The American sensibility has a lot to do with a sense of the space. This might be why theaters in the US started making their stages wider and more expansive than their European counterparts, as if trying to match the topography outside. In 1942, when Agnes de Mille choreographed “Rodeo” (pronounced “ro-day-o”) to a commissioned score by Aaron Copland, she worked with this idea of the expanse, its limitlessness, the way in which it can intoxicate its inhabitants with aspirations and anxieties.
“Rodeo” is, in brief, about a tomboy who puts on a dress for the hoe-down. De Mille was breaking conventions of the balletic form, forcing her all-European troupe (she was working with the Ballets Russes) to learn the bowlegged swagger of the cowboy in order to convey the idioms of American life. “I would have loved to compose myself a classical ballet, but I couldn’t” De Mille said. “I’m contemporary, I’m American.” Though her work was met with wildly popular success and the score dictated the rhythms of all Western films to come, not everyone approved. The regisseur told her that she was reducing ballet “to the standards of a nightclub.” “He was talking in Russian anyways, I couldn’t understand him, so I just went right on,” De Mille said of her response.
“Rodeo” will celebrate its seventy-third anniversary this year, and with a revival put on by ABT. Still, it’s an interesting musical choice in the latest by Justin Peck, NYCB’s resident choreographer. The bare skylines evoked by the score convey optimism that might be considered naïve by today’s standards, when the “heartland” can only be imagined in sepia tones. Peck’s work (called “Rōdē,ō: Four Dance Episodes”) takes the gung-ho rhythms of Copland’s music and successfully translates it to the twenty-first century. De Mille’s cowboys have been replaced by athletes, their teams demarcated with peach, tan, and blue. A stripe across the front makes the tops look even more like jerseys, and the blue team wears soccer socks, as if they’ve just come off the field. We might be looking at a locker room instead of a ranch, but the masculine environment of the original production remains. In a cast of sixteen, there’s only one female role danced by principal Sara Mearns (she makes her entrance when the skirted women usually do).
Peck is trying to make ballet less elite and more approachable for a general audience. Instead of the usual third-person description of the ballet in the program, he chooses to write a personal note to the viewer, dated at the bottom, in which he tells us that Copland’s score is “off the charts” and explains the inspiration behind each of the four movements. In the first part, dedicated to a “kinetic, engine-like quality,” he starts his male dancers off in a runner’s lunge, from which they take off across the stage. Something makes them forget about the finish line halfway across, and they proceed to engage in a series of jumps and turns, their collective shapes expanding and contracting in crisply defined architecture. Peck’s rendering of the score is less percussive than de Mille’s, with a focus on the vowels of the music, so to speak, rather than the consonants, though there’s something of an accent when the dancers land simultaneously from a double tour en l’air.
Peck incorporates a few tongue-and-cheek scenarios which break down the typical formalities of the proscenium arch. At one point, three of the men sit with their legs hanging over the stage. Later on, in the silent transition from the third to fourth episode, Amar Ramasar pulls on a cord as if trying to start a lawnmower; after a few failed attempts, the lights come on, and an announcement from the brass section cues the other dancers to burst onstage. These jokes are almost like those of the slapstick comedians of early film. Just as Chaplin played with tropes of cinema within its frame, Peck calls attention to the formalities of balletic convention wherein there’s a divide between the dance and the viewer, the dance and the music. When theater becomes self-referential our disbelief is no longer suspended, and in this case we get to laugh along the way.
In the middle of the heel-stomping rhythms there’s an interlude, the Corral Nocturne, as it’s called, in which the music slows and the atmosphere turns melancholy and reflective. The blue “team” engages in an interconnected dance in which the men support and fall back on one another, slowly extending their legs upward in another visual element of the rise and fall. If this is a multilayered bromance, soloist Taylor Stanley emerges as its introspective hero, going against the current of the other dancers like the lone male figure of Jerome Robbins’s “Interplay.” At one point he lunges towards the orchestra, reaching out as if trying to lose himself in the musical source; the others link arms in order to prevent him from going over the edge. De Mille had her dancers shade their eyes and look hard at the horizon line, reminding us that at night, the prairie dreams of its surrounding oceans. Peck’s choreography articulates a similar expression of longing, but the struggle is now circumscribed, almost existential.
Peck has been critiqued for his weakness in handling the pas de deux, considered by many to be the central vessel of meaning in ballet. He certainly lacks Balanchine’s lucid, almost clairvoyant understanding of female anatomy. I end up not caring. Everyone seems to be talking about the NYCB men this season, and Peck’s work is one of the reasons why; his choreography elicits a sumptuousness of line from the danseur which is typically achieved only by the ballerina. In the one pas de deux of “Rōdē,ō” with Mearns and Ramasar, there’s a mutuality, a give and take, with no dimming of the lights and little if any romance. He supports her in a cartwheel overhead; she holds him as he capers backward in a sauté. I have the sense of two people, hand-in-hand and moving in the same direction, rather than the narcissistic foreplay found in many contemporary duets.
“America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1844 essay, “The Poet.” In the present day, we might wonder if the geography still dazzles as it once did. The New Deal-inspired populist melodies of the 1930s, the hope and energy of their major keys and upbeat rhythms, have atrophied into kitsch. We listen to them through a lens of disillusionment. I couldn’t tell you what “Rōdē,ō” is about. But I can say that Peck matches the buoyant, feel-good atmosphere of Copland’s score and makes it feel relevant to contemporary times. After a series of athletic-looking huddles, the last image we’re left with is that of three men, their fingers pointing upwards in the gesture of the muse. The metres have been written, the song has been sung. Maybe this time the poem can stay in the eyes, its story told by the dancers’ bodies at NYCB.