David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY; February 4, 2015

Pictures at an Exhibition, Rōdē,ō: Four Dance Episodes, Mercurial Manoeuvres

Jerry Hochman

New York City Ballet in Peck’s ‘Rōdē,ō Four Dance Episodes'. Photo © Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet in Peck’s ‘Rōdē,ō Four Dance Episodes’.
Photo © Paul Kolnik

You’ve got to give Justin Peck credit – for chutzpah if nothing else. His new ballet, which was given its world premiere last night, is choreographed to Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo,” which of course is the score for Agnes de Mille’s iconic 1942 ballet of the same name. If there is one score that could not be divorced from the ballet for which it was commissioned, it would be this one.

But Peck comes across more confident than arrogant, and his new ballet is not solely an exercise in hubris. It’s not the equal of his two most recent pieces, last year’s “Everywhere We Go” and this past season’s “Belles-Lettres”, or his initial hit, “Year of the Rabbit”. But it’s not bad, the premiere audience loved it, and here he had a much tougher road to hoe. What Peck has tried to do, and to a large extent succeeded in doing, is to echo what George Balanchine frequently did: to distill story ballets into a relatively abstract form.

Peck here has not pilfered en toto the Copland score for the de Mille ballet. A year after the de Mille piece’s premiere, Copland re-orchestrated the composition as a symphonic suite for orchestra, eliminating the middle section from the original score and trimming parts of others. He called this symphonic suite “Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo,” and it is this that Peck has used to craft his new ballet. It would have been preferable if he had simply used that title, rather than the peculiar fractured version he came up with here, but I suspect that he was legally precluded from using the specific word ‘Rodeo’ in any form – and got around it by breaking up its component letters – similar, arguably, to the way Copland restructured the original composition.

Justin Peck’s ‘Rōdē,ō Four Dance Episodes'. Photo © Paul Kolnik

Justin Peck’s ‘Rōdē,ō Four Dance Episodes’.
Photo © Paul Kolnik

None of this really matters – the piece stands or falls on its own.

There’s nothing, choreographically, really new here. It’s put together well, but the piece is visually overwhelmed by visions of the men (the ballet consists of fifteen men and one woman) running back and forth across the stage, and a seemingly endless series of soaring leaps.

But although it’s not particularly innovative, the ballet succeeds in several ways. With only a hint of narrative, it captures the essence of the score. The music is as spacious as the American West, and Peck uses the bare stage (there’s no set) as the equivalent of clear air through which boundless energy…bounds. In this sense it’s more open and airy than “Rodeo”. If anything, “Rōdē,ō” has more in common with the atmosphere created in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Estancia” than de Mille’s ballet, although the Wheeldon piece has a clear narrative as well as a set.

“Rōdē,ō” also captures the score’s joy and humor, in an abstract way. Indeed, the only time the piece falls relatively flat is when Peck attempts to graft some sort of ‘lonesome cowboy’ narrative onto the ‘2nd Episode’ (corresponding to the ‘Corral Nocturne’ segment in the original). The segment is danced well, with Taylor Stanley leading a group of four men, but the choreography and the sentiment rang hollow to me. But then again, it’s somewhat refreshing to see loneliness displayed as something other than individual angst.

The ballet succeeds also by providing a vehicle not only for the overwhelmingly male cast, which is rare enough, but for Sara Mearns, finally, to look convincingly happy. There are other NYCB ballerinas who could play this role, but it’s particularly significant for her. I’ve often found her performances to be too controlled, too somber where pathos isn’t called for, and too artificial when she tries to look something other than pensive or distraught. With “Rōdē,ō” she blows the barn door open – or would have had there been one. She looks like she’s having a blast, and dances with complete abandon and uncharacteristic exuberance.

Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar in ‘Rōdē,ō Four Dance Episodes'. Photo © Paul Kolnik

Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar in ‘Rōdē,ō Four Dance Episodes’.
Photo © Paul Kolnik

Mearns’ role isn’t a ‘character’ from the de Mille piece, but a relative – a classy cowgirl perhaps, as opposed to the de Mille lovable one. And her “3rd Episode” duet with Amar Ramasar (roughly corresponding to the ‘Saturday Night Waltz’ in the original), is a charming duet of attraction, mutual discovery, and joy. It’s not particularly complex, and not nearly as heart-wrenchingly wonderful as the duet that Wheeldon crafted for Tiler Peck in “Estancia” or as touching as de Mille’s choreography for the developing relationship between the Cowgirl and the Champion Roper in “Rodeo”, but it’s delightful. And Mr. Ramasar deserves credit for proving himself yet again as one of the more exciting, as well as capable, partners in the company.

