Double Feature

The New York City Ballet on Sunday, May 27.

I think it must be almost impossible to see silent movies—really see them—as they must have been seen back in the nineteen teens and twenties. To my own jaded eyes, the air of camp hangs over almost every film, in the hyperstylized acting or the ridiculously melodramatic scenarios or the hopelessly stilted intertitles. That’s not fair, and I’m sure it keeps me from truly appreciating any number of great works, but it is what it is. The conventions of cinema have changed so much since the silent era that it’s hard to go back.

People try, though. Martin Scorsese’s movie Hugo is nothing if not an earnest love letter to the work of visionary silent-film director Georges Méliès, and Hugo is surprisingly effective at bridging the gap between modern sensibilities and Méliès’s luminously imaginative aesthetic. Choreographer Susan Stroman isn’t as ambitious as Scorsese, but I wonder if she had a similar motivation in creating Double Feature, two short ballets inspired by silent films. It definitely is an interesting idea, as ballet, too, relies on exaggerated acting and simple, elemental story lines. But while Scorsese works to banish the kitsch that has gathered around silent films, Stroman giddily embraces it—in a way that feels a bit condescending, to both the movies and her own audience. To be sure, Double Feature is cute and funny, with a few especially great scenes, but it’s also rather shallow and flighty. There are worse things, of course, but I can’t help wondering if this merely good ballet had had the potential, with higher aim, to be great.

The first of the two shorts, “The Blue Necklace,” is an unabashedly dated melodrama in which a “wronged chorus girl” feels forced to abandon her illegitimate baby girl but then, years later, tearfully reunites with her daughter. By that time, the mother, Dorothy, is a famous, wealthy dancer and the daughter, Mabel, a beleaguered, little-loved foster child, so the whole thing has a warped Cinderella quality, with the titular blue necklace standing in for the glass slipper and a parent replacing the prince—though mom has a handsome young man on hand to serve as cavalier. Honestly, it’s a bit odd, and the condescending moralizing of the intertitles bemoaning the fate of a “fallen woman” got on my nerves. But Maria Kowroski gives Dorothy a trembling sort of dignity—her agonized good-bye dance to her baby is affecting—and young Callie Reiff is remarkably compelling as the child Mabel. Stroman gives her a spunky, light-footed little dance, and she makes the most of it.

The best part of “The Blue Necklace,” though, is the end, in which Mabel’s cruel foster mother crashes a society party, learns of Mabel’s true parentage, and tries to convince poor Dorothy that her own daughter, Florence, is Dorothy’s long-lost child. Dorothy is briefly fooled—after all, Florence has taken the blue glass necklace that Dorothy left with her baby girl—but truth will out, for Florence is awkward and ungainly, and Mabel has inherited her mother’s natural grace. The insistence on the absolute primacy of nature over nurture (complete with a biblical Proverb in the intertitles!) is weird, but the choreography to back it up is marvelously vivid. “Clumsy” dances for characters who are supposed to be too inept or drunk or exhausted to dance properly are a particular fascination of mine—I love their paradoxically graceless grace—and the grown-up Florence’s is a fun example. Ballerina Megan Fairchild is hilariously game, somehow making a full split look oafish and allowing the cavalier (her brother, Robert Fairchild) to drag her through a series of gawky poses, never letting her oblivious grin slip. Meanwhile, Sterling Hyltin, playing grown-up Mabel, mimics Kowroski’s poise with elegant subtlety, making Mabel’s dance with the cavalier a joyously expressive display of seemingly effortless extension and flexibility.

I appreciated the memorable “Blue Necklace” pas de deux all the more during the second half of Double Feature, the silly, slapsticky “Makin’ Whoopee!,” which retells the plot of an old Buster Keaton movie in which a commitment-phobic man has to get married by the end of the day to receive a large, much-needed inheritance. Stroman’s theatrical roots are on ample display here, with lots of cutesy mimed touches and stock characters. Joaquin de Luz is charmingly boyish and, well, Keaton-esque in the lead role, but the character’s haplessness gets tiresome after a while, especially after he ends up being chased by a crowd of rabid women in bridal gowns—that might be a mildly amusing riff on the traditional ballet corps, but it gets awfully old as a sight gag (running from stage left! running from stage right! back again from stage left! and from stage right! repeat, repeat!).

I suppose the beauty of the dancing redeems “Necklace” somewhat, raising it above inane histrionics to something movingly sentimental. “Whoopee!,” by contrast, feels like little more than silent-movie kitsch. The talent on display—both the dancers’ and the choreographer’s—is impressive, but it’s not put to much use. I might not know quite what to do with silent movies, but I suspect there’s more to them than this.