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American Ballet Theater, 1940s Ballet Triple-Bill

Xiomara Reyes (Cowgirl) and cast, Rodeo, American Ballet Theater

Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, heard as a concert work, did not really mean much to me until I saw Martha Graham's choreography live. The same is now true of Copland's Rodeo, thanks to a rare performance of Agnes de Mille's original choreography, from 1942, by American Ballet Theater in the latest of the group's periodic visits here, seen last night in the Kennedy Center Opera House in a triple-bill of ballets from the 1940s. It was another reminder that the separation of ballet music from its choreography robs the listener of a large part of its meaning.

De Mille created a vocabulary of movements for her cowboy characters: they ride horses and are thrown from them, they square dance, they mosey around bow-legged. With its bright colors -- not sure how many cowboys favor this palette from pink to salmon to peach (costumes by Santo Loquasto) -- and glowing sunset backgrounds (scenery by Oliver Smith, lighting by Thomas R. Skelton), it has the feel of an idealistic Hollywood blockbuster. There is no hint of grit or lawlessness in this version of the American West. As the Cowgirl, which de Mille herself created, Xiomara Reyes was a spunky bundle of tomboy cuteness, slapping the men like a pal, thumbing her nose, pulling up her britches. (Reyes will reportedly retire from the company later this year, so it was a special delight to see her in this role before she does.) The Cowgirl falls for the Head Wrangler (a sturdy Roman Zhurbin), whose head is instead turned by the more conventional Ranch Owner's Daughter of Lauren Post, demure in her pretty dress. Down in the dumps at the Head Wrangler's obliviousness, the Cowgirl is cheered up by the handsome, slightly dopey Champion Roper of James Whiteside, who warms to her himself, after delivering a winsome tap solo in cowboy boots.

The company found a fine companion piece for Rodeo in Antony Tudor's Pillar of Fire, premiered in 1942. Set to the string orchestra arrangement of Arnold Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, the story also seems to be set in middle America. Gillian Murphy brought a compelling look of constraint and tension -- all frozen jaggedness --to the sexually repressed Hagar, a middle sister between the prim, maternal Eldest Sister of Stella Abrera and the obnoxious flirt of Cassandra Trenary's Youngest Sister. When the little sister comes between Hagar and her last chance at happiness, the steadfast Friend of Alexandre Hammoudi, she has an ill-advised liaison with the sebaceous Young Man from the House Opposite of Marcelo Gomes. Her pregnancy implied but not overtly shown, she is reconciled with the Friend, who accepts and forgives Hagar as they walk through a transfigured night (this is the tie-in with Richard Dehmel's poem Zwei Menschen, which is the story told by Schoeberg's gorgeous score.)

Other Reviews:

Sarah Kaufman, A sparkling start to American Ballet Theatre’s D.C. engagement (Washington Post, March 26)
The only slight disappointment was the company's revival of George Balanchine's Theme and Variations, set to the last movement of Tchaikovsky's third orchestral suite, from 1947. Balanchine later set this choreography as the final act of Suite, a setting of Tchaikovsky's complete suite, but it is the variations seen here that are the meat of the music and the dance. Isabella Boylston and Daniil Simkin made a lovely couple, alternating in duo or solo scenes with the corps and especially in the extended pas de deux (with a fine violin solo from concertmaster Oleg Rylatko), although Simkin was a little stiff, not quite steady in the spins, and a little knee-buckled in lifts, especially at the end. The women of the corps did especially beautiful work, especially in their arm-linked groups of three to the woodwind variation. Conductor Ormsby Wilkins seemed to take the finale at a pace that felt too fast for both dancers and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.

This triple-bill repeats tonight only. The company also dances Frederick Ashton's choreography to Prokofiev's Cinderella (March 26 to 29), with the chance to see Gillian Murphy and James Whiteside again as Cinderella and the Prince, on Thursday night only.

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