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New York City Ballet's Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar, with the David Berger Jazz Orchestra in the background, in Susan Stroman's "For the Love of Duke." Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.

Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

NEW YORK -- Forget what you may have read elsewhere: With Susan Stroman's semi-new "For the Love of Duke," New York City Ballet has a run-away hit, that rare jazz ballet which makes ballet dancers look great even as the ballet dancers enhance the phenomenal music, in this case by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Those who complain about cliches in the work, as some critics have done, miss the point, and probably missed Stroman's transformational Broadway hit "Contact": The woman knows how to make choreography that connects to this quintessentially American musical form and that, putting it simply, dances jazz -- and, in this piece, shows that she knows how to bring out the jazz dancer in classically trained performers, who add a rare quickness, deftness, and dexterity to the mix that jazz dancers don't always have. Add a textbook lesson in how to interpret an archetypal contemporary ballet role -- that of the Siren in Balanchine's transformational 1929 "Prodigal Son" -- such as Maria Kowroski delivered in the ballet which followed the Stroman at City Ballet's matinee Saturday, and a flawless delivery of the Robbins-Glass urban ballet "Glass Pieces," and you have stunning proof of a new versatility in this troupe, which well-serves the choreography, when they're well-served by the choreographers (which was not entirely the case in the Saturday evening performance).

Sure, with the initial feet to ear feats that Tiler Peck shows off to launch "Frankie and Johnny... and Rose," the first of the two parts which make up 'Duke,' one suspects yet another work in which a modern choreographer, rather than using ballet dancers' dexterity to articulate her own vision, gets weighed down by all the tricks they can do, but this fear is quickly dispelled when hi-jinx replace high-kicks as the ordre du jour, chiefly thanks to the verve of Amar Ramasar, matched by the debonair Robert Fairchild in "Blossom got Kissed," the 1999 'Contact'-like Cinderella story which wraps up this jazzy Ellington package. Sure, the boy meets girls story is old, but the point is the the new freshness Stroman's choreography and its interpretation by the dancers -- above all a super-synchronized corps -- give to the music, showing it's as powerful an inspiration to dance to for young people as the newest club hits. Of course, it's better than that; what I mean, rather, is that to see young people so invested in the music one can see how this music wasn't always just great music, it was once also the music young people partied to.

Here, Sara Mearns has the edge on Peck, moving beyond just showing off her legs --- William Ivey Long's costumes highlight those gorgeous gams -- to showing her skill as a rubbery-limbed kind of dance-hall vamp. All three show the contours of the music, deepening the already generous expression given to tunes like "Single Petal of a Rose," "Love you Madly," and of course "Frankie and Johnny" by the David Berger Jazz Orchestra, whose onstage upstage deployment gives the scene the perfect dance hall / jazz club ambience.

For "Blossom got Kissed," Stroman ups the ante considerably with a piece that evokes not just jazz, not just a dance hall, but the Max Fleischer cartoons of the 1930s which so aptly illustrated and amplified music of the same genre, particularly in several Betty Boop films. (Some of which, including the 1932 "Minnie the Moocher," will be on view this Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at the Museum of Modern Art in a program of cartoons by Fleischer, Disney, and Ub Iwerks.) This starts when six women in red open the piece by sitting down on a bench and doing a sort of mini-ballet with their loose rubbery and seemingly boneless -- as in a cartoon -- legs. After this lower-limb sashaying, particularly with "It don't Mean a Thing if it ain't got that Swing," the ballet simply swings, delivering a "Contact"-like wallop which makes you forgive its "Contact"-like plot: Girl with no rhythm (Savannah Lowery) learns it from suave guy with rhythm to spare (Fairchild).

"For the Love of Duke" should be a template for how to make a jazz ballet using ballet dancers.

A shot in the dark: New York City Ballet's Tiler Peck, above in Wayne McGregor's "Outlier," had better lighting -- and choreography -- to work with in Susan Stroman's "For the Love of Duke." Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.

