Lost in Translation

Charge! Tom Gold is Jimmie Shannon in Susan Stroman's Double Feature: Makin' Whoopee!Photo: Paul Kolnik

During the thirties, before he had the resources to establish a permanent ballet company, George Balanchine started accepting gigs on Broadway. By the fifties, he had choreographed some fifteen productions, including On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, and Cabin in the Sky. He also managed to alter the way contributions like his were listed in the program. Traditionally, the credit read “Dances by … ” Balanchine had it changed to “Choreography by … ”

How come? Balanchine never philosophized about his work, but there’s no doubt his sophisticated dances were the first to play an important structural role in musicals. They advanced the story, and were worth watching as art, not just decoration. (Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, the ballet at the heart of On Your Toes, remains in the New York City Ballet’s repertoire.) He helped redefine the musical, and opened borders between high art and popular choreography.

But apart from Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins (and, more recently, Twyla Tharp), few other great choreographers have crossed the divide, and that’s a shame. Ballet and Broadway could do a lot for each other. In this spirit, Peter Martins invited Susan Stroman—the director and choreographer behind a slew of hits including The Producers—to create a new work for the Balanchine-centennial season at City Ballet. As Martins put it, Balanchine was “Mr. Broadway” back in the thirties, and Stroman is “Ms. Broadway” today. Maybe so, but at the premiere I found myself wondering again about the difference between dance-making and choreography.

Stroman’s new work, two ballets linked under the title Double Feature, is a cheerfully cliché-laden tribute to the silent-film era. The Blue Necklace, set to Irving Berlin songs, tells a melodramatic Cinderella tale, and Makin’ Whoopee! is a courtship farce with music by William Donaldson. As the curtain goes up on Necklace, we hear the scratchy noises of an old-time projector, and for a moment a strobe light makes the action onstage bounce around as if it’s out of focus. With the orchestra launching into a giddy rendition of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” it’s an irresistible opener.

But when the strobe went off and the stage came into focus, I found myself thoroughly puzzled. We were gazing at City Ballet dancers dressed as chorus girls—supertitles identified the scene as “Valentine’s Variety Theater”—but their kicking and prancing were so mysteriously nondescript that it was impossible to know how to respond. Was it satire? An homage to old-fashioned showbiz? Were they simply meant to look cute? All the signals that normally emanate from choreography were missing. The dancing itself was fine, but the movement was eerily empty. We might have been staring at racks of costumes being blown about by the wind.

Stroman, I concluded by the end of the evening, just doesn’t do choreography. She likes set-pieces—a wild chase to the altar in Makin’ Whoopee! featured hordes of men and women in bridal gowns—but seems oblivious to everything about movement except its ability to catch the eye. Her dance vocabulary is minuscule, her sense of structure is top-heavy with unison and repetition, and instead of developing her ideas, she hammers them into place. At the climax of the partygoers’ dance in Necklace, we actually see a cluster of women in evening dresses kneeling on the floor and rhythmically waving their arms, while the men leap around them in a circle. Small-town ballet schools used to do this stuff on recital day.

The dancers bring glamour and good humor to these skimpy assignments, and there was a terrific surprise performance by Tara Sorine, a student at the School of American Ballet, who played the Cinderella character as a young girl. But if Mr. Broadway was watching from an aisle seat up yonder, he must have been rolling his eyes.

Lost in Translation