Susan Stroman, whose new ballet For the Love of Duke premiered on Friday at the New York City Ballet, may think that she has created something true to life. (In the program notes she is quoted as saying, “For me, the idea of having a dancer on pointe and then acting out a real live character looks unique.”) Yet her dancers portray not people but caricatures, and the situations in which they find themselves are not only tired, but mildly offensive to modern sensibilities.
For the Love of Duke is really two ballets pasted together: the first is new this year, while the second was choreographed by Stroman in 1999. Both feel dated. In the first section of the piece, “Frankie and Johnny…and Rose,” dancer Amar Ramasar is a two- (or three-) timing man-child with a smarmy grin, who plays with the affections of Rose (Tiler Peck) and Frankie (Sara Mearns); in “Blossom Got Kissed,” Savannah Lowery plays a naïve and uncoordinated ballerina who doesn’t fit in amongst her slinky-red-dress-wearing peers until she gets kissed and gets sexy. The stories alone make the feminist in me cringe: the fact that these female characters are defined by the fact that they’ve been jilted or kissed is certainly not helping ballet’s image.
The ballet does have some things going for it. The music (by Duke Ellington) is performed onstage by the David Berger Jazz Orchestra, and the cast is comprised of several of the most natural dancers in the company. Lowery as Blossom, in particular, brings a sweet gawkiness to the otherwise one-note role. Yet overall For the Love of Duke is glossy, slick, and not particularly memorable. Stroman, primarily a choreographer of musical theater, seems overly impressed by the technical skills possessed by ballet dancers: in “Frankie and Johnny…and Rose,” double fouette turns, high leg extensions, and splits proliferate.
The world of Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH, also performed on Friday, is far more subtly rendered—and it is indeed a world, if lightly limned. In this ballet set to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major, two fast-paced comedic movements bracket a slow adagio. The adagio, a remarkable piece of choreography in its own right, begins with three couples, dressed in rusty orange. Unlike Stroman’s “real live characters,” these dancers are people, each with singular movements: one woman bends over at the waist—perhaps fatigued?—while another, on her side, places all her weight on a single arm; a man drops to the floor and gestures beseechingly with his hand.
Yet while these dancers retain their individuality, Ratmansky manages to make their movements seem of a piece. It is this communal energy that drives the piece. When Wendy Whelan and Tyler Angle enter and dance their fine pas de deux, one of the three couples remains onstage to watch; and, as the music develops, all six dancers return and work bits of these new steps into their own movements—their own lives. At one point, Whelan and Angle repeat a phrase, and just when we begin to imagine that we know what will happen next, the three couples behind them take over the expected movement: the women swivel around and unfurl their legs while Whelan and Angle’s steps become suddenly more contained. In another moment, Angle lifts Whelan in a split, and this movement reverberates, a millisecond later, as one of the orange-clad couples echoes it.
This sort of layering of previous choreographic motifs binds the dancers to one another; it also ties together the three movements of DSCH. In the first and third sections, an indefatigably buoyant trio in blue (danced by Ashley Bouder, Joaquin De Luz, and Andrew Veyette) competitively build upon each other’s steps with glee, just as Ratmansky plays with repetition and timing. In the final movement, for example, Veyette supports Bouder in slow leaps across the stage; De Luz, at first taken aback (when did they get together?), soon begins his own set of jetes, moving twice as quickly to catch up. Throughout the piece, dancers jump in wide parallel positions, which can alternately seem grasping or matter-of-fact, can turn from a vaguely militaristic movement to giddy anticipation.
Polyphonia is one of Christopher Wheeldon’s early pieces (it was the first work he created as NYCB’s resident choreographer). Set to piano pieces by Ligeti, it is visually appealing and musically astute. The opening section, with quick, running notes, features four couples dressed in purple leotards and unitards. There is a jumble of movement, here. As the steps of the eight dancers intersect and diverge, shadows of their movements emerge behind them: cacophony made visual.
From here, the piece splits into variations for smaller groups of dancers. These appeared less polished on Friday evening than they did last Wednesday: many of the eight dancers in this cast are new to the piece this season, and perhaps need more time with it to make it their own. Maria Kowrowski, dancing the part originated by Wendy Whelan, lacked Whelan’s clarity and intent: because of this, where Whelan’s movements in the adagio sections are lucid and purposeful, Kowrowski often seemed a doll in her partner’s hands. Similarly, a waltz danced with thrilling nuance on Wednesday by Tiler Peck and Andrew Veyette seemed far more traditional when danced by Jennie Somogyi and Christian Tworzyanski. Corps de ballet members Brittany Pollack and Taylor Stanley, however, injected some life into the ballet during their energetic pas de deux: Stanley allows his upper body to move with wonderful abandon, and both dancers attack the choreography with crisp musicality. And Lauren Lovette, also from the corps, has made a promising, if sometimes too tentative, start on her solo career.