Justin Peck

Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes

Neoclassicism 2.0 - Justin Peck's »Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes«

By Regina Genée, Dramaturge

Based on Aaron Copland's ballet score »Rodeo or The Courting at Burnt Ranch« (1942), Justin Peck created his own work for 16 dancers in 2015: »Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes«. He created this choreography for the New York City Ballet, co-founded by George Balanchine, as its current resident choreographer, having also been a company member there until 2019. Similar to Balanchine's »Serenade«, Peck refers to 19th century ballets and classical dance technique – albeit in an even more abstract, in essence mirrored form: whereas the sylph-like ballerinas in Balanchine's choreography pay tribute to the typical corps de ballet of the narrative ballets of the Romantic period, Peck showcases the opposite: his ballet is conceived for a group of gentlemen and a single female dancer, so the configuration is reversed. 

In terms of dance aesthetics, there are also some parallels between the creations of the two choreographers which can be experienced within our triple bill and which can be recognised at first glance: a clearly noticeable interaction between the visible action on stage and the audible soundscape from the orchestra pit in the sense of a »symphonic ballet« as well as a simple set design that draws the audience's attention directly to the dance, enhanced by a soft and subtle lighting design. However, what exactly makes Peck's »Rodeo or The Courting at Burnt Ranch«  a »contemporary neo-classic« of the 21st century?

The opening of his work already seems to anticipate the syncopated scale motif of the first four bars of the score, which descends in Allegro con spirito as the dancers – like track and field athletes sprinting from their starting blocks – stand up and run off. In Peck's case, it is a vertical line of dancers who sprint across the stage, starting at the front as if in a chain reaction. The group slowly separates and a single soloist gives the upbeat to the ballet music with a dynamic leap, followed by lively pirouettes. The group then presents itself in its entirety, but in several loose formations, distributed on stage like interlaced patterns and giving the impression even of translating individual sforzati, i.e. musical accents, into leaps performed in synchronisation with the sound of the music, in harmony with the energetic rhythm of Copland's music. Justin Peck’s considerable musicality as well as his choreography, as exemplified above, apply throughout all four episodes in the very best sense.

While the genesis of »Serenade« is pervaded by numerous myths, according to which the choreographer incorporated everyday situations such as performers being late or stumbling into his creation, Peck makes use of short, concise pantomime moments that evoke a certain privacy and everydayness between the dancers. In doing so, his choreographic style primarily emphasises the element of humour, which is intensified through the assemblage of persons in the individual sequences, among other aspects. For example, four men sit down at the front right of the stage ramp in a casual way, let their legs dangle over the orchestra pit and for a moment seem to break out of the »structured order« of the choreography without a care in the world –- a visual contrast that harbors nothing of the »classical« ballet attitude and thus seems to comment on this art form with a self-mocking wink. At other times, the humour of the situation arises from the difference in size between two male dancers facing each other eye to eye, which creates an immediate pseudo-rivalry that needs no words to express how the dialogue between the two unfolds. Towards the end, Peck also choreographs a charming and comical solo along with the sequence of the music, when all the gentlemen and the lady are gathered together in a semicircle on the stage: Copland wrote a kind of fake closing into his final movement, the »Hoe Down«. For the orchestra, this means a ritardando extending over several bars in the keyboard, string and wind instruments, characterised by an extended downward motif in staccato rhythm. One might think that Copland wanted to portray an ever-slowing spinning top in his musical score. Thinking further, this is also the association that Peck's choreography evokes in this sequence. He allows a male soloist to stand out from the group. He seems to want to prove to everyone what virtuoso extravaganzas he is capable of and starts a »classical variation« by beginning to spin endlessly in circles, but his music fizzles out step by step, turn by turn... But how Peck makes this image end shall not be revealed at this point.

The final element that makes Peck's work a contemporary approach to neoclassical dance technique is the free creation of narrative moments. Balanchine's much-cited idea that two dancers on stage are enough to tell a story can also be found in Peck's »Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes«. In both Balanchine's and Peck's works, it is first and foremost the constellation of characters and thus the play with gender roles and conventions that contributes to the development of on-stage identities. Nevertheless, there are no clearly defined roles and names in either creation, as would be the case in a narrative ballet. Instead, the dancers establish abstract characters whose relationships towards and with each other repeatedly flash up briefly in narrative episodes, but whose individual interpretation is ultimately left to the audience, for instance in the danced dialogue between the lady and a gentleman. The spatial solo and group formations as well as the play with geometry and symmetry are also important in the development of such action sequences. The way in which a dancer enters or leaves the stage, their positioning on the stage and their inner posture while dancing can also »tell« the audience a lot through their presence on stage.

