"New Combinations" was the perfect title for the program at New York City Ballet, which presented the world premiere of Justin Peck's "Rōdē,ō: Four Dance Episodes." The score is Aaron Copland's iconic and robust tapestry of American folk songs, written up originally for Agnes de Mille's groundbreaking 1942 ballet "Rodeo." The challenge for Peck: to bring a new perspective to a familiar work. His pre-curtain speech included an announced that due to an injury by Andrew Veyette the previous evening, that Sean Suozzi and Peck himself would be sharing his role, an exciting change to see the choreographer lead in his own work.
Regardless of the choreography, Copland's score for "Rodeo" exudes American brightness and suggests expansive space waiting to be filled. Peck's "Rōdē,ō" opens with 15 men in color-blocked tones of rust and steel, with bands of white across their torsos reflecting the changing lighting. Costumed by Ried Bartelme, Harriet Jung, and Peck, the dancers look like sportsman (perhaps rugby players?) and are evocative of Coco Chanel's stripped costumes for the Ballet Russes' 1924 production "Le Train Bleu." Peck's dancers are athletes: the new American cowboys. Daniel Ulbricht, the indisputable pyrotechnician of the company, lit the fuse in the opening bars of the score, setting off a display of explosive male bravura which makes up the majority of the first episode. Transitioning into the second movement, a chorus of five men carve arcs through one of Copland's more delicate and dreamy movements, showing an usually sensitive and non-sexual masculinity.
Sara Mearns enters in the third movement, the lone ballerina in the work, her femininity is heightened in contrast to the men. In de Mille's premiere, her cowgirl, "acts like a boy, not to be a boy, but to be liked by the boys." Mearns keeps up, perhaps this cowgirl is thinking - anything they can do, I can do better? Her partner, Amar Ramasar, soars around her in his jumps, performing with a crispness, confidence, and charisma that has become a hallmark of his dancing. He begins the fourth movement at the very front edge of the stage, on his knees and pulling a string as if starting a lawnmower - the Great Plains of de Mille's "Rodeo" have been replaced with the Front Lawn, perhaps the only "wild" frontier left for the America cowboy to conquer? The final episode includes a full-cast huddle, only to break and show off Ulbricht's ability to comedically decelerate pirouettes on time with the music.
It's one thing for a choreographer to illustrate a favorite piece of music, it's another thing to have something to say. Following in the footsteps of Jerome Robbins, Peck's work has consistently offered commentary on contemporary life and a strong choreographic voice to the rising millennial generation. The dancers respond to it, and it shows onstage much to his benefit.
The premiere was shared by a program with Alexei Ratmansky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" and Christopher Wheeldon's "Mercurial Maneuvers." "Pictures," which premiered last season to Modest Mussorgsky's piano score of the same name and features abstract projections based on deconstructions of Wassily Kandinsky's Color Study with Concentric Circles. With its vivid colors, this new Russian combination is one of the most successful collaborations that has emerged from New York City Ballet's recent commissions. Ratmansky's demanding transitions, often with little or unusual preparation, results in a beautiful smudging of classical ballet technique that is aesthetically cohesive with Kandinsky and choreographically formalist as well. Sara Mearns performed the first solo with a fresh abandon, Sterling Hyltin and Tyler Angle displayed a cool command over their central pas de deux, and corps dancers Indiana Woodward and Joseph Gordon pulled displayed not only technical strength but budding Principal presence as well.
Wheeldon's "Maneuvers" in 2000 was the last work to be made on the company while he was still performing with New York City Ballet. To see what another budding choreographer was making at about the same time - Wheeldon was 26, Peck is currently 27 - is not only a testament to Wheeldon's longevity as one of the best choreographers of the 21st century, but also a hopeful sign that we can expect many more great things from Peck in the future.