En Pointe 05 - May 2
80 Years – Rodeo
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s 80th anniversary season was originally planned to conclude with a one-of-a-kind performance featuring three monumental ballets celebrating the artistic directors who brought them to our stage. Unfortunately, owing to COVID-19 and the social distancing measures inherent to stopping the spread of the virus, the performance called 80 Years – A Retrospective was cancelled. The RWB cherishes our history and although we can’t perform these pieces, we still want to share pieces of these memories with you. This week, En Pointe has prepared a special retrospective on the creation of Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo, one of the beloved performances planned for 80 Years – A Retrospective.
At first glance, Rodeo is a distinctively North American ballet. Beloved by audiences since its premiere in New York City on October 16th, 1942, Rodeo features cowgirls and cowboys mingling at a ranch house and having a hoe-down. Agnes de Mille, the choreographer and creator of the ballet, is an American, the ballet company it was created for is American, and even the music, composed by Aaron Copland, incorporates traditional American folk tunes almost completely intact throughout the score. It would seem, then, that Rodeo is as American as apple pie, but the story of Rodeo, and how it became the widely beloved ballet we recognize today, actually begins in Paris, thirty-three years before its premiere.
At the turn of the 20th century, Paris was a cultural epicenter, where artists and aristocracy benefitted mutually from the Belle Époque. Millions of visitors from around the world were drawn to Paris to sample the latest innovations in commerce, art and technology. It was the birthplace of the motion picture, Impressionism, Modern Art, and a ballet company known as Ballets Russes.
The Ballet Russes was a travelling ballet company based in Paris from 1909 to 1929. Remembered as the most influential ballet company of the 20th century, the Ballet Russes’ productions seemed to always be a huge sensation, in part because it promoted ground-breaking artistic collaborations between young choreographers, composers, designers, and dancers, all at the forefront of their respective fields, the company completely reinvigorated the art of performing dance.
While operating under the artistic direction of Sergei Diaghilev, who left Russia for Paris due to his frustrations with the conservatism of the Russian art world, the Ballet Russes enjoyed enormous success and toured extensively throughout Europe and the American continents, introducing audiences to tales, music, and motifs from Russian folklore. When Diaghilev died in 1929, however, the crippling costs of producing grand ballets combined with the Great Depression left the Ballet Russes in substantial debt. Soon after, the once influential dancers and choreographers left the company and the Ballet Russes was shuttered.
The Ballet Russes name was resurrected by the Ballet Russes de Monte-Carlo (note the plural) in 1932. Intended to be a successor to the Ballet Russes, this new company was helmed by “Colonel” Wassily de Basil, a Russian émigré living in Paris, and René Blum, the former ballet director at the Monte Carlo Opera. Unfortunately, the two had incontrovertible artistic differences and by 1936, the company split. The part which de Basil retained went through two name changes before becoming the Original Ballet Russe, while Blum founded Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, which changed its name to Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo (note the singular) when Léonide Massine became artistic director in 1938.
After World War II began in 1939, the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo moved to the United States where it faced strong competition from its contemporaries, particularly the American Ballet Theatre. The traditional Russian influence woven throughout the company’s repertoire was less appealing in its new home, and so the Ballet Russe began to seek new ballets that would resonate with American audiences. To assist with this, the Ballet Russe contracted Agnes de Mille, who was at the time a relatively unknown dancer and choreographer.
Agnes de Mille had a long history of theatre and dance experience. Her father was the playwright William Churchill DeMille, and her uncle was the film director Cecil B. DeMille. De Mille spent her youth in Hollywood and earned a B.A. degree in English from the University of California, Los Angeles, where she also studied dance. After moving to New York City, she toured the United States and Europe, giving concerts of her own character sketches in mime-dance. She created her first major roles in ballet with the Ballet Rambert, performing in works by Antony Tudor, and later studied modern dance. When the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo approached her to create an original ballet, she returned to them with a semi-autobiographical ballet set in the American west. She called it Rodeo: The Courting at Burnt Ranch.
The Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo loved the idea of a cowboy ballet and gave de Mille complete control of the creative process. De Mille, at this point an extremely skilled dancer, cast herself in the lead role and set out to tell the story of an awkward cowgirl whose unwillingness to subscribe to traditional gender roles mirrors de Mille’s experience. By the time she began looking for a composer, de Mille had already blocked the entire show, nevertheless she insisted on Aaron Copland.
Copland was an American composer capable of evoking the vast American landscape and pioneering spirit in his compositions and had already become associated with what many people considered to be the sound of American music. Although Copland was initially reluctant to continue working in a style with which he felt too familiar, de Mille persuaded him that this show would mark a significant departure from his previous work, and in many ways, she was right.
Rodeo is considered to be one of the earliest examples of a truly American ballet, combining a Broadway musical with elements of classical ballet. It features an American cowgirl competing with other local girls to win the attention of the Champion Roper. The cowgirl emotes strength, awkwardness, confidence, femininity and vulnerability, and must execute rapid-fire footwork and pantomime, mimicking the bronco-busting of the men, all while dressed in stylized western garb, making many of the moves even more difficult to execute.
Rodeo became one of de Mille’s most important ballets and helped to launch her into superstar choreographer status. It’s recognized as the first ballet to include tap dancing, and it used distinctively American gestures, including bronco-riding and steer-roping. After the premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House, the cast received 22 curtain calls and de Mille was approached by the musical theatre duo Rodgers and Hammerstein to choreograph their upcoming production of Oklahoma!
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet first performed Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo in 1973, under the artistic direction of Dr. Arnold Spohr. It was so successful that Rodeo returned to the RWB stage numerous times over the next three decades, solidifying itself as one of the most prominent and memorable pieces in the RWB’s repertoire. De Mille’s cowgirl became a role model for generations of women and girls who felt just as comfortable in jeans and boots as they do in dresses, and to this day ballet fans in Winnipeg have fond memories of the cowgirl who against all odds finally roped her cowboy.