Aaron Copland’s America is rural, somehow softer and more manageable to our psyche than Bernstein’s West Side Story (even though Copland the composer was just as much a product of the city as Bernstein). Copland’s ballet Rodeo is a celebration of the American West and reflects an important image we have of ourselves. The commission for Rodeo came, surprisingly enough, from the classically-oriented Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, with the music by Copland and the choreography and scenario by Agnes de Mille. The ballet was precedent setting – there were said to be 22 curtain calls at its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House on October 16, 1942 – and the success of this ballet insured that dance would thrive as an integral part of American musical theater. In 1945, Copland made a symphonic arrangement from the ballet, the Four Dance Episodes.
The genesis of the scenario is told by Agnes de Mille in her memoir Dance to the Piper. According to de Mille, the idea of doing a ballet for the Ballet Russe, a company with a decidedly 19th-century bent, did not immediately inspire Copland in their first meeting. Nor did Copland inspire her; instead, he laughed out loud at some of her ideas for a scenario. De Mille invited him to “go straight to Hell” – an inauspicious beginning, to say the least. Something in their bantering and frank exchange seemed to work, however, because the very next day he called back to see if she would meet him for tea that afternoon. Ultimately, their collaboration was momentous in American dance history.
The ballet’s scenario takes place at Burnt Ranch, where a Cowgirl finds herself competing with visiting city girls for the attention of the local cowboys, especially the Head Wrangler. The four “episodes” Copland extracted trace the narrative effectively. The “Buckaroo Holiday” bursts forth like a herd of wild horses. It quickly shifts to a lilting melody which announces the Cowgirl making her bid for the Head Wrangler, but she makes a fool of herself by trying to ride a bucking bronco and getting thrown. The American folk song “If He’d Be a Buckaroo by His Trade” (a trombone solo) is quoted by Copland in this dance. The jaunty “Holiday” section ends with as much vim and vigor as it began.
“Corral Nocturne,” the second of the Four Episodes, is moody, yearning, and melancholy. The Cowgirl’s sadness is portrayed by Copland as he quotes the ballad “Sis Joe.” In this movement, the Western woman of Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose comes to this writer’s mind – the indispensable Western heroine who prevails against the harshest of circumstances, in spite of the violence and narcissism of the men folk.
The moodiness continues in the “Saturday Night Waltz,” as Copland quotes the song “Old Paint” and paints a picture of the Cowgirl’s isolation, but also gives us hope that her plight is only temporary.
The famous and beloved “Hoe-Down” begins with dynamism and verve, signaling the Cowgirl’s rebirth: she has suddenly put aside her cowpoke duds and reappeared as the prettiest girl in the room. Copland borrows two square-dance tunes – “Bonyparte” and “McLeod’s Reel” – to aid in this romp, a fanciful and uplifting take on the American square dance. We have a typical, stand-up-and-cheer Hollywood Western ending, too, as the girl gets the right guy for her, not the aloof and snooty Head Wrangler at all, but Another Cowboy who has shown her respect, kindness, and honor.
Of course, it is all a bit ironic, really, that two New Yorkers whose Jewish families immigrated from Eastern Europe – Bernstein and Copland – captured the soul of America, from sea to shining sea.
But it’s a classic story.
— Dave Kopplin