while maintaining the current "mother can see the truth" message.

The Blue Necklace is without question a great ballet. The audience was ecstatic. The New York City Ballet should add more performances. I look forward to the sequel.

Ashley Bouder and Damian Woetzel in Double Feature: The Blue Necklace (New York City Ballet - Choreography by Susan Stroman)
Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik

Makin' Whoopee

Music by Walter Donaldson
Choreography by Susan Stroman
Libretto by Susan Stroman and Glen Kelly
Based on the Play "Seven Chances" by Roi Cooper Megrue
Music Arrangements by Glen Kelly
Orchestrations by Doug Besterman and Danny Troob
Scenery by Robin Wagner
Costumes by William Ivey Long
Lighting by Mark Stanley
Animal Trainer: Bill Berloni

Jimmie Shannon: Tom Gold
Anne Windsor: Alexandra Ansanelli
Joe Doherty: Albert Evans
Edward Meekin: Seth Orza
Garrison: Arch Higgins
Georgy: Dana Hanson
Peggy; Amanda Hankes
Olga: Rebecca Krohn
Irene: Jessica Flynn
Irene's mother: Gwyneth Muller
Flossy: Carla Körbes
Flossy's Husband: Ask la Cour
Preacher: Jonathan Stafford

Ensemble: Faye Arthurs, Katie Bergstrom, Saskia Beskow, Ashley Bouder, Sophie Flack, Sterling Hyltin, Glenn Keenan, Lauren King, Ashley Laracey, Savannah Lowery, Lindy Mandradjieff, Teresa Reichlen, Antonio Carmena, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Jason Fowler, Kyle Froman, Craig Hall, Jerome Johnson, Austin Laurent, Allen Peiffer, Henry Seth, Aaron Severini, Sean Suozzi, Christian Tworzyanski, Daniel Ulbricht

Students from the School of American Ballet: Adriana De Svastich, Katy Foster, Coco Gonzalez, Evelyn Kocak, Lindsay McGrath, Cassia Phillips, Erica Takajian, Amanda Weingarten, Taryn Wolfe

The songs: Makin' Woopee, My Baby Just Cares for Me, Borneo, Reaching for Someone, My Buddy, My Blue Heaven, The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady, He's The Last Word, You, Romance, Love Me or Leave Me, Yes Sir! That's My Baby, Carolina in the Morning

Makin' Woopee was the second silent movie in the Double Feature. While not as impressive as The Blue Necklace, it also featured an appealing combination of choreography and performances. This was a lighter work that fit very well with The Blue Necklace just like a double feature of silent movies should fit together.

Makin' Whoopee had a barely believable plot involving seven million dollars and a sudden need to get married before the end of the day. It featured a scene stealing little dog with great leaps and great partnering skills. In one sequence of partnering (between Tom Gold and Alexandra Ansanelli), they looked like they were skating. The illusion was perfect. There were some Charlseston bits, and the equivalent of Keystone Kops transposed to ballet. Tom Gold showed off some great rag doll falls, and in one bit swayed side to side a little like Mr. Cellophane in Chicago.

We all know how difficult it can be to find someone to date, let alone someone to marry. In the 1920s, there were no dating websites. Mr. Gold and his colleagues try to find a potential bride in Central Park. They meet many well portrayed characters, but no one wants to marry Mr. Gold. He does get slapped and laughed at, which when it comes to dating sometimes can be considered progress.

Since the park strategy doesn't work, they place an ad in the paper. This attracts a full ensemble of brides in wedding dresses, including most of the men in the company. This leads to a very impressive chase scene. As far as I am concerned no film is complete without a chase scene. When I made films I almost always put in chase scenes, so I consider myself something of a connoisseur of chase scenes. Mr. Gold even gets chased by the dog dressed in a wedding gown.

Makin' Whoopee deserves one thumb up. Combined with The Blue Necklace, Double Feature is a bravura boffo ballet that deserves two thumbs up. One little girl standing in the lobby after the performance gave it two arms up while standing in third position.

Tom Gold and Ensemble in Double Feature: Makin' Whoopee (New York City Ballet - Choreography by Susan Stroman)
Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik

Albert Evans, Seth Orza and Tom Gold in Double Feature: Makin' Whoopee (New York City Ballet - Choreography by Susan Stroman)
Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik

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