"Outlier," on the other hand, provides a textbook case for how not to use ballet dancers. From what I could see in the 2010 work's performance on the evening program -- and I could see very little, for the choreographer, Wane McGregor, and his lighting designer Lucy Carter have fallen victim to the illusory dictum dark lighting = cool ambience -- this was yet another instance of a modern choreographer coming into a ballet company and, like a kid with a new toy, having the dancers do all the cool things they can do, particularly with those legs, that are new to him but that most of us have seen before and are not impressed by in the absence of actual meaningful choreography. This is before we get to the gratuitous naked Ramasar torso and the gratuitous Maria Kowroski. Only at curtain, when the lights finally came up fully, did I realize that she was in this ballet.

There was no such risk of missing Kowroski in the afternoon's edition of Balanchine/Kochno's "Prodigal Son," where, in contrast with Teresa Reichlin's version earlier in the season, Kowroski actually understood the meaning of the choreography and how to use it to elucidate the nature of the beast she was portraying, namely a praying mantis under whose charm and in whose grasp the prodigal is finished as soon as she sets her sights and that long left arm on him. Where Reichlin couldn't manage to get the arm and its splay-fingered hand high enough even in its ultimate gesture before she pounced, Kowroski held it apart from the outset, as one might protect a valuable arm (in the weapon sense of the term), keeping it cocked and ready for the right moment. She also didn't fall into the trap that has sunk many a siren, mastering that long read train of a scarf instead of letting it master her. Her prodigal, however, was no match for that of Daniel Ulbricht, who'd been Reichlin's er, mate, Joaquin De Luz evincing none of the pathos Ulbricht was able to bring out from the Balanchine choreography and Prokofiev music. So I decided instead to zoom in on father Ask Le Cour's hands, which, indeed, expressed a whole range of emotions, particularly when the prodigal comes home, Le Cour's hands belying his otherwise unmoving posture as he waits for his son to come to him as a sort of penance that's the price of the father's forgiveness.


New York City Ballet's Maria Kowroski in Balanchine and Kochno's "Prodigal Son." Photo by and ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.

You'd think that after these two displays of emotion, 'Duke' and 'Prodigal,' "Glass Pieces," with its anti-septic or at least numbing Philip Glass music would be alienatingly abstract. However, abstract can work if the humans dancing it become pure instruments of abstraction, and that's what happened Saturday afternoon in the company's pristine rendering of the 1983 work, starting with an opening segment in which the repetitive Glass combines with criss-crossing scores of dancers for a realistic urban cacophony, punctuated with the women occasionally suddenly jutting their arms out as if in reaction to running into a fellow pedestrian. In a middle section featuring a duet between Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall, it's hard to decide whether to watch the captivating Whelan, whose musical body is as eloquent as ever, particularly those luxuriantly elongating, time-slowing legs and sinuous torso, or a line of shadow dancers, crossing and rhythmically pausing behind a scrim.

Showing off the choreographer's versatility -- incredibly, both ballets premiered within less than a month of each other in 1983, at the New York State Theater -- "I'm Old-Fashioned" was the perfect capper to my Saturday marathon at New York City Ballet. In addition to what I've already said reviewing the work earlier this season, I'd add that Rebecca Krohn is the performer who most resembles the Rita Hayworth seen dancing with Fred Astaire in the extract from the film "You Were Never Lovelier" which inspired and bookends the dance, in which Robbins riffs on Astaire and Val Raset's choreography from the movie and Morton Gould on Jerome Kern's music, particularly in the sweeps of her arms and the tilt of her torso when she's waltzing around. Jared Angle captures the male honors as the truest encapsulation of Astaire, particularly in a winsome hands in pockets solo (soon joined by a hands in pockets chorus of men) after partner Mearns temporarily is swept away by another swain. If I have a quarrel here, it's that whoever was manning the lights -- perhaps the same person who dropped the curtain on the 'Prodigal''s family earlier in the day before the father could turn and take the son back to the hearth -- darkened them too much for us to fully appreciate the live dancers waving goodbye to Fred and Rita at the end. It was a moment that should have been milked; in a day framed by two works from the dance genre that Astaire had made his own, all day these dancers had proved themselves worthy descendents and inheritors and deserved to share just a little more of the spotlight.


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