Double Feature

Double features and the silent movie era were a thing of the past long before I started going to movies, but as a student of the arts, I always find it to be such a treat when an anachronistic piece comes my way. And it was a treat, indeed, to watch Susan Stroman’s Double Feature at City Ballet.

This double feature consists of The Blue Necklace and Makin’ Whoopee! The former uses a selection of Irving Berlin songs while the latter is set to tunes from Walter Donaldson. (Stroman and Glen Kelly are credited with the libretto for both.) I never would have thought of it, but ballet lends itself to silent film because both mediums are forms of silent storytelling. (This seems so obvious – I don’t know what I never made this connection.) In both pieces, Ms. Stroman (Forthe Love of Duke, The Scottsboro Boys) succeeds in melding these two art forms, creating theatrical, engaging and wonderfully danced narrative ballets.

First up is The Blue Necklace. Here we follow the story of dancer Dorothy Brooks (Maria Kowroski), who was forced to give up her daughter for the sake of her career. Leaving her daughter Mabel on the steps of a church, Dorothy fastens her blue necklace to Mabel as a keepsake (and, optimistically, as a talisman of Mabel’s identity). Just after Dorothy leaves her daughter, Mr. Griffith arrives to leave his daughter; he has second thoughts and takes back not only his daughter, Florence, but also baby Mabel. Mrs. Griffith (Savannah Lowery) isn’t too happy, and once Mr. Griffith passes away, Mrs. Griffith treats Mabel more like a servant than a daughter. As she grows up, Mabel (Ashley Bouder) dreams of dancing with matinee idol Billy Randolph (Tyler Angle), and her dreams and a case of mistaken identity all come to a head at a gala hosted by Dorothy.

It’s all very soap opera-y, but then again, so were most silent films. The stakes and emotions need to be so high so as to make mere words insufficient. The only way to properly let the emotion out is through dance.

And what wonderful dancing it is. Adorned in multi-Tony Award-winner William Ivey Long’s beautiful, flowing costumes, Maria Kowroski was graceful as ever. Savannah Lowery (a company soloist) impressed not just with her dancing skills but also her acting. Her portrayal of Mrs. Griffith brought to mind William Thackeray’s Becky Sharp (brought to life on screen in Vanity Fair by Reese Witherspoon): conniving and opportunistic.

As the matinee idol, Tyler Angle was charming and delightful, bringing plenty of funny in a pas de deux with Megan Fairchild (playing Florence, a snotty, entitled teenager; a goth looking Fairchild is a hoot!). But the bulk of the work is done by the two dancers portraying Mabel.

Appearing as Young Mabel is School of American Ballet student Callie Reiff. Keep an eye on this youngster – she’s headed for greatness. Reiff executed Stroman’s signature kicks with expert skill and panache. Dancing around while cleaning the house, Young Mabel goes behind the couch and in a seamless transition comes out as a fully grown young lady.

When I first read the casting and saw that Ashley Bouder was dancing the part of Mabel, I was disappointed because I had never cared for her. (I’ve always found her to be technically good, but with a lackluster on-stage personality.) My opinion changed, however, as she glided across the stage. This is the most present I’ve ever seen her, and I thrilled over her stunning, whimsical dancing.

What struck me the most about The Blue Necklace, though, (***spoiler alert***) was the closing pas de deux between Kowroski and Bouder – two women. I feel like we don’t normally see pas de deux between women (do I have a mental block?), and this was especially emotional. It was a lovely way to end the ballet, seeing the mother and daughter reunite and bond over their passion for dance.

Making up the second part of the double feature is Makin’ Whoopee! Based on the Buster Keaton silent film Seven Chances, Makin’ Whoopee! tells the story of Jimmie Shannon (Joaquin de Luz), who, on the day of his 27th birthday learns he stands to inherit seven million dollars from his dearly departed uncle if he marries by 7pm that night. It’s a wonderfully farcical ballet that even includes a gaggle of male dancers clad in wedding dresses while racing after the would-be groom.

There isn’t nearly as much dancing in Makin’ Whoopee! as there is in The Blue Necklace, making it more like a typical narrative ballet, but what it lacks in balletic movement it makes up for in cute sight gags and whimsy. Plus, tonally it offers a nice balance to The Blue Necklace, which, though it has dashes of humor, is certainly the more serious of the two.

Portraying Jimmie’s sidekicks and business partners, Amar Ramasar and Andrew Veyette were charming as well-intentioned schemers, though their personalities nearly upstaged leading man Joaquin de Luz. Making his debut in the role, de Luz was game for the comedy (and did a fine job working with Nigel the Terrier, the canine companion of his main love interest, Anne Windsor (Tiler Peck, sensational, as always)), but I wished he actually looked like he was having fun – this is a farce, after all. Still, this silly and fluffy ballet complements The Blue Necklace, and the two serve as a nice change of pace for frequent ballet goers and a great introduction to ballet neophytes.

New York City Ballet’s 2011-2012 season continues through June. To learn more and to purchase tickets, visit