From left, New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck, Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar appear in the “Frankie and Johnny ... and Rose” section of Susan Stroman’s “For the Love of Duke.” (photo: Paul Kolnik)
SARATOGA SPRINGS Susan Stroman is a storyteller.
So naturally, when the Broadway director/choreographer was asked by Peter Martins to create a companion piece to her “Blossom Got Kissed” for New York City Ballet, she sought more than artistically compatible dancers and music. Stroman sought characters and a story that could be served by dance.
“For me, it has to be about the story,” said the five-time Tony Award winner whose new work marks her third creation for New York City Ballet. “I thought about the music and then came up with the narrative.”
In the sweet “Blossom Got Kissed,” Stroman tapped the music of Duke Ellington to conceive a tale of a naïve young ballerina who had no rhythm until she was kissed. That 1999 piece is coupled with the new, more racy work, “Frankie and Johnny . . . and Rose.” The love triangle, which took its cue from the old pop song “Frankie and Johnny,” is also swept along by Ellington. Together, the pieces have been dubbed “For the Love of Duke,” as much an ode to romance as to Ellington.
‘For the Love of Duke’
WHAT: Dances choreographed by Susan Stroman for the New York City Ballet
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Route 50 and Avenue of the Pines, Saratoga Springs
HOW MUCH: $110 to $50 on the lawn
MORE INFO: 587-3330 or www.spac.org
The piece premiered during New York City Ballet’s winter season and expanded further in the spring with an additional solo for Lauren Lovette. The ballet will get another chance to bask in the spotlight on Saturday, the night of the ballet’s gala at Saratoga Performing Arts Center. And while it got a mixed reception in New York City, it’s the type of ballet that thrives on the SPAC stage — mainly because Stroman, who made her mark on the Great White Way with such hits as “The Producers,” “Young Frankenstein” and “The Scottsboro Boys,” is a master of all things theatrical, something SPAC audiences devour.
“Stroman is a master of concept and execution,” writes Jerry Hochman in the online ballet-dance magazine. “She creates and crafts entertainments. And her works, though more audience-accessible than some, are no less works of art.”
But arriving at Broadway-style ballet was a stretch for the dancers (Amar Ramasar, Tiler Peck and Sara Mearns), who are not used to exploring motivation. They are trained to dance — confident the steps will tell the tale.
New York City Ballet program schedule
-- 8 p.m. Tuesday, July 5: “Fearful Symmetries” (Martins); “I’m Old Fashioned” (Robbins); “Stars and Stripes” (Balanchine)
-- 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 6: “Serenade” (Balanchine); “Valse-Fantaisie” (Balanchine); “Polyphonia” (Wheeldon); “The Magic Flute” (Martins)
-- 2 p.m. Thursday, July 7: “Square Dance” (Balanchine); “The Magic Flute” (Martins); “Stars and Stripes” (Balanchine)
-- 8 p.m. Thursday, July 7: “Fearful Symmetries” (Martins); “Polyphonia” (Wheeldon); “I’m Old Fashioned” (Robbins)
-- 8 p.m. Friday, July 8: “Serenade” (Balanchine); “Tarantella” (Balanchine); “Square Dance” (Balanchine); “Stars and Stripes” (Balanchine)
-- 2 p.m. Saturday, July 9: “Valse-Fantaisie” (Balanchine); “Square Dance” (Balanchine); “The Magic Flute” (Martins)
-- 8 p.m. Saturday, July 9 Gala: “Plainspoken” (Millepied); “Thou Swell” (Martins); “For the Love of Duke” (Stroman)
-- 8 p.m. Tuesday, July 12: “Circus Polka” (Robbins); “Dances at a Gathering” (Robbins)
-- 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 13: “Jewels” (Balanchine)
-- 2 p.m. Thursday, July 14: “Jewels” (Balanchine)
-- 8 p.m. Thursday, July 14: “Apollo” (Balanchine); “Tarantella” (Balanchine); “Agon” (Balanchine)
-- 8 p.m. Friday, July 15: “Circus Polka” (Robbins); “Dances at a Gathering” (Robbins); “Valse-Fantaisie” (Balanchine); “Agon” (Balanchine)
-- 2 p.m. Saturday, July 16: “Circus Polka” (Robbins); “Apollo” (Balanchine); “Serenade” (Balanchine); “The Magic Flute” (Martins)
-- 8 p.m. Saturday, July 16: “Jewels” (Balanchine)
MORE INFO: 587-3330 or www.spac.org/
“This was new for them,” said Stroman, who is known as Stro. “I ask them to stop and think about a step or what’s behind the choreography; that doesn’t happen in ballet. Where I’m from, musical theater, you have to be motivated to dance.”
Of course, it was less a task for Peck (who dances Frankie), who appeared on Broadway before she was elevated to principal at New York City Ballet. She met Stroman as a cast member of the 2000 revival of “The Music Man.” Peck was just 11.
“When I first saw Tiler, I saw that her technique was stronger than any other dancer. She really stood out,” said Stroman. “I featured her because of her technique. But told her she should head uptown to the School of American Ballet. Then one day I saw another Tiler — a beautiful ballerina taking center stage at Lincoln Center.”
While Stroman has a soft spot for Peck, she adores New York City Ballet dancers as they are, as she puts it, exceptional. She also admires their acting ability. Better yet, she feels liberated by ballet.
“My dancers on Broadway have to sing while they dance,” she said. “I might have to change a step because they can’t hold a high B-flat while doing it. Ballet allows me more freedom. It can be more abstract, not so rooted in reality.”
In recent years, she has been dabbling more in concert dance, creating works for the Martha Graham Dance Company and Pacific Northwest Ballet. Her most beloved ballet is the 2004 “Double Feature,” a full-length work for New York City Ballet. Its two acts, a melodrama and a slapstick comedy, are a salute to silent film.
“I got the idea from a quote from [George] Balanchine,” said Stroman. “He said ballet dancers are the silent minority.”
The piece was a hit, selling out houses at the New York State Theater. And while “Double Feature” would be relished by SPAC audience, the set was too large for its stage. So it never traveled north.
“It comes back next May to the Koch [Theater]. I can’t wait,” said Stroman of “Double Feature. “I’m going to talk to [Ballet Master-in-Chief] Peter [Martins]. Maybe we could modify the set to fit it in Saratoga. I’d love it to go to Saratoga.”
Jazz band to perform
Meanwhile, the SPAC audience will have a chance to savor “For the Love of Duke” — not a difficult task as the ballet features not only Stroman’s tale-telling choreography, but a live jazz band playing such Ellington pieces as “Single Petal of a Rose,” “Love You Madly,” “Such Sweet Thunder” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.”
“I love Ellington,” she said. “I love jazz.”
She also loves New York City Ballet.
“I love the opportunity to work with them,” she said. “The dancers really enjoy dancing the ballet. That excites and enthralls me.”