City Ballet: Slaughter, For the Love of Duke and the West Side Suite

Saturday night marked City Ballet’s Tribute to Broadway, with a program featuring Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, For the Love of Duke and the West Side Story Suite. (It also marked Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins’s momentary return to the stage.) It was a gloriously fun night of dance (and a perfect introduction to ballet for the pointe-shy) that celebrated the wonderful theatrical possibilities of dance and the choreographic wonders that can be found on Broadway stages.

We begin with Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, a Balanchine ballet. I had seen this before and knew it would be entertaining. Indeed, it was. Slaughter is ever so slightly tap heavy and so made me long for Anything Goes. (In fact, throughout the night, I would be longing for either great dance shows currently on the boards or just your traditional Broadway musical, replete with big dance breaks and a full orchestra backing them up.)

According to the repertory notes, “the original Slaughter on Tenth Avenue was created for the 1936 Rodgers and Hart musical On Your Toes. … [It was] the first full-scale ballet within a musical, and…also introduced the word ‘choreography’ to Broadway.” A show within a show (hello, classic musical theatre device!), in Slaughter, a hoofer (Andrew Veyette) falls in love with a stripper (Sara Mearns) at the nightclub in which they both work. Disapproving of the romance, the Big Boss (on Saturday night this role was played by Martins!) aims to shoot the hoofer but misses and instead shoots his star stripper. After a moment of grief, the hoofer begins performing and is handed a note by the stripper’s “corpse,” warning him that there’s a thug in the audience who intends to shoot the hoofer once he stops dancing and the applause kicks in. Wanting to avoid being shot (naturally), the hoofer continues dancing, doing encore after encore, until the cops arrive. (I know this probably sounds borderline macabre, but it’s all done with pizzazz and levity and is incredibly light hearted.)

At first, I wasn’t sure I liked Sara Mearns’s performance. When we first meet the stripper, she’s “on the clock” and dancing for the patrons. Her hair is severely pulled back and she’s wearing a ballerina pink costume. Mearns seemed unenthused. But then it was after hours and Mearns reappeared, this time with Veyette’s hoofer; her formerly pinned up hair had been let loose and she was clad in a sultry black number. It was then that it became clear that her earlier boredom was a character choice because when she and Veyette danced as lovers, they were on fire.

They held on tight to one another and flew across the stage, twirling and whirling about, carefree and in love. There was palpable heat emanating from the pair as they danced a jazzier and sometimes tap-happy pas de deux. Once it was the hoofer’s turn to shine, Veyette did, proving that a dancer is a dancer is a dancer, no matter the style. Veyette seemed able to hoof as well as he jetes, and here and throughout the evening it was fun to watch City Ballet dancers forego the classical ballet style and engage in more modern dance with the same expert technique.

My only two complaints about the performance of Slaughter on Saturday night are technical: (1) The follow spots were too numerous, leading to fuzzy lighting; and (2) the floor microphones needed to either be turned on at all or turned up so we could really hear the tapping. (For me, part of the fun of watching tap is hearing it.) Those two notes aside, Slaughter was a great opening for the Tribute to Broadway night.

The next piece was For the Love of Duke, which was new for me. And it’s mostly new for City Ballet. In its entirety, For the Love of Duke, choreographed by Tony winning director/choreographer Susan Stroman (The Producers; she’s Tony-nominated this year for The Scottsboro Boys) premiered this past winter. The final section of the piece, “Blossom Got Kissed,” premiered at City Ballet in 1999.

The story goes that City Ballet loved “Blossom Got Kissed,” but it is a brief piece; and, set to Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (if it Ain’t Got that Swing),” it requires a jazz ensemble. This made it difficult to produce on a regular repertoire night. So, Peter Martins approached Stroman about creating a companion piece. Stroman went back to Duke’s music and created three additional sections, “Frankie and Johnny…and Rose;” “Sunset;” and “Johnny’s Lament,” which, when combined with “Blossom Got Kissed,” make for a full (and fantastic) consummate ballet.

