“Right now, you’re dancing to or in front of the music,” Justin Peck told members of New York City Ballet during a recent rehearsal. As pianist Craig Baldwin played the gently building “Simple Gifts” section of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” Peck added, “Here you should be riding the wave of music. It’s like surfing on a longboard.
That wasn’t the only time Peck, the City Ballet’s resident choreographer, spoke about metaphors while preparing for “Copland Dance Episodes,” which premiered Thursday at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. And that wasn’t the only time he encouraged dancers to match the simplicity of the music. “He must have the ease,” he said at one point, “of blowing tumbleweed.”
These dancers know a little about Copland; “Rodeo: four dance episodes”, from 2015, is one of his most popular ballets. Still, Thursday’s premiere — a whirlwind one-night stand that includes a version of his “Rodeo” but is also set to “Fanfare for the Common Man,” “Appalachian Spring” and “Billy the Kid” — will be a milestone. on several fronts.
For starters, “Copland Dance Episodes” will be the company’s first one-night plotless work since George Balanchine’s “Jewels” of 1967, and Peck’s one-night premiere, period; above all, for the artists involved, it will be the first time that the three ballet scores by Copland, among the most beautiful American music written in the genre, will be under the roof of the City Ballet.
“One of the things I noticed early on when I worked at New York City Ballet was that there’s no Copland in rep here,” Peck said in an interview. “It felt like such a strange thing for this incredible American institution.”
For his part, Andrew Litton, musical director of the City Ballet, delighted to take over Copland’s scores. “It’s an oversight,” he said. “The saying went that he invented the sound of American music. He certainly invented the sound of the West, which has since been copied by hundreds of film composers.
Peck called Copland’s ballet output “music we don’t all realize we know, but we know”: the daredevil ‘Hoe-Down’ of ‘Rodeo’, the symphonic elevation of ‘Simple Gifts in “Appalachian Spring”.
“There’s a lot that can be culturally associated with it, especially the western cowboy feel, which I don’t lean into at all,” Peck added. “I was a little nervous about it at first, but I had to remind myself that this music was written by this gay gay man from Brooklyn who had never been out West.”
Several years before creating “Rodeo”, Peck saw Agnes de Mille’s original choreography at the American Ballet Theater. He sat near the orchestra, and although he enjoyed the dancing, he was more struck by the score. “I could really feel it physically, rather than just using my ears and hearing it,” he said. “I kept thinking about the music, and then finally I thought maybe there was room for another interpretation.”
Where de Mille’s dance is theatrical, Peck’s “Rodeo” is abstract, stripped of neutral set design and placeless costumes. In a playful twist, it’s also pronounced “ROH-dee-oh” instead of the traditional “roh-DAY-oh.” Corps de ballet member Jonathan Fahoury said Peck’s ballet was one of his favorites, adding that it was free of affect or adornment: “What you see is what you get.”
“Rodeo,” Fahoury also said, is like a unique idea that has now been extended for “Copland Dance Episodes.” Peck used a similar comparison: “Doing it was like doing a pilot episode. It was a proof of concept, and now what does the rest of the season look like? How do you take these character arcs even further into this abstract space and then tie it all together?”
The works used by Peck, composed between 1938 and 1944, had a landmark effect on the American sound, with the incorporation of cowboy songs and folk music. And they exemplify what has been considered a national style of straightforward modesty. Transparent and simple by dense counterpoint, Copland’s music from this era virtually defies interpretation and punishesly exposes players who stray from his directions; composer Ned Rorem once described it as “never having a note too many”.
On stage, the narrative ballets were distinct: “Billy the Kid” was commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein for Ballet Caravan, a forerunner of City Ballet; “Rodeo”, for de Mille; and “Appalachian Spring,” for Martha Graham. Yet, according to Peck, they are “cut from the same cloth.”