Finally, “Rōdē,ō” succeeds by, eventually, distancing itself from de Mille’s ballet. Throughout the first two Episodes, I could see Peck’s choreography and his dancers, but my mind wanted to see “Rodeo”. The memory of the de Mille ballet is so established that hearing the music and seeing anything other than it or its characters was a mental non-starter. But by the pas de deux, and in the concluding 4th Episode, “Rōdē,ō” emerged as something different, and great fun to watch.

Credit for the transformation goes to Daniel Ulbricht as well as to Peck. Ulbricht’s stage presence, combined with Peck’s choreography for him, made him an important force in the ballet. Whenever he was on stage, his presence, and the choreography for him, dominated the action. And at the end of the ballet, when he nailed turns à le seconde that started at breakneck speed and slowed (intentionally) to a crawl to match the score, the scene was about him more than some other character, and the ballet had become Peck’s abstract reconstruction of the Copland score, not a poor substitute for the original.

Last night’s performance also was a gutsy one. Before it began, Peck spoke to the audience and disclosed what many already knew – that the previous evening Andrew Veyette, who was supposed to be one of four featured male dancers (in addition to Ramasar, Ulbricht and Gonzalo Garcia), had been injured and was unable to dance. Scrambling, it was determined that Veyette’s role would be divided between Sean Suozzi and Peck himself. They both did fine jobs, the ‘dual’ replacement was hardly noticeable, and the audience was rooting for them all the way. Indeed, perhaps this challenge enabled the entire cast to loosen up and give remarkably vigorous, even at times giddy, performances.

The audience roared when the piece concluded.

Alexei Ratmansky’s 'Pictures at an Exhibition'.  Photo © Paul Kolnik

Alexei Ratmansky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’.
Photo © Paul Kolnik

I don’t know whether “Rōdē,ō: Four Dance Episodes” will stand the test of time, because it lacks the ingenuity and choreographic variety that makes for a great ballet, and is too close in spirit to “Rodeo” to be considered completely unique. But it succeeds in being a different kind of “Rodeo,” an abstract “Rodeo” that doesn’t so much compete with the original as complements it.

The more I see Alexei Ratmansky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition, the more enjoyable it becomes. As I noted previously, it seems a bit trimmed from when it premiered, more cohesive – but that might simply be a product of greater familiarity. And it still appears to have an emotional kinship to Ratmansky’s “Shostakovich Trilogy” in the sense that Kandinsky, the visual focus of the ‘pictures’ at this exhibition, as well as the artistic movement that he helped pioneer, suffered a similar fate under Soviet criticism as Shostakovich.

The ballet received superb performances from Sara Mearns, Sterling Hyltin (who danced the role previously performed by Wendy Whelan), Lauren Lovette (replacing Tiler Peck, who originated the role), Gretchen Smith, and Indiana Woodward (who danced the role originally performed by Abi Stafford), Tyler Angle, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Gonzalo Garcia, Joseph Gordon, and Amar Ramasar. Lovette was more bubbly than my recollection of Peck, which gave the role a slightly different dimension; Hyltin’s duet with Angle in ‘The Old Castle’ segment was extraordinarily lovely; and Woodward, who I have previously highlighted, has an innate girl-next-door character that is particularly endearing, coupled with growing technical facility and feisty attack. Here I go again – in a way, and although they don’t look at all alike, she reminds me of Nichol Hlinka. And down the road…she could be a Juliet.

New York City Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon’s 'Mercurial Manoeuvres'.  Photo © Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon’s ‘Mercurial Manoeuvres’.
Photo © Paul Kolnik

And speaking of Shostakovich, the program closed with Wheeldon’s “Mercurial Manoeuvres”, choreographed to Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No. 1” – the same score that Ratmansky used for the final component of his Trilogy. The ballet, which premiered in 2000 when Wheeldon still danced with the company, is a delightful and interestingly crafted crowd-pleasing concluding piece, and marked a step in his choreographic development that deserves more attention than I can give it here. It is a comprehensive, multi-faceted dance performed by a cast of thousands – well, a 12/4 corps and five featured dancers: Ms. Peck and Jared Angle, Anthony Huxley, Sara Adams and Kristen Segin. Huxley is particularly brilliant when he performs by himself, as he did here.

The special evening also included a ‘See the Music’ presentation that preceded “Mercurial Manoeuvres,” with the extraordinary NYCB orchestra, led by Andrews Sill, providing entertaining insights into the Shostakovich composition.