Revolutionary Rodeo

Agnes de Mille created a ballet inspired by the American West.

HUMANITIES, Spring 2021, Volume 42, Number 2
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From the mid 1930s to the mid 1940s, choreographers put America on the stage. They spun tall tales and turning points from history into one-act ballets that proclaimed the nation’s brash glory, partly in response to the high-artiness of ballet traditions in France and Russia. In “ballet Americana,” as the genre became known, gangsters pulled guns, starlets primped, and cowboys roamed. Lots of cowboys. 

Among the best of these storyteller choreographers was Agnes de Mille. Her masterful Rodeo (pronounced roh-DAY-oh) premiered at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House on October 16, 1942, expressing the nation’s character with an optimism that resonated with wartime audiences. They laughed, they clapped, and they cheered “lustily” when the curtain dropped on this “little cow opera,” according to the New York Times’s John Martin, who praised its wit and authenticity. It was “serious comedy,” agreed critic Edwin Denby, an openhearted drama tinged with humor that assuaged the country’s anxious mood. First-night curtain calls totaled anywhere from 17 to 23, depending on whom you asked (de Mille herself leaned toward the high side, claiming 22). 

Rodeo followed the earlier frontier ballets Barn Dance (1937), by Catherine Littlefield, and Billy the Kid (1938), by Eugene Loring. De Mille had seen Billy the Kid and liked the music so much she asked its composer, Aaron Copland, to arrange something for her. This Brooklyn-born son of Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants produced a score that thrilled de Mille in its evocation of America’s wide-open West: “You couldn’t hear those long sequences without the sense of enormous distance and space and strength and loneliness,” she said. 

The cast of Rodeo, however, was anything but American. Its dancers were classically trained foreigners from the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, some of whom hated what de Mille asked them to do. The ballet’s “Head Wrangler,” Casimir Kokitch, openly mocked her choreography by “hopping on an imaginary horse, slapping himself on the rump, turning his back, making the sound of a horse breaking wind, and then trott[ing] away offstage,” according to his colleague George Zoritch. Nevertheless, de Mille, who loved playing outdoors as a youngster in then-arcadian Los Angeles, wanted to showcase the “joy of effort” rather than technical prowess. Her cowhands were so convincing and virile that “you could smell them in the tenth row,” de Mille’s sister, Margaret George, remarked.

Rodeo tells a simple tale of a rambunctious cowgirl who swaps her cowboy boots for a dress to win the attention of a handsome but haughty head wrangler, only to opt for romance with a kindly champion roper instead. The heroine’s happy ending doesn’t come without heartache, an emotion de Mille knew all too well as the daughter of screenwriter William de Mille, who, she told a friend, would have preferred a son and a tennis player rather than a daughter and a dancer. On the bright side, it was the silent film careers of William and his director brother, Cecil B., that exposed Agnes to the intricacies of storytelling. While visiting the sets of their movies, de Mille witnessed how actors communicated using only their faces and bodies as they were burned at the stake or tossed to the lions. She grasped this nonverbal language intuitively and applied it to dancing, creating her own choreographic lexicon. In Rodeo, for example, cowboys swirl unseen lassos in unison to signal their exuberant dominance over the land and the dainty maidens who prance before them in rows with their hands clasped. In turn, the cowgirl shrugs, wipes her nose, and falls to the ground, in tandem with no one. De Mille insisted on playing this misfit herself on opening night. “When I was onstage, it mattered to me,” she recalled. “That girl was fighting for her happiness.”

Always the feisty outsider, de Mille had tried being one of the “dainty” girls, that is, a classical ballerina. She had studied ballet with Russian expatriate Theodore Kosloff and Polish-born English pedagogue Marie Rambert, but realized she didn’t have the body for it—too busty and bottom heavy—nor the talent to devise it. Instead, she capitalized on what she knew and what she could do: “I’m American. I have to speak from my own background, and that would be American vernacular.” In London, where she had gone in 1932 to escape family pressures and advance her career, she staged a sketch for four women to a string of (non-Copland) “Cowboy Songs” that brought the Brits “to their feet,” writes de Mille scholar Barbara Barker. Although it lacked a love triangle, it “contained all the movements” of the ballet that would become Rodeo a decade later.

