Peter Martins, the Artistic Director of the New York City Ballet, asked me to create a full-length ballet as part of the Company’s Balanchine Centennial Celebration. He gave me no guidelines or restrictions as to what I could create – it was a blank slate and it was mine. Peter wanted his dancers to experience different forms of dance with various choreographers. He regaled me with the history of Balanchine, how he created dances for Broadway shows such as On Your Toes and Babes In Arms. Peter felt my work would fit in perfectly with the celebration of Balanchine’s legacy.
I knew this was an important opportunity – not only would I be crafting a piece using 60 of the world’s most talented dancers, but I would also be the first woman commissioned to create a full-length ballet for the New York City Ballet.
I wanted to create something celebratory that also had a true narrative. I wanted to give these remarkable dancers the chance to act, to add human characterization and story to their extraordinary technique.
Balanchine once said of the company: ''We are a silent minority. We only dance.'' This line was an inspiration. Ballet and silent movies have a genuine affinity. I have always loved that era of cinema and regarded stars like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin as real dancers -- Rudolf Nureyev was quoted as saying, “Chaplin was the greatest dancer in the world.”
I began collaborating with the brilliant dance arranger Glen Kelly. A tribute to silent films seemed like a natural idea. It would be like bringing Broadway sensibilities to the ballet, but the dancers do not speak or sing – dance remains the star. We decided the evening would have two stories, a comedy and a melodrama – just like the double features of old.
Double Feature is a full-length ballet comprising two short stories. The first act is The Blue Necklace– a classic melodrama with music by Irving Berlin featuring songs like “Always”, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, “No Strings”, and “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing.” The second act is Makin’ Whoopee -- a raucous comedy with music by Walter Donaldson featuring songs like “My Buddy”, “My Baby Just Cares For Me”, “Makin’ Whoopee”, and “Love Me Or Leave Me”.
Not only is Glen Kelly one of the greatest dance arrangers I have ever had the pleasure of working with, he is also one of the smartest and funniest people I have ever met. For him, creating a ballet with the music of Berlin and Donaldson was a dream. He tapped into his vast knowledge of musical history and brought an epic sweep and scope to these American standards. We worked on the libretto together, using the familiar melodies of these standards to propel the stories.
The plots of both stories took a nod to the genre. The melodrama, The Blue Necklace, is a Cinderella story with a plot that revolves around a movie star, an abandoned baby, and the eventual mother and child reunion. The piece was danced exquisitely by Maria Kowroski, Kyra Nichols, Damian Woetzel, Ashley Bouder, and Megan Fairchild. They were an inspiration to have in the rehearsal room, bringing power and poignancy to their roles. Damien Woetzel in particular was splendidly collaborative. He brought excitement and respect into the room. We fed off of each other’s creative process. Kyra Nichols’ musicality was extraordinary and pushed me further to create new musical phrases.
The comedy, Makin’ Whoopee, is based on the play Seven Chances about a man named Jimmy who must get married by seven o'clock on his birthday in order to inherit seven million dollars. Jimmy courts a variety of women to disastrous and hilarious effect. It starred Tom Gold, Alexandra Ansanelli, Albert Evans, Arch Higgins, and Seth Orza.
The first time I saw Tom Gold, I knew I wanted to create a piece for him. He was a balletic Buster Keaton and he absolutely stole the show. He was funny, lyrical, virtuosic – and filled with the spirit of a Vaudevillian. He was even game to share the stage with a black and white Boston Terrier named Pi.
Every good comic silent movie ends in a chase scene, and the ending of this piece was a true tour de force with sixty brides (men and women) chasing Tom back and forth across the stage. Tom was a willingly collaborative creative partner—I could not wait to dance with him. He has an innate fearlessness that is rare in a ballet dancer. Again, the impressive technique of New York City Ballet’s dancers heightened this hybrid of an art form and the audience ate it up.
The set designer Robin Wagner’s sparse set was stunning with hues of black and white. Robin added title card projections, just like the kind used in the silent movies to help guide the audience. The costumes by William Ivey Long were fashioned in hues of black, white, and grey, with small splashes of purple and blue to give them the convincing look of a black and white film. To help set the stage, lighting designer Mark Stanley added a flickering projector light at the top of the show that was accompanied by a film projector’s hum added by sound designer Abe Jacob.
The treat of having 70 musicians in the pit thrilled me to no end. The most musicians we ever had in a Broadway pit was 24. Doug Besterman and Danny Trube’s brilliant orchestrations created a sensation of movement that heightened the drama and the comedy.
Working on Double Feature was fulfilling for me because the star of the evening was dance. Creating it satisfied me musically down to the depths of my being. The cast was outstanding. New York City Ballet’s dancers can jump higher and stay in the air longer and sustain positions more powerfully than I could ever imagine. It is true — “Everything is beautiful at the ballet!”
Music by Irving Berlin and Walter Donaldson
Choreography by Susan Stroman
Set Design by Robin Wagner
Costume Design by William Ivey Long
Lighting Design by Mark Stanley
Sound Design by Abe Jacob
New York City Ballet
Premiere: January 23, 2004
Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik
Full Credits: NYCB