This is an argument confirmed in the juxtapositions of “Copland Dance Episodes”. The opening “Fanfare” – as simple as possible, in the key of C and in common time – leads smoothly into the brassy “Buckaroo Holiday” of “Rodeo”, which is in the same key, with the same number of beats per measure. Copland’s characteristic expansiveness, rendered with fifth intervals, opens the “Saturday Night Waltz” and later returns in “Billy the Kid”. And “Hoe-Down” ends with three emphatic sforzando notes that follow one another without a break in Peck’s three-note, soft dance, in a logical change of key, at the start of “Appalachian Spring”.
Throughout, Litton said, the music remains on a “human” scale. This word has also often been applied to Peck’s choreography, especially for groups. Another word that tends to come up when talking with his colleagues at City Ballet is “musical”.
Litton described Peck’s relationship with the scores as “emotionally based”, clearly responding to the notes with choreography that “always fits”. And Ellen Warren, a former company dancer who designs the costumes for “Copland Dance Episodes,” said seeing Peck at work “almost feels like a play between movement and music.”
Peck grew up playing the piano and went on to play the piano at the School of American Ballet. There he participated in a musical program conducted by Jeffrey Middleton. Eventually, Peck, who had long believed that dancers were musicians—especially tap dancers like Savion Glover—could perform a score with confidence and write piano works for himself.
“Copland Dance Episodes” has been in development since shortly after “Rodeo” was created. After studying the scores and responding to them with movement, Peck mapped out the choreography as if it were a series. He said the construction process was closer to his work on Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” than his other ballets.
“What I’m looking to do is get the viewer to break down the idea, it’s like a kind of trilogy,” he said. “It’s not a trilogy. It’s kind of taking the liberty of bumping into all that music and immersing yourself in the charm of it, and finding those pockets of interaction or little anecdotes or pure dance so that they can discover the world in a new way.
City Ballet soloist Miriam Miller said “Copland Dance Episodes” is “non-narrative ballet, but it contains emotion and storytelling.” There are recurring couples throughout, but the work, after the introduction of the “Fanfare”, begins with a version of Peck’s “Rodeo”, which was made for an ensemble of 15 male dancers (and a woman) ; then, in “Appalachian Spring”, the cast is reversed, with a group of 15 ballerinas on pointe. Towards the end of this section, Peck said, the groups are combined “almost like peanut butter and jelly, and then the third act, ‘Billy the Kid,’ brings those two worlds together and collides”.
This work is Peck’s 30th creation with lighting designer Brandon Stirling Baker, who said that in creating a scheme, he started with music. “I listen to color,” he said. “And Aaron Copland is the most colorful songwriter you can think of. It can be many things – rowdy, epic, sensitive, serene.
In the end, he and Peck decided that the color should come from the score and the dancers, not from the light. “It’s all going to be light that we see in the real world,” Baker said. “It’s very honest, and the work can speak for itself. I thought of ‘Simple Gifts’: ”This is a gift for being simple.'”
Much of the tone also comes from the set, by artist Jeffrey Gibson, which Peck saw in his “Like a Hammer” exhibit at the Denver Art Museum in 2018. Gibson’s style, which incorporates craft and camp into mixed media, drawing on his Choctaw and Cherokee heritage, is as ardently American as Copland’s music.
“For me, listening to music was a bit of a hassle,” Gibson said. “It’s Americana from a time of strife for Native Americans.” But he and Peck also wanted their collaboration to showcase a vision of unity. Gibson arrived in front of a dizzyingly colored curtain with text running from both sides that read “the only way out is through” – “a set of words that express what a new Americana could be,” he said.
The gaze of the curtain nourished that of the costumes. Warren took the more than 100 colors from Gibson’s design and assigned two to each of the 30 dancers in the cast. During “Fanfare”, they are covered in white nylon tulle which Peck described as “the cobwebs of ballet’s past”.
“He wants people to see music in a new way,” Warren said. “They hear ‘Copland’ and they think Western. But the visuals deal with the music in a way that’s really rooted in America and in our culture. All of these colors redefine what it means to be American.