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February 2015

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Juilliard Dance

Published: February 12, 2015
Category: review

Justin Peck's 'Rōdē,ō: What Would Agnes Say?

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK — It was as if the feisty spirit of Agnes De Mille had cast a wicked spell. De Mille, whose ballet first brought Copland’s Rodeo to life in 1942, would not have looked kindly on Justin Peck’s decision to make an abstract dance on that classic score. And so when the 27-year-old choreographer unexpectedly appeared at the curtain at the Feb. 4 premiere of his ‘Rōdē,ō: Four Dance Episodes, De Mille’s take-no-prisoners personality came to mind. Peck explained that principal dancer Andrew Veyette had sustained an injury the night before, so he would be replacing him in the first section of the ballet, and Sean Suozzi would replace in the final sections. Speaking from the stage of the former New York State Theater, the 27-year-old resident choreographer of New York City Ballet, looked as nervous as a calf about to be branded. Before disappearing into the wings to change his costume, Peck, with a half-hearted giggle, said to the sold-out audience, “Wish us luck.”

The thrill of the unexpected is what makes De Mille’s Rodeo so much fun to watch. The most ambitious cowboy is none other than a girl, who, while showing off her horsemanship to the men, falls on her rear end. De Mille danced the part at the premiere. And now, in a twist of historic fate, Peck would unexpectedly dance the male lead that is constantly wrangled aloft by a group of men. The work focuses on the architecture of dancers moving in space. But with Copland’s scenic-imbued story-ballet score, the emphasis on pure dance structure misses the spirit of the music. Worse, the choreography fails to capitalize on the punchy, rhythmic interplay between higher instruments and lower. That crackling conversation is not metaphysical; rather, it elegantly captures the rodeo brio of man harnessing beast, competing to be the best wrangler.

Photo by Paul Kolnick

Photo by Paul Kolnick

On video, the dance reads better. From an orchestra seat, however, so many of Peck’s details, such as the moment when the man and woman (Amar Ramasar and Sara Mearns) exchange flirtatious glances, can’t be seen. Nor has Peck given their bodies any flirtatious winsomeness. The pas de deux, set to the section Copland titled “Saturday Night Waltz,” is so fast that the eye works overtime merely to follow the complex intertwining of the two dancers’ bodies. While the music evokes a lazy, summertime mood, Peck’s duet is a contortionist’s delight. As performed by Mearns and Ramasar, it is spectacularly virtuosic, showing off their ability to cats-cradle their limbs in hyper speed. But it doesn’t mean anything. We care little about their relationship to each other; they may as well be dancing to the music of Blondie.

The men’s costumes for ‘Rōdē,ō — by Reid Bartelme, Harriet Jung, and Peck — resemble 1930s rugby uniforms. In hues of dark blue, ochre, and gray-dark green, the 15 male dancers, when performing in units of the same color sets, look like three sports teams. Their wide-striped socks give them a schoolboy sweetness.

The woman’s costume, a long-sleeved leotard, half gray and half maroon, looks like a 1970s female gymnast outfit. In the finale, when Mearns dances with the men, clad in rugby-esque shorts and shirts, she looks like she is missing the bottom half of her costume.

That Peck has made a dance for 15 men and one woman at New York City Ballet, where Balanchine once famously said “ballet is woman,” shows how he is changing the company’s profile. His best choreography is for groups, and his men move, as they do here, in ways that upend the stereotype of women having the greatest flexibility, litheness, and ability to hand delicate footwork.

As for Peck, he was able to survive as the male lead, which is saying a lot. A lesser dancer, thrown on stage at the last minute, would have destroyed the piece, which calls for complex lifts and split-second timing. As for the spelling of ‘Rōdē,ō, choreographers should now retire their attempts to Europeanize their titles by using accents above vowels.

This “New Combinations” program began with Alexei Ratmansky’s masterful Pictures at an Exhibition, performed to Mussorgsky’s piano reduction (brilliantly played by Cameron Grant). The ballet, which premiered in October, is a must see. New in the principal female role, originated by the now-retired Wendy Whelan, is Sterling Hyltin. She and the entire cast danced at their best. They appeared to embrace the ballet with every fiber of their being, demonstrating how non-narrative work need not be without drama and psychological import. The final piece on the program was Christopher Wheeldon’s Mercurial Manoeuvres (2000) to Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto (Alan Overman) under the baton of Andrew Sill. The large-scale work succeeded on the strength of Tiler Peck, as partnered by Jared Angle. Her phrasing of Shostakovich’s jazz riffs demonstrated her enormous musicality; Peck is clearly at the top of her game as both ballerina and musical interpreter.

The New Combination Evening at New York City Ballet will be repeated on February 27.



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