De Mille’s self-styled American vernacular consisted largely of nonballetic dance idioms embellished by pantomime. In Rodeo’s first scene, set in a corral, she used loose-limbed tap steps and spasms borrowed from the modernists to reflect the vigorous, unruly nature of ranch work. Well-timed slaps, hitches, and hand gestures add humor and advance the plot. In scene two, when the action moves indoors, the dancing becomes more domesticated, although no less lively. All have gathered for a hoe-down. Folk dances, set to traditional folk tunes Copland embedded in the score, create an air of rustic community. Polkas and waltzes demand occasional pairing off (the ballet’s subtitle is “the Courting at Burnt Ranch” after all). De Mille didn’t shun ballet completely, however. Notably, toward the end of scene one, she inserted the briefest of pas de deux—essentially a single twirling lift—that catches the sweep and romance of the West.

Several women besides de Mille championed ballet Americana, including Philadelphian Catherine Littlefield, who was born two days before de Mille in 1905. Littlefield unveiled Barn Dance, a rousing tale of a prodigal farm girl, in her hometown in 1937 and promptly took it to Europe. It was widely hailed on both sides of the Atlantic. Littlefield was a political conservative and de Mille an avowed liberal, but their respective hits emanated from a shared pride in their country’s values and promise. Both ballets had happy endings.

Littlefield’s father, like de Mille’s, worked in silent films. An expert cavalryman, he taught actors riding skills and horse tricks. From him, Littlefield learned about speed, timing, and control. Her Barn Dance was such a tour de force of kaleidoscopic movement that it left few moments for characters to reveal themselves. Audiences never knew, for instance, why the farm girl fled home in the first place, or why she came back. Built on topical novelty and quicksilver steps rather than narrative, Littlefield’s brand of self-conscious ballet Americana soon exhausted itself. Barn Dance flopped when it was revived in 1944 after a three-year dormancy. By then, Americans had seen Rodeo. They expected their cowboys to do more than dance. They wanted them to feel, too.

Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II saw the Rodeo premiere together and within days invited de Mille to choreograph their next project, a Broadway musical that became the blockbuster Oklahoma! Theater historian Laurence Maslon describes Rodeo as the “perfect audition piece for Oklahoma!” Both works depict young women vacillating between two men in America’s heartland. Oklahoma!’s directors agreed that de Mille would choreograph a “dream ballet” to close out the first act, a bold decision since dance sequences seldom held the spotlight in musicals at that time. While Hammerstein proposed a “bizarre, imaginative, and amusing” piece, de Mille pushed for something more substantive. She then created “Laurey Makes Up Her Mind,” an eighteen-minute subliminal fantasy with dark undertones that crucially informs the plot. While it wasn’t Broadway’s first dream ballet, it became its most consequential. As Maslon explains: “[T]he characters are revealing not only something the audience doesn’t already know, but something the characters don’t even know about themselves.” In Oklahoma! and in Rodeo before that, de Mille made dances into revelations. By the mid twentieth century, she was one of the few celebrity choreographers in the country.

About that time, however, the identity of American ballet began to change, largely because of the abstract works being produced by Russian-American choreographer George Balanchine. It became more about pure movement—how bodies expressed music through shapes, inflections, patterns, and attack—than about plot and character. The last roundly successful work of ballet Americana was 1944’s Fancy Free, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, a depiction of three jaunty sailors on shore leave (which de Mille adored and which evolved into the Broadway hit On the Town). In the second half of the twentieth century, Balanchine’s formalism rather than de Mille’s expressive realism was what defined ballet as American. But, by then, de Mille had already made her mark and left her own legacy.

In 2015, choreographer Justin Peck created an entirely new Rodeo for the New York City Ballet, the company Balanchine cofounded in 1948. He used an orchestral suite Copland arranged from his own music (which preserves the now ubiquitous “Hoe-Down” section). Peck’s highly regarded piece is formally titled Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes, with the initial word reverting to its conventional pronunciation. Abstract, nonsexual, and racially diverse (at least as first cast), Peck’s ballet “deconstructs” de Mille’s—to quote critic Alastair Macaulay’s—rather than mocks or rebukes it. His version is appropriate to its cultural moment, as was hers. In 1942, with a war raging, Americans united around ideals, if not politics. And they loved a good story.

It seems audiences still do. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, five different Rodeo productions were under way, according to Anderson Ferrell, executive director of the De Mille Working Group, which handles licensing of the choreographer’s oeuvre. The ballet has endured for many reasons—its score, its engaging choreography, and its happy ending, which unlike Barn Dance’s, is earned. The cowgirl transforms herself and gets what she wants (critics would say she “conforms”), only to realize she has been loved all along for her authentic self. In the end, she chooses the right man, and audiences, who follow her emotional journey, leave the theater satisfied.