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That Swing Thing

Down in Lincoln Center's smallest theater, Broadway's slinkiest choreographer works out her thirties thing with a little help from Benny Goodman, Stephane Grappelli, and a lissome star poised to make everyone jump, jive, and wail.

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Susan Stroman and the thirties were made for each other -- you knew this the first time you saw her funny-elegant dances in the Gershwin musical Crazy for You and her poignant-tough dances for the marathon-dancing era Steel Pier, shows that put a contemporary stamp on vintage material. Stroman stepped out of the chorus line to create work that folds Tommy Tune's giddy-making inventiveness into Michael Bennett's seamless, eroticized vision of the whole Broadway-musical deal. In Contact (her collaboration at the Mitzi E. Newhouse with playwright John Weidman and the main event in their three-part show of the same name), a successful but suicidal adman played by gangly Boyd Gaines stumbles into a mysterious SoHo pool hall by day turned swing dance club by night. Like everyone there, not to mention everyone in the audience, he is soon in thrall to a dancer in a yellow dress played by Deborah Yates. And for good reason: She has those fatal looks, as Cole Porter put it, that make book censors enjoy their books. "I was in a room filled with 25 other dancers and I couldn't take my eyes off her," Stroman recalls of the ex-Rockette's first audition. "No one could. She's almost ethereal -- she has a very beautiful way of moving that's effortless." When Gaines and Yates finally connect, you may find yourself thinking of the jitterbug contest in It's a Wonderful Life. "I was in an underground swing club in the meatpacking district," Stroman remembers, "and there was a woman in a yellow dress, and she kept backing away from the men who approached her. I thought, She's going to change some man's life tonight." If Contact -- whose score rivals that of any Nora Ephron movie -- seems airborne in the love of swing, it's also pure nineties: That Capra echo is infused with a strong dose of Ambrose Bierce; it has bite, not to mention raging sex appeal. "The thing about Deb," Stroman says of her irresistible muse, "is that's she's also a great actress. She really understands the short story."


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