For the Love of Duke is a ballet which combines Blossom Got Kissed with a new piece, Frankie and Johnny...and Rose. After the success of Blossom Got Kissed, Peter Martins wanted to keep it in the company’s repertoire and asked if I could create a companion piece to make a full act. I thought I would continue with Duke Ellington’s music so the new dance would feel consistent with the sound and energy of Blossom. I have always been attracted to Ellington's sense of musical drama. The combination of his melodies, rhythms, variety, and sophistication made him one of our greatest American composers.
Once more the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra would be onstage, conducted by David Berger. I chose several songs that really spoke to me and made me want to dance – the lyrical standard "Love You Madly", a graceful ballad titled "Single Petal of a Rose," and the jazz-hot “Such Sweet Thunder”. Then I came upon Ellington's spirited arrangement of the old song "Frankie and Johnny” which inspired me to create my own story of Frankie and Johnny, but with three people instead of two. The ballet begins with Johnny (Amar Ramasar) and Rose (Tiler Peck) as lovers in the middle of a sensual pas de deux when, to Johnny’s surprise, the tantalizing Frankie (Sara Mearns) comes home. And from there, comedy ensues.
I enjoy watching ballet dancers leap beyond their comfort zones and stretch their skills by creating specific characters, particularly in the field of comedy. To prepare the dancers for Frankie and Johnny...and Rose, I told them the story and gave them a CD of the music so they could immerse themselves in the distinctive Ellington sound.
There’s a bench onstage for Blossom Got Kissed, so I kept the same bench for this ballet, and it gave me interesting opportunities for stage pictures. When Frankie enters, Johnny rolls Rose under the bench and dances a dynamic jazz swing pas de deux with Frankie, all the while continuing to hide Rose under the bench. Rose is finally discovered and surprisingly the two women team up to give Johnny his comeuppance.
I loved watching Tiler Peck and Sara Mearns dance side by side. They each possess a power — a mix of keen musicality and radiant presence — that crosses the footlights.
After Tiler and Sara exit, Amar dances Johnny’s Lament. I used Ellington’s classic swing standard “Don't Get Around Much Anymore”. The jazz rhythm combined with Amar’s athletic suave dancing and masterful ballet technique was thrilling. It was riveting to watch Amar dance alone onstage to Ellington’s incredible tune.
And just as Johnny finishes his lament and we think he’s truly sorry for his indiscretions, a third girl pops up from under the bench – she’s been there the whole time! The audience was delighted to see the magnetic Lauren Lovette magically appear. Lauren danced a solo to “Sunset and the Mockingbird” with terrific spirit. This was Lauren’s first year with the company and I noticed her immediately – I knew she was special.
Blossom Got Kissed follows Frankie and Johnny...and Rose and I used Lauren to connect the two pieces. We hear the vamp into “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and she invites Blossom’s dancers onstage. Just as she’s about to join in, Johnny reenters and off she goes with him.
Tiler Peck, Amar Ramasar, and Sara Mearns are commanding performers. Their flirtatious and charming storytelling talents made this ballet come to life with humor and sophistication. And Lauren Lovette had the perfect aura of innocence for a sparkling finish.
It is wonderful for a theater-animal like myself to have the opportunity to live – even momentarily – in a world where dance is the star. The dancers at New York City Ballet get stronger every season. I believe it’s because they are exposed to so many different choreographers in addition to their Balanchine and Robbins training. These dancers learn to infuse their own individual style with information from other dance forms and techniques. I always feel quite blessed to choreograph on these remarkable dancers. They gave me everything they had. As Duke Ellington said:
MAKES NO DIFFERENCE IF IT’S SWEET OR HOT
GIVE THAT RHYTHM EVERYTHING YOU’VE GOT
I think even The Duke would have been pleased.