Susan Stroman: A Ballet and Broadway Bouquet

Special Features   Susan Stroman: A Ballet and Broadway Bouquet Susan Stroman, the Tony-winning director and choreographer, created a new Duke Ellington-flavored work for New York City Ballet in 1999. Nearly a dozen years later, she premieres the follow-up.

Susan Stroman rehearsing her new work
Susan Stroman rehearsing her new work Photo by Paul Kolnik

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When Stroman was invited to create Blossom Got Kissed, she never dreamed she'd be asked to fashion a companion piece.

"There are no companion pieces on Broadway," she says with a laugh. But if ever a ballet called out for a one-act accompaniment, it’s Blossom Got Kissed, Stroman’s first piece for the Company which was originally created as part of the three-part ballet Duke!, which also featured choreography by Garth Fagan and Robert La Fosse. Called "a perfect balleticized musical in miniature" by The New York Times, Blossom lasts just 14 minutes, and is danced with a full jazz band on stage. Those restrictions made it difficult to perform the piece with any frequency and prompted Peter Martins, NYCB's Ballet Master in Chief, to ask Stroman to create a 15-minute companion. "Of course I said yes," she says.

The result premieres on Jan. 28, when Frankie and Johnny...and Rose joins Blossom Got Kissed as a two-part one-act ballet called For the Love of Duke.

Though Stroman is best known as the director and choreographer of Broadway hits like The Producers, the dance driven Contact, the 2000 revival of The Music Man and, most recently, The Scottsboro Boys, she’s no stranger to NYCB. Double Feature, her effervescent, Broadway-style story ballet depicting two silent films, made its debut in 2004 and was performed most recently in 2008. Still, choreographing a companion to Blossom proved unlike anything Stroman ever attempted. "It was great to have this kind of puzzle," she says. She began by isolating two elements the ballets would share — a love story theme and jazz music. Blossom is a fanciful tale of a ballerina who doesn't have rhythm until she gets kissed. "It's about innocence and sweet love, so I thought what if we did a more adult love story for the new piece?" she says.

Blossom is danced to two Duke Ellington songs — "It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got that Swing" and "Lotus Blossom" (hence the name of the lead character). To create continuity, Stroman once again looked to Ellington's sophisticated jazz. "It makes you move," she says. After selecting the lyrical standard "Love You Madly" and a delicate, little-known ballad called "Single Petal of a Rose," she heard Ellington's rollicking arrangement of the old song "Frankie and Johnny."

"I decided to have my own story of Frankie and Johnny but with three characters," she says. "The ballet begins with Johnny and Rose dancing. And then Frankie comes home. And comedy ensues."

The richness of expression and variation in Ellington's songs allowed Stroman to blend key elements of ballet and Broadway to impart her story. That meant classical pointe work for the women in the lyrical pas de deux danced by Frankie and Johnny and Johnny and Rose as well as synchronized rhythmic ballet when the three characters dance together. The music also inspired Stroman to indulge in moments of choreographic time travel. "The music has a 1930s feel to it, so there are also a few dance steps that recall that era," she says.

On a crisp autumn day, light streams into a NYCB rehearsal studio at the Rose Building at Lincoln Center where Stroman, her suede boots tucked under a chair, stands before the dancers in her black socks and demonstrates an intricate phrase. The rhythmic steps are swift, and at one point the dancers collide. But by the rehearsal's end, the steps have been mastered, and Stroman is smiling. "That's it for today," she says, followed by a blithe curtsy to her dancers.

Stroman, who grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, studied ballet but was always drawn to musicals and theatrical dance. "As a child, my parents took me to movie musicals, and I think it was that idea of being able to sing as well as dance that attracted me to the theatre," she says.

She made her Broadway debut in the ensemble of the musical Whoopee! in 1979 but switched to choreography early in her career, working her way from off Broadway productions to New York City Opera, where she did dance sequences for Don Giovanni. "I loved dancing and still do when I make the dances up," she says. "But for me, the thrill has always been more about making dance that complements the music rather than performing."

In 1992, she choreographed her first Broadway show, Crazy for You and won her first Tony Award for Best Choreography. Among those impressed by Stroman’s dances was Martins, who decided to invite her to choreograph for NYCB

In addition to her work with NYCB, Stroman has created dances for Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Martha Graham Dance Company. The difference between choreographing Broadway musicals and ballets is pronounced, she says. In theater, the choreography must support a lyric and dialogue. "Here it’s all about the music and the dance," she explains. "And that gives me greater freedom to complete what’s necessary to tell the story without all the other elements."

Ballet allows her to put the women on pointe "and play up the romance a lot better," she says. She can also take advantage of the formidable technique professional ballet dancers command. "In my world, we’d have triple pirouettes, but here we pirouette seven, eight, nine times," she says.

Though Stroman choreographed abstract works for PNB and the Graham Company, she has created story ballets for NYCB. She enjoys seeing ballet dancers in character and watching them act. "For me, the idea of having a dancer on pointe and then acting out a real live character looks unique," she says.

She also enjoys watching ballet dancers stretch their talents, particularly in the realms of comedy. To prepare her dancers for Frankie and Johnny...and Rose, she sat them down before rehearsals began, told them the story and walked them through what they'd be doing. She sent them home with CDs of the music. When her dancers arrived at rehearsal the first day, each was in character.

"It's a little bit of my world coming to them and their world coming to me, and I love it when those mediums cross over," she says. "It's exciting."

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For The Love of Duke performances during NYCB’s 2010-2011 Season:

Winter

Jan. 28 at 8 PM
Jan. 30 at 3 PM
Feb. 3 at 8 PM
Feb. 4 at 8 PM
Feb. 5 at 2 PM
Feb. 6 at 3 PM

Spring

May 25 at 7:30 PM
May 28 at 2 PM
May 28 at 8 PM
May 29 at 3 PM

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Terry Trucco writes frequently about the arts and travel.

Susan Stroman rehearsing Sara Mearns, Amar Ramasar and Tiler Peck in <i>Frankie and Johnny...and Rose</i>
Susan Stroman rehearsing Sara Mearns, Amar Ramasar and Tiler Peck in Frankie and Johnny...and Rose Photo by Paul Kolnik
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