Justin Peck’s New Americana, ‘Copland Dance Episodes’

Justin Peck told members of the New York City Ballet during a recent rehearsal: “Right now you’re dancing on top or in front of the music. As pianist Craig Baldwin plays the gently cumulative “Simple Gifts” part of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” Peck adds: “Here, you should ride the music wave. It’s like surfing on a longboard.”

That’s not the only time Peck, City Ballet’s resident choreographer, has used metaphors while preparing “Copland dance episodes,” premieres Thursday at the David H. Koch Theater in Lincoln Center. And that’s not the only time he’s encouraged the dancers to get along with the music’s breezy. At one point, he said, “It has to be as easy as the wind.”

These dancers are somewhat familiar with Copland; Peck of sports excitement “Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes,” since 2015, is one of his most beloved ballets. However, the premiere is on Thursday – a whirlwind that lasted all evening that included a version of his “Rodeo” but was also set to “Fanfare for the Common Man”, “Appalachian Spring” and “Billy the Kid” – will be a major milestone on many fronts.

For starters, “Copland Dance Episodes” will be the company’s first non-story-length, evening-length production since George Balanchine’s “Jewels” from 1967, and Peck’s first evening-length work, period; Above all, for the artists involved, it will be the first time that three Copland ballets, one of the finest American pieces written in the genre, will be performed under the roof of City. Ballet.

“One of the things I noticed from the very beginning when I worked at the New York City Ballet was that there was no Copland on the board,” Peck said in an interview. “That sounds like a strange thing to this incredible American institution.”

About me, Andrew Litton, the music director of the City Ballet, was delighted to receive the Copland score. “It was a shortcoming,” he said. “It is said that he invented the sound of American music. He certainly invented the Western sound, which has been copied by hundreds of film composers since then.”

Peck calls Copland’s ballet “music that we all don’t realize we know, but we know”: the “Hoe-Down” track breaks from “Rodeo,” an uplifting symphony. high of “Simple Gifts” in “Appalachian Spring.”

“There’s a lot that can be culturally related to it, especially the Western cowboy feel of it, which I’m not inclined to at all,” added Peck. “I was a little nervous about it at first, but I had to remind myself that this track was written by a gay Jewish guy from Brooklyn who has never been out of the West.”

A few years before creating “Rodeo,” Peck watched Agnes de Mille’s original choreography at the American Ballet Theatre. He sat near the orchestra, and although he enjoyed the dance, he was more impressed with the music. “I can actually feel it in a physical sense, instead of just using my ears and hearing it,” he said. “I kept thinking about the music, and then in the end, I had the thought that there might be room for another interpretation.”

While de Mille’s dance is theatrical, Peck’s “Rodeo” is abstract, reduced to neutral landscape design and out of place costumes. In a hilarious turn, it’s also pronounced “ROH-dee-oh” instead of the traditional “roh-DAY-oh”. Jonathan Fahoury, a member of the ballet troupe, said that Peck’s ballet was one of his favorite ballets to perform, adding that it had no influence or ornamentation: “The What you see is what you get.”

“Rodeo,” Fahoury also said, like a single concept has now been extended to “Copland Dance Episodes.” Peck used a similar analogy: “Doing it is like making a pilot episode. It’s proof of concept, and how’s the rest of the season going now? How do we take these character arcs further through this abstract space, then tie it all together?”

The compositions Peck was using, composed between 1938 and 1944, created the standard-setting effect for the American sound, with a combination of cowboy songs and folk music. And they exemplify what has come to be seen as a frank national style of modesty. Transparent and uncomplicated by dense counterpoint, Copland’s music from this point defies interpretation, and punishes players who deviate from it punitively; Composer Ned Rorem once described it as “never having too many notes”.

On stage, the story ballets are very different: “Billy the Kid” was written at Lincoln Kirstein’s urging for the Ballet Caravan, the precursor to the City Ballet; “Rodeo,” for de Mille; and “Appalachian Spring,” for Martha Graham. However, Peck said, “cut out of the same fabric.”

