On Friday night Susan Stroman’s For the Love of Duke premiered at NYCB. Photos above by Paul Kolnik. Top: Tiler Peck, Sara Mearns, and Amar Ramasar; bottom: Mearns and Ramasar. Stroman is primarily a Broadway choreographer (I think her most famous work is probably Contact), and it shows both in her ballets’ strengths and limitations.
For the Love of Duke is divided into two parts. In the first, entitled “Frankie and Johnny … and Rose,” Tiler Peck and Amar Ramasar are Johnny and Rose, a couple in love. They perform a lovely lyrical pas de deux. Then along struts Sara Mearns – Frankie – and Johnny’s attentions are completely lost on her, to the disappointment of Rose. Johnny and Rose are snuggling on a bench together, and when Frankie comes prancing along, Johnny pushes Rose right off the bench, behind it, as if to hide her. Then he does a snazzier dance with Mearns / Frankie, she disappears, and he’s back with Rose … until Frankie comes strutting along again. And so on. At one point, Rose becomes the seductress, and Johnny pushes Frankie off the back of the bench. It was cute, and everyone danced spectacularly, but it got a bit old to me after a while.
The second part – “Blossom Got Kissed” – Stroman had actually choreographed before, creating it for NYCB in 1999. I liked this one better. Both parts, by the way, are choreographed to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, which is where the title of the whole comes from. Anyway, “Blossom” begins with a bunch of girls all dressed in sassy, jazzy red sitting on a bench tapping their feet to Ellington’s rhythm. Along comes Savannah Lowery as Blossom, dressed in a frilly ballet tutu. She sits alongside them on the bench and tries to tap with them. But she has no rhythm and is horribly off. Then they stand and do a jazzy dance, and, again, she tries to join, but just can’t get the hang of it. She is simply too classical ballet. Lowery was hilarious though and it was funny to see her continually try to get the rhythm and technique of jazz dance right by taking a foot and pounding it down flat on the floor. Then, a group of tux-clad men come along and do some swing dancing with the red-clad women. Blossom again tries hard to fit in but just can’t. Finally, a musician in the band (which was onstage), in the person of Robert Fairchild, comes out from the back of the stage, orders the music changed, and does a sweet lyrical ballet pas de deux with her.
I feel like I’ve seen “Blossom” before because Lowery’s hilarious flat-footedness looked familiar. I liked it better than the first part because to me it was funnier, and the story went a little further.
I think Stroman is very good at creating a story through dance, and that’s what I like about her. You can tell she’s not really a ballet choreographer though. Compared to the first two pieces of the night – Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH and Wheeldon’s Polyphonia – the actual dance just wasn’t that rich. Still, I think she complemented the program well. It can never hurt to include in an evening of ballet a cute narrative dance with music that’s not usual ballet fare.
As always, I loved Concerto DSCH. Ratmansky was in the audience. I felt the music was played a bit too fast though (conductor was Ryan McAdams, Elaine Chelton the pianist). It looked like Ashley Bouder had a slight mishap, though I’m not sure because I was busy watching Joaquin DeLuz do a sequence of crazy fast steps into a somersault at the speed of light. Andrew Veyette again replaced Gonzalo Garcia, who I am really missing. I hope he’s okay. Veyette is doing a fine job as one of the two playful guys in blue, but there’s this repeating series of throws – where they each kind of propel the other into the air, and I love how Garcia always gets such height when he bounces off the other two.
Tyler Angle replaced Benjamin Millepied, and did wonderfully. I always notice things with Tyler that I haven’t noticed before – like how when he and the girl in green (Wendy Whelan) make their entrance, he’s spinning her around and around, and she looks like she’s hanging on to him for dear life. It kind of sets the tone of their relationship. I always notice the music much more when he dances as well.
Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia is definitely one of my favorites of his. I love the musicality of it, and the originality of the combinations. It’s set to ten piano pieces by Ligeti, who, the program notes, developed micropolyphony – a type of music involving sustained dissonant chords that shift slowly over time. You can really see that “micropolyphony” in the dancing, as the sets of dancers (eight all together, divided into four pairs) begin dancing together in a line but each pair doing something completely different. Then, they eventually come together and dance in unison, but then they drift apart again later. There’s some very clever, almost humorous partnering throughout, but particularly in the second movement, Arc-en-ciel, Etudes pour piano, danced by Maria Kowroski and Jared Angle. I haven’t seen this ballet as often as I would like to. I was going to say I wish he’d include this one more often in Morphoses programs, and then I remembered…