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American Romance

Justin Peck’s new ballet, “Copland Dance Episodes,” is a project Lincoln Kirstein would have embraced. Seventy-five minutes of great, unmistakably American music for a ballet company that in many ways reflects the country; with choreography by a young American dancemaker; framed by stage designs by an artist (Jeffrey Gibson) whose inspiration lies in the symbols and patterns of his Choctaw-Cherokee culture. Creating a new American ballet idiom was the aim of Kirstein’s short-lived company Ballet Caravan, which toured the US and Latin America. And it was Kirstein who, in 1938, commissioned “Billy the Kid” from Aaron Copland, and asked the dancer and choreographer Eugene Loring to choreograph it for Dance Caravan.


New York City Ballet: “Copland Dance Episodes” by Justin Peck


David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, January 29 and Feb. 3


Marina Harss

Foreground from left: Sebastian Villarini-Velez, KJ Takahashi and Cainan Weber and company in “Copland Dance Episodes” by Justin Peck. Photograph by Erin Baiano

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That score is one of three that Peck has used for his “Copland Dance Episodes,” the other two being “Rodeo” and “Appalachian Spring.” The ballet opens with “Fanfare for the Common Man,” a composition for drums and brass that brings to mind giant sporting events, space shuttle launches, and movie like Top Gun. This is music that is deeply ingrained in the American psyche, and which exudes an image of America that Americans once felt more comfortable embracing: expansive, lyrical, bold, fundamentally good, full of possibilities. It is both over-familiar and at the same time so undeniably beautiful that even the most cynical listener will find him or herself touched by it. It perfectly expresses American aspiration.

New York City Ballet in Justin Peck's “Copland Dance Episodes.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

As Peck himself put it at the start of the performance of “Copland Dance Episodes” on Feb. 3, the ballet is like a “ballet binge watch,” of the Copland sound, but also of Peck’s dance imagination. By the end, we have become familiar with Peck’s choreographic language: the clean, crisp, interlocking lines; the continual vortex of turns, in which the arms and legs shoot outwards; the small and big jumps, in which the body twitches and folds in the air; the speed and lightness of the feet; the catch-and-release, unisex partnering; a tendency toward busy-bee activity while remaining within a circumscribed space turning this way and that. The bright, open faces of the dancers. And an architectural mind that creates intricate, interlocking formations that are both attractive and interesting to look at, though not always suggestive of anything beyond their own ingeniousness. One of the things I’ve noticed about “Copland Dance Episodes” is that it photographs extremely well. The dancers, in their bright, color-block rehearsal-inspired costumes by Ellen Warren—echoing the bright, vibrating colors of Gibson’s flag-like curtain— and kissed by Brandon Stirling Baker’s always flattering light, look phenomenal.

Miriam Miller, in pink, and company in “Copland Dance Episodes” by Justin Peck. Photograph by Erin Baiano

And they are. Here as in other ballets, Peck plays to their strengths: youth, speed, crispness of execution, beauty, dynamism. In both casts, the company as a group looks fantastic, certain dancers particularly so, and one most of all: Mira Nadon, who dances here with a freedom, radiance, and self-assurance that mark a new high in her blazing upward trajectory. But she is not alone. In the second cast, Alexa Maxwell is luminous as a hopeful young woman who repeatedly encourages, supports, and leads a conflicted young man (Jovani Furlan) whose natural tendency is to fall. In different casts. Unity Phelan and Megan Fairchild exude hope and ease in a solo bathed in yellow light and set to Copland’s famous “Simple Gifts” theme. Sebastian Villarini-Velez and Harrison Coll alternate in a nice solo that begins with turns that evolve into jumps, and ends with a lilting step accompanied by swooping arms. Russell Janzen is touchingly reserved, almost wounded-seeming, as a man who tries, but in the end fails, to fall in love.

