The list of choreographers equally at home at the ballet barre and on the Broadway stage is not lengthy. Put Jerome Robbins at the top, and George Balanchine just underneath — with an asterisk, since Balanchine gave up working on Broadway once he’d established his own ballet company. Agnes de Mille might qualify too, on a more minor scale. But there are not a lot of other candidates.
It’s not unusual, of course, for established ballet and modern dance choreographers to be invited to work on Broadway, but ongoing success there is rare. And it’s unheard-of for a major ballet company to invite a Broadway choreographer to create a new full-length ballet — indeed, these days, it’s only rarely that established ballet choreographers undertake them.
Susan Stroman’s “Double Feature,” an original, full-length ballet for New York City Ballet — actually the company’s first since Balanchine’s 1967 “Jewels” — is therefore something of an event. The company is celebrating the centenary of Balanchine’s birth this year, and as a tribute to his work in the theater — on more than a dozen shows, including several Rodgers & Hart musicals — it called on Stroman, currently Broadway’s most celebrated choreographer (five Tonys), to do the honors. Stroman’s success with “Contact,” a dance play with minimal dialogue and some balletic touches, made her a natural choice.
“Double Feature,” designed as an affectionate homage to silent movies, is an ambitious undertaking, with two separate scenarios, numerous scene changes, a cast of more than 50 dancers and a score stitched together — ingeniously — from songs by Irving Berlin and Walter Donaldson. It’s a crowd-pleaser, too, with kicking chorus girls, dazzling dancing kiddies and a scene-stealing terrier, believe it or not. It’s been given a stylish, full-scale production, with Stroman’s Broadway collaborators William Ivey Long and Robin Wagner supplying the handsome, mostly black-and-white costumes and sets.
But in the end, ambition outstrips achievement here. Although it has many sequences of charm and theatrical inspiration, and its concept is an appealing one, “Double Feature” strains to fill up two hours — and the expansive State Theater stage. The excessive length tends to underscore Stroman’s limitations as a ballet choreographer and dampen the effect of the production’s bona fide strokes of ingenuity.
The evening is divided into two separate “pictures.” The first, called “The Blue Necklace,” is set to a suite of Berlin songs gorgeously orchestrated by Doug Besterman. It’s a likably hoary Cinderella story about an ambitious young dancer (Maria Kowroski) forced to give up a baby for her career. The girl is adopted by a wicked woman who abuses her (Kyra Nichols, a radiant, pristine dancer cast amusingly against type here), but little Mabel ultimately triumphs — winning the heart of the high-flying heartthrob Billy Randolph at a ball, where she is also reunited with her long-lost mama.
The second half, set to the melodies of Donaldson (including titular tune “Makin’ Whoopee”), is a farce based on a Buster Keaton movie. Tom Gold, a peppery dancer with an expressive face and a light-hearted comic style, plays a fellow whose girl (the winsome Alexandra Ansanelli) just won’t say yes to his frequent proposals. When he learns that he has to get married to inherit a fortune, he and his cronies scour the city for eligible bachelorettes and wind up with a few too many.
To her credit, Stroman has not simply made a Broadway-style extravaganza for a ballet company. She dutifully employs the vocabulary of the classical ballet to tell her tales. But she’s not entirely at home with the tools she’s using. It’s as if a smart, well-educated student is writing an essay in a foreign language: The vocabulary and syntax are all properly employed, but there isn’t much in the way of personal expression going on. The story is told alongside the actual dancing, not through it. (A sign of insecurity: The overuse of intrusive silent-movie style “cards” to elucidate the story.)
That said, there are plenty of pleasurable interludes and funny touches. Perhaps because the stylistic gap between Broadway and ballet dancing isn’t as great for men, the evening’s most inspired choreography is accorded to the guys. Damian Woetzel, a charismatic dancer who plays matinee idol Billy Randolph, has a dazzling solo that is the highlight of “The Blue Necklace.” From the same sequence, a comic pas de deux for Billy and the two-left-footed Florence, little Mabel’s rival, is delightful: a rare and welcome instance in which Stroman freely tweaks and teases the mechanics of classical dance. Although their choreography is not particularly inspired (and flawed by repetition), Kowroski and the spirited young dancer Ashley Bouder (as Mabel) have glittering moments, too.
“Makin’ Whoopee” mostly belongs to Gold, who is adorably hapless as the would-be groom. He has a natural flair for knockabout physical comedy, used to hilarious effect in a series of short scenes that show Jimmie trying to woo himself a bride in Central Park. (Carla Korbes stands out here for her sly vamping and sinewy dancing.) The ballet’s finale, in which little Jimmie is chased hither and yon by a voracious corps of would-be brides in veils and tutus (male and female), is marvelous, both a classic piece of comedy and a witty parody of a ballet blanc.
It would be even more marvelous, however, if it were a bit shorter. The fact is, the ballet would be improved immeasurably by some serious trimming. The scenarios Stroman and Glen Kelly have cooked up are really quite slight, particularly in terms of emotional content — we are not expected to be emotionally engaged by the maudlin melodrama of the first, or the frothy silliness of the second. To stretch them out across two hours places too heavy a burden on them — and on Stroman’s choreography, which, while always musically adept, simply isn’t ample enough to go the distance here. Mr. Balanchine, notorious for rigorously stripping away extraneous material, even from his successful ballets, knew that herein lay a key difference between ballet and Broadway: At the ballet, less really is more.