Not since 1967 has New York City Ballet offered the world premiere of an original full-length ballet, and that one was very much an inside job: George Balanchine's Jewels.
Now, nearly four decades later, another original full-length ballet hovers at the center of the Company's Balanchine Centennial Celebration, and this time it's from Broadway choreographer Susan Stroman, who has created a two-act ballet called Double Feature to honor Balanchine's Broadway heritage. And except for the ballerinas being on point and the danseurs wearing tights, Ms. Stroman's story-driven ballet is a 180-degree departure from the master's abstract, classical signature piece.
Peter Martins could have expected nothing less when he gave the commission to the director-choreographer of Contact, The Producers, and Thou Shalt Not. (Her choreographic duties on 1992's Crazy for You inspired him to give Ms. Stroman her first NYCB commission, Blossom Got Kissed, in 1999.)
"I asked Susan to make a ballet to represent Balanchine's Broadway history," NYCB's Ballet Master in Chief says of Double Feature. "In the thirties Balanchine was 'Mr. Broadway,' as was Jerome Robbins later on. Today, Susan is definitely 'Ms. Broadway,' so it seemed perfect to have her here this year to honor Mr. B.'s legacy as a Broadway pioneer."
Like Balanchine, Ms. Stroman is known for her remarkable ability to tell a story clearly and creatively. For her newest project, she chose to set two different stories in one unusual but compelling setting. "The ballet is an homage to silent films," Ms. Stroman says. The melodramatic first act, "The Blue Necklace," details the travails of a young woman forced to leave her foundling baby on the church steps. The slapstick second act, "Makin' Whoopee!," follows a millionaire-to-be groom in his search for a bride. The score for the ballet is an original orchestration by Doug Besterman of classic songs by Irving Berlin for the first act and Walter Donaldson for the second.
Ms. Stroman had considered doing a modern-day version of Coppélia or some other classical ballet. "But then I realized it would be like a silent film," she says. Suddenly, the oil-and-water combo of the two mediums melded perfectly. "Ballet is like silent movies in that they both tell stories without words," she says. And with that thought as inspiration, Ms. Stroman and her frequent collaborator, music-arranger Glen Kelly, set out to create a silent-movie libretto circa 2004.
If Balanchine didn't work on silent movies, he came close. His first reported film credit was the 1929 talkie Dark Red Roses, made in England and, unfortunately, lost. His American contributions have proven more lasting. In 1935, Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein established the American Ballet and presented a season at a Broadway house, the Adelphi Theater, which featured five new ballets by Balanchine. The following year, he became the first ballet choreographer whom Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart invited to work on Broadway. Right out of the chute, the three men collaborated on a winner, On Your Toes, with Balanchine creating the now-legendary "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" ballet. Over the years, he choreographed 16 other musicals, including Babes in Arms and Where's Charley?, and he even directed a couple of them (Cabin in the Sky and What's Up).
Appropriately enough, it was through Balanchine's Broadway legacy that Ms. Stroman was introduced to the choreographer's work. "I saw the 1983 revival of On Your Toes with Natalia Makarova, and there is that step in 'Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,'" Ms. Stroman remembers. "The man leans her back, the woman kicks in the air, and then he drags her across the stage in a long backbend.
"It is quite an achievement for a theater choreographer to create a step that goes into history," she says. "That's when I realized that Balanchine was a man to admire and follow."
Rehearsing "Makin' Whoopee!," the choreographer wears her signature black ensemble, with the blond ponytail stuffed under a baseball cap. She tells one dancer, "I have to have the realization of joy while you pirouette." Fiddling with an air cigar, Ms. Stroman bends her knees and circles the floor to demonstrate another move. "Kind of Groucho," she coaches. When the 30 brides begin to enter the chapel, Ms. Stroman stops the procession. "I need the reaction to your not being the only bride," she says.
Forget about hamstrings: Ms. Stroman is working their eyeballs. "Some of them danced with their eyes half closed," she remarks. Which leads her to an observation about Mikhail Baryshnikov. "He was an animal onstage in Prodigal Son. And his acting was spectacular, and it was through his eyes that he informed the audience about the character," Ms. Stroman says.
Getting her cast members to use their eyes was the easy part. The billy clubs, bouquets, brooms, and newspapers presented the bigger challenge. Even on Broadway, this choreographer is teased about her obsession with giving her dancers some thing to carry. She wouldn't have it any other way. In a street scene for "Double Feature," several different props help delineate the cops from the shopkeepers from the street cleaners.
"When I first handed them their props, they stopped breathing," laughs Ms. Stroman, who is the first to admit that no one's classical training includes executing a grand jeté while holding The New York Times overhead with both hands.
All in all, Ms. Stroman does not consider herself all that far removed from the master. "Balanchine did more classical pieces, but he had the soul of an entertainer," she says, pointing to Who Cares? and Stars and Stripes. "He starts out with one dancer, and then two and three, and then the whole company. The structure entertains the audience."
While Ms. Stroman teaches the ballet dancers how to perform with their eyes, they in turn give her something beyond Broadway.
"When you see Contact or The Producers, what you see is what was in my head," she says. "But here it is different. When I choreograph, they go flying through the air, and because of their technique, everything is magnified a hundred times. It is more than I imagined."
Robert Hofler is the theater reporter for Variety.