Alexa Maxwell and Jovani Furlan in “Copland Dance Episodes” by Justin Peck. Photograph by Erin Baiano

All of which is to say that “Copland Dance Episodes” is both aesthetically pleasing and skillful. And yet, for all its appealing qualities, it is also a disappointment, in ways that are both obvious and subtle. The first, and most obvious, being a lack of contrast stemming from a more fundamental problem: a lack of narrative imagination. Whereas Copland, and the choreographers who first choreographed to these scores (Agnes de Mille, Martha Graham, and Loring) were exploring colorful themes like the dream of Westward expansion, the myth of the Cowboy, and the figure of the American renegade, Peck limits himself to simpler ideas: energy, youth, and the vicissitudes of personal relationships. The feelings expressed are elemental. Throughout the ballet, the dancers seem to be asking themselves and each other, in different ways: Am I happy? Am I alone? Do I love you? Do you love me? The responses vary, but for the most part—with the exception of one, fraught pas de deux—the relations remain friendly, airy, cooperative. The dancers are always assisting each other, lifting each other into the air, or supporting each other in turns or balances. It’s all very equitable, but, in the end, repetitive, un-specific, a little dull.

from left: Ashley Laracey, Unity Phelan and Emma Von Enck in “Copland Dance Episodes” by Justin Peck. Photograph by Erin Baiano

The vagueness and lack of specificity in the feelings shown onstage—why is this person sad? Why is this other person pensive or happy?—results in a certain sameness, particularly in the partnering. But it also affects the musicality of the choreography as a whole. The first section of the ballet, set to “Rodeo,” is a retooling of Peck’s 2015 ballet “Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes,” one of Peck’s most successful works. Here, the activity onstage harnesses the energy of the music, the syncopations and crescendos reflected in men running at top speed across the stage, or launching themselves into each other’s arms. But the pattern of generic emotions begins here, in a slow section in which a man pulls away from the others, as if aching to be alone. He is echoed by another man in the “Appalachian Spring” section, who crouches, lost and lonely, on the floor; and by yet another in the “Billy the Kid” section, who is unable to connect to his partner and eventually walks away. Is the ballet a comment on the malaise of young men? There is so little context that it is difficult to tell.

Miriam Miller and Russell Janzen in “Copland Dance Episodes” by Justin Peck. Photograph by Erin Baiano

The tendency to shy away from deeper or more complex feelings—or to contextualize those feelings— finds its echo in Peck’s response the music. If there is one thing one can say about these Copland scores it is that they are melodic. Memorably, insistently, unashamedly so. But with the exception of moments in “Rodeo,” Peck’s choreography eschews not only melody but the grandeur of Copland’s musical gestures. In a way this is understandable—Copland’s music comes from a different, more confident time, very different from ours. And Peck’s choreography is nothing if not an expression of the ambivalent social dynamics of the present moment, afraid of the big gesture or the loud word. But the result is a sense of aimless profusion, as if he were unwilling to cede to one idea, one direction, a fuller expression of phrasing. Instead, the steps spiral and flow into more steps that change direction or fold in on themselves or burst outward. We hear melody and accent, but what we see is pure counterpoint. It can be difficult to distinguish one section of the dance from another, despite great differences in the music.

Megan Fairchild and Roman Mejia, center, with from left, Emilie Gerrity, Jonathan Fahoury, Daniel Applebaum and Isabella Lafreniere in “Copland Dance Episodes” by Justin Peck. Photograph by Erin Baiano

And what this leads to, in addition to a sense of sameness, is a lack of drama. The big event in “Copland Dance Episodes” is a breakup, called “The Split” in the list of twenty-two “episodes” that make up the dance. The dancers—Miriam Miller and Russell Janzen in one cast, Mira Nadon and Taylor Stanley in the other—collide forcefully, with angularly entangled arms and fists that explode into splayed fingers. The dancers run, grab, and push. Then, after a solo for each, watched by the other, they pull at each other and then let go, their violent separation marked by loud booms in the orchestra. After which the woman bends and twists with grief, before the rest of the cast returns for an exalted finale filled with lifts that take off into the air and criss-crossing waves of dancers, à la Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments.” All bathed in golden light. As the title in the program indicates, “One Door Closes, Another One Opens.”

But the exuberance of the ending feels unearned, and also like more of the same. The problems with “Copland Dance Episodes” don’t stem from lack of talent or dance ideas. Of that, Peck has plenty. But what one senses here is a kind of complacency, or perhaps an unwillingness to put himself on the line, to go deeper into his imagination and search out more interesting stories to tell. In the last few years Peck has developed a style that seems to express the ambivalence and desire for harmony and cooperation that characterizes a certain generation—his, or perhaps a slightly younger one. The characters that populate in his ballets are nice, collegial, friendly, inquisitive, seeking, sometimes lost. But wouldn’t it be interesting now to see him to move beyond this familiar territory to something less familiar, stranger, deeper?

Marina Harss

Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of a book about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, scheduled for publication by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.



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