“Frankie and Johnny…and Rose” is set to “The Single Petal of a Rose,” “Love You Madly,” “Such Sweet Thunder” and “Frankie and Johnny.” First we meet Johnny (Amar Ramasar) and Rose (Tiler Peck), who engage in a pretty, sweet pas de deux. The music has a great slow burn, and the beautiful dancing tells us that Johnny and Rose are lovers.

But then Frankie (Sara Mearns) appears. Uh oh! Johnny is about to be caught! Never fear – he’ll dance his way out of it. The music picks up now; we’re really getting into that great jazz swing. The movements have more flair, more character. Johnny dances with Frankie while trying to hide Rose. Rose is discovered and the two ladies give him what for, en pointe, of course. It was here that Peck’s sultry, black swan side came out. She looked sensational up there, strutting in a beautiful William Ivey Long costume, cut just so to make her look like a rose.

When Frankie and Rose finally leave Johnny, we discover the player has a third lady waiting in the wings. And thus we transition to “Sunset,” set to Duke’s “Sunset and the Mockingbird.” Here, Laruen Lovette dances alone on stage. This piece was, for my taste, the least interesting, with nothing particularly notable, just something pretty to look at before more fun took over.

The third vignette is “Johnny’s Lament” and it is set to “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” Here, Ramasar’s Johnny danced alone on stage to Duke’s great jazz tune. He looked like what I imagine some suave, sophisticated guy might be doing while getting ready to go out on the town. Dancing around the apartment with a jazz record playing, maybe a highball to get him going… But I digress. Ramasar was sexy and commanding here, clearly relishing both the music and the moves. This was the first time I feel like I got a glimpse at Ramasar’s personality. He’s always struck me as a skilled dancer, but his charisma shone here.

Finally, it was Blossom’s turn. Set to “It Don’t Mean a Thing (if it Ain’t Got that Swing)” and “Lotus Blossom,” “Blossom Got Kissed” is a great, fun, sexy and sophisticated jazz ensemble number, with featured moments for Blossom (Savannah Lowery) and the Musician (Robert Fairchild). (Guess who was ├╝ber excited about watching Fairchild dance!)

“Blossom Got Kissed” begins with Blossom trying to keep up with the eight or so pairs of dancers in the “club.” She, apparently, doesn’t got rhythm. The Musician (clad in an impossibly dapper and perfectly fitted suit) has been sitting in with the jazz ensemble (guest artists the David Berger Jazz Orchestra – spectacular) all the while, every now and then playing a note on the triangle, and takes a shine to her, getting up to teach her a lesson.

Dear readers, it’s like Susan Stroman knew about my fantasy to have Robbie Fairchild treat me to an impromptu dance lesson. Watching him “teach” Blossom to dance was such fun; the Musician took care to start with some basic ballet steps and then kicked it up to a full jazz swing. Finally, Blossom gets it and she and the Musician join the ensemble of dancers for the swingin’est thing I’ve ever seen on stage. (It was here, when Fairchild was locked in arms with the ensemble that I thought of the equally appealing Aaron Tveit during the “Jet Set” number in Catch Me if You Can. I told you I was thinking of Broadway all through the night!) Even as part of the ensemble, though, I could not take my eyes off of Fairchild. I dare you to try.

The whole ballet, which perfectly melded technique with a sultry personal flair, made me want to get in my Delorean, head back the 30s or 40s, put on red lipstick and seamed stockings and make good use of my dancing shoes. It was a scintillating good time, with bravura performances from all.

Closing the evening was a perennial favorite, the West Side Story Suite. I’ve already written at length about my affinity for this piece (and about how much better it is than the horrid revival from 2009). So for now, I’ll note that it was terrific as usual, although Chase Finlay (who was dancing the role of Tony in place of the previously announced Fairchild) looked a little too young and fragile to be playing Tony. Instead of looking like a street kid, the blond haired dancer looked like Zack Morris. Not quite the right look.

But that was of little consequence. When you have Leonard Bernstein’s music played by an expert orchestra; Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics sung by gifted guest singers (Rob Lorey; Lara Marie Hirner; Jane Brockman; Julie Price; and Whitney Webster); and that explosive Jerome Robbins choreography danced by the New York City Ballet, it’s a beautiful thing.

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