Agnes de Mille’s “Rodeo” – A Brief History of this Fun, Theatrical Ballet!

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Agnes De Mille in “Rodeo”

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Michelle McLaughlin and Asael Picasso photo by Barry Goyette.jpg

Written by Robyn Jutsum

Happy May! This month, The Ballet Spot is headed to the Wild Wild West with our new theme, Rodeo, choreographed by Agnes De Mille! This cowboy ballet premiered in 1942 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and music by Aaron Copland.

To give you an introduction to Agnes De Mille, the mastermind behind this cowgirl ballet, watch her describe the choreography in this video commissioned by the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization.
Set at a ranch (ballet’s subtitled “The Courting at Burnt Ranch”), De Mille’s ballet portrays a Southwestern love story centered around the protagonist, the Cowgirl (originally played by De Mille herself) and her love for the Head Wrangler. Over the course of the ballet, the Cowgirl attempts to make him notice her and tries to keep up with the other cowboys. However, in the end, she finds true love with another gentleman, the Lead Roper, so the Head Wrangler remains with his love, the Rancher’s Daughter, and all is well at Burnt Ranch! The Kennedy Center has an excellent feature on Agnes De Mille and her work, including Rodeo, and they share a full synopsis which I encourage everyone to read.

ABT 1973 Scene 1 featuring Christine Sarry as the Cowgirl: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9uzwiKNhCk&t=302s

The ballet is divided into 5 sections:

“Buckaroo Holiday,”
“Corral Nocturne,”
“Ranch House Party,”
“Saturday Night Waltz,”
And “Hoe Down”
Colorado Ballet in Rodeo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZqbxVjF1jwM

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Xiomara Reyes, American Ballet Theatre photo by Gene Schiavone

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Marian Butler, American Ballet Theatre, photo by Gene Schiavone

The set, costumes, and lighting help create the Old Western vibe of the ballet. Designed by Oliver Smith, it’s important to pay attention to how both the set and lighting define not only the ranch but also the time of day throughout the 5 sections. The costumes are, predictably, indicative of the Wild West, with cowboy attire for the men and traditional Western dresses for the women. The exception to this is the Cowgirl, who is also dressed in cowboy attire as she tries to fit in with the men. In the second half of the ballet, she dons a red dress and has an “ugly duck moment,” suddenly becoming noticeable and desirable, even to the Head Wrangler (and the Lead Roper, her true love), which is in deep contrast to her character during the earlier sections of the ballet.

Although considered a ballet, you will find Rodeo has several types of dance in it. De Mille felt that Russian ballet technique and aesthetic was outdated, restricting, and limiting choreographically and unimaginative in emotional expression on stage. The Kennedy Center explains that the ballet is relevant today because of its ability to convey human emotion, “And even though Rodeo was choreographed some 70 years ago, we still enjoy it today because it portrays universal human emotions: the desire to find love and the hurt of rejection.” Gestures and affectations are incorporated to reflect the motion of roping, horseback riding, the gait of the cowboy, etc. You will find tap, square dance, various social dances, and elements of ballet and Modern Dance throughout the story. As a result, Rodeo is considered one of, if not the first, truly American ballets. It has been the source of inspiration for many alternate interpretations of Copland’s score, most notably Justin Peck’s Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes (Premiered 2015 with the New York City Ballet at the David H. Koch Theater). Watch this feature with Daniel Ulbricht (who will be part of our Stars of Ballet Series in July!!) discussing Peck’s ballet
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Sign up for Rodeo-themed Cardio Ballet here. And participate in our monthly virtual performance! Learn more about your “performance” opportunity and how to be a part of it here.

Want to learn more about Rodeo and Agnes De Mille, and watch excerpts from the ballet? Join us for our virtual happy hour and viewing party, Sips and Clips, on Sunday, May 15th at 6 pm ET / 3 pm PT! Sign up for free here.

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Justin Peck’s Rodeo performed by New York City Ballet

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