That’s an argument made in the juxtapositions of “Copland’s Dance Episodes”. The “Fanfare” opening — as simple as possible, with the key of C and in regular rhythm — leads unobstructedly into “Buckaroo Holiday” by “Rodeo” in brass, with the same keys, with the same number of beats. each measure. Copland’s signature extension, represented by the fifth interval, opens in “Saturday Night Waltz” and returns later in “Billy the Kid”. And “Hoe-Down” ends with three stressed sforzando notes that flow endlessly in Peck’s dance into three gentle notes, in a logical key shift, at the beginning of “Appalachian Spring”.

Throughout, the music remains on the “human” scale, says Litton. The word is also often applied to Peck’s choreography, especially to groups. Another word that tends to come up when talking to his City Ballet colleagues is “music”.

Litton describes Peck’s relationship to the track as “emotion-based”, clearly responding to notes with choreography that is “always relevant”. And Ellen Warren, a former dancer for the company who is designing costumes for “Copland Dance Episodes,” says seeing Peck at work “is almost like a game between movement and music.”

Peck grew up playing the piano and continued with it while attending the School of American Ballet. There, he joined a music program hosted by Jeffrey Middleton. Finally, Peck, who has long believed that dancers are musicians – especially percussion dancers like Savion Glover – can confidently interpret music and write piano compositions for himself.

“Copland Dance Episodes” was developed shortly after “Rodeo” premiered. After studying the tracks and responding to them with movement, Peck mapped out the choreography as if it were a sequence. He says the process of building it is closer to his work on Steven Spielberg’s “Western Story” than to his other ballets.

He said: “What I am aiming for is to get the viewer to break the idea, this is like a trilogy. “It’s not a trio. It’s a kind of freedom by bumping into all this music and basking in its fascination, and finding interactive pockets or little anecdotes or pure dance for them to find. its world in a new way.

Miriam Miller, a soloist for the City Ballet, said “Copland Dance Episodes” is “non-narrative ballet, but there are emotions and stories in it.” There are pairings that repeat throughout, but the piece, after the “Fanfare” intro, begins with a version of Peck’s “Rodeo,” performed for a group of 15 male (and one female) dancers. ; and then, in “Appalachian Spring,” the casting process was reversed, with a group of 15 female dancers assigned. Near the end of that part, Peck said, the groups are combined “almost like peanut butter and jelly, then a third act, ‘Billy the Kid’, brings these two worlds together and collides them. “

This piece is Peck’s 30th premiere with the lighting designer Brandon Stirling Baker, who said that when creating a plan, he started with music. “I listen to color,” he said. “And Aaron Copland is the most colorful composer you can think of. It can be many things – loud, grandiose, sensitive, serene.

In the end, he and Peck decided that the color should come from the music and the dancers, not from the light. “It will all become the light we see in the real world,” says Baker. “It is very honest, and the work speaks for itself. I think of ‘Simple Gifts’: ‘It’s a simple gift.’”

Many of the tunes also come from artist Jeffrey Gibson’s photography, which Peck saw in his exhibit. “Like a hammer” at the Denver Art Museum in 2018. Gibson’s style, which combines craft and camping in mixed media, with inspiration from his Choctaw and Cherokee heritage, is as American as the sound. music by Copland.

“For me, listening to music is a bit complicated,” says Gibson. “It’s the Americana from the time of the Native American conflict.” But he and Peck also wanted their partnership to present a vision of unity. Gibson saw a dizzyingly colorful curtain with words running down the sides that said “the only way out is through” – “a set of words that express what a new Americana could be,” he said. he said.

The look of the curtain matched the dress. Warren took over 100 colors in Gibson’s design and assigned two colors to each of the 30 dancers in the cast. In “Fanfare,” they’re covered in white nylon tulle, which Peck describes as “the cobwebs of the ballet past.”

“He wanted people to see music in a new way,” says Warren. “They hear ‘Copland’ and they think Western. But the image is about treating music in a way that is truly rooted in America and our culture. All these colors are redefining what it means to be American.”


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