In the spirit of the Wild West: Aaron Copland’s »Americana« style

By Daniel M. Callahan, Associate Professor of Music, Boston College

Aaron Copland overcame his reluctance to write »another cowboy ballet« after »Billy the Kid« (1938) by diving into the US folk tunes found in the recently published anthology of transcribed field recordings, »Our Singing Country« (1941), some of which he weaved throughout his five-movement score of »Rodeo« (1942) for Agnes de Mille. The ballet’s popularity led Copland to publish the suite »Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo«, which Justin Peck choreographed in 2015.

The suite’s first episode, »Buckaroo Holiday,« gets rhythmic vitality from the source material on which its music is based, notably the work song »Sis Joe«.

It was sung while workers were straightening railroad tracks: the men would heave a bar against the tracks in unison on the downbeat of a recurring short-short-long rhythmic motive. Copland’s playful, musical accents afford Peck’s male dancers chances to take off into jumps on the bass drum strikes following this motive; then, after drumming the floor along with the snare, the men pop up directly on the unison short-short-long motive presented in syncopation.

»Corral Nocturne,« the suite’s lyrical second episode, is the only movement not based on folk music. The unusual 5/4 meter makes every measure seem expanded by a beat, stretching time just as the quintet’s highlighted man seems to expand the borders of the stage space—looking skyward while floated on his back by the others, or reaching out into the theater while anchored by the others.

»Saturday Night Waltz,« the third episode, here a pas de deux, raucously starts with strings playing fifths as if tuning. A solo oboe presents the folk song »Old Paint,« which de Mille transcribed herself and handed to Copland.

»Hoe-Down,« »Rodeo’s« famous finale, is based on the fiddle tune »Bonaparte’s Retreat,« which, like »Sis Joe,« Copland found in »Our Singing Country«. The entire company highlights the verve, vitality, and velocity of the fiddle tune, ending with the three highlighted men pointing upward on the final note.

De Mille’s 1942 choreography contained several important moments danced in silence: in between movements (a square dance with calls) or in long silent pauses in the middle of »Buckaroo Holiday« (the Cowgirl unable to tame her bucking horse) and, most notably, in the »Hoe-Down« (the Champion Roper’s tap solo) highlighting how her main characters stick out against the music and their surroundings. Peck’s choreography, like Balanchine’s »Serenade«, provides a notable contrast to de Mille’s: here the dancers »blend« with the music.

Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland's (1900 − 1990) name is synonymous with American music. It was his pioneering achievement to break free from Europe and create concert music that is characteristically American. In addition to writing such well-loved works as »Fanfare for the Common Man«, »Rodeo« und »Appalachian Spring«, Copland conducted, organized concerts, wrote books on music, and served as an American cultural ambassador.

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While studying with French composer and pianist Nadia Boulanger in Paris, Copland became interested in incorporating popular styles into his music. Upon his return to the US, he advanced the cause of the 20th century new music through lectures and writings, and organized the famed Copland-Sessions concerts.

Aaron Copland was one of the most honoured cultural figures in the history of the United States. The Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany were only a few of the honours and awards he received. In 1982, the Aaron Copland School of Music was established in his honour at Queens College of the City University of New York.

Reprinted by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes

Rehearsal insights (1/11)

George Balanchine


A homage to the »white acts« of the 19th century in a neoclassical interpretation, that took the Franco-Russian ballet tradition to the »New World« in the 20th century – a masterpiece that has not lost its appeal to this day: all this is »Serenade« (1935).

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Twyla Tharp

In The Upper Room

Yoga, tap dancing, boxing, tango, jogging – forms of movement that are part of many people's everyday lives, but are not necessarily considered as »dance«. However, Twyla Tharp defines it differently as her choreography »In The Upper Room« (1986) proves.

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Classics by Balanchine / Peck / Tharp

With »Classics«, the Semperoper Ballett premieres a programme that unites three dance creations that have become signature pieces of their respective creators...

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