What becomes a Texas legend most? If you are the stuff of cowboy dreams and folklore, as the larger-than-life Pecos Bill has been since the 1800s, you are immortalized in tall tales told 'round a campfire; in books, like Edward O'Reilly's 1920s Saga of Pecos Bill; at least three movies, the most recent of which has him depicted by fellow Texan Patrick Swayze; and a U.S. postage stamp. And now, a ballet.
"I hope he would have liked it," says Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch. "I think its something our audience can certainly relate to. All story ballets are easier and in Texas this is something everyone will understand. It's less like Swan Lake and more like Cinderella, a story everyone knows."
Pecos Bill will be one of three sections in Welch's first full-length work for Houston Ballet, the much-anticipated Tales of Texas premiering next March 11 though 21.
While putting American Western themes, dances and music into ballet is a 20th century invention, it isn't exactly new. In 1938 Eugene Loring choreographed a one-act ballet to Aaron Copland's wonderful score of Billy the Kid. Here we're talking not just cowboys but outlaws, pirouetting and pas de chat-ing all over the place. And then there's the quintessential cowboy choreographer, Agnes de Mille, whose explosive Rodeo (1942) gave way to her role as choreographer for the stage and screen in the revolutionary Oklahoma! (1943). With such history, Welch's fellow Aussie, designer Kristian Fredrikson, had no qualms about jumping into this cowboy ballet, even though he wasn't reared in the American West.
"That I am an Australian designing an American folktale is no more unusual than the fact that a good percentage of current movie actors in the U.S. are Australian or from New Zealand," says Fredrikson. "Russell Crowe can be a pretty convincing gladiator or an American cop." Fredrikson, a product of a childhood of Western movies and comic books, is a pretty convincing authority on Pecos Bill, despite never even having heard of him until Welch called. But after researching hundreds of articles on the Internet, he says he is now more versed in the lore, and all its versions, "than the average American."
East Coast composer Matthew Pierce was Welch's choice for the mythic music needed to pull off Pecos's performance. His score will be an interesting juxtaposition to the music in the ballet's other movements: a classical piece by Copland and lovelorn ballads by country superstar Patsy Cline. It's a first time collaboration for Pierce and Welch, but one that has taken Pierce back to his childhood as well.
"I bought all the Roy Rogers and Lone Ranger DVDs," he says. "I used to watch the Lone Ranger as a kid all the time. My brother Ben (a former principal with San Francisco Ballet) and I used to play cowboys and Indians all the time. He liked to run around naked so he was the Indian. I liked the guns and the hat. And the boots. The boots are important."
Fredrikson disagrees on this point. "Indians always had the best deal because they got to wear feathers and face paint and leapt upon their enemies whooping and firing arrows."
Even Welch played what he calls the "universal game" as a youth. "I think I was more of an Indian, too," he recalls.
But how do you translate the myth of the ultimate Texas cowboy, a man raised by coyotes who used a rattlesnake as a lasso and rode a wild stallion named Widowmaker, into a ballet?
For Pierce, it's about mythic music. "I want the music to be big, to have the feel of that part of Texas. And Pecos has to have his own rompin' stompin' music." Pierce uses violas for the plaintive howl of the coyotes and violins‹hot and fast‹for the sound of crickets in the Texas eve while Fredrikson envisions patchwork sets to evoke the wide-open Texas spaces. While the look is almost cartoonish, there will be hats and boots and chaps.
"Even the horses have chaps," says Welch. As for movement, he intends to build an almost tribalistic vocabulary. "You create a combination of what movements mean, what steps depict riding a horse, what steps depict a gunfight. It's really not unlike how kids play cowboys and Indians."
Welch himself has danced in Rodeo and is familiar with many ballet movements depicting horse riding. The difference here is that the horses are also characters and the "riding" action is a pas de deux between Pecos and Widowmaker.
Welch's version of the tall tale focuses on the three women in Pecos's life. His mother, whom he looses after he falls from the wagon while the family crosses the Pecos River, the motherly coyote who raises him, and his true love, Slue-Foot Sue. A tomboyish gal known to ride catfish, Sue acquiesces to Pecos and wears a dress on their wedding day, only to be thrown by Widowmaker and bounce, on her bustle, up to the stars where she becomes a constellation. It's a cowboy ballet even children should like.
"We have horses, cows, coyotes," says Welch. "But death, too. The moral is you should never ask someone to change. But it's not a tragedy, in some ways it's really no different than Bambi. And every time you see a falling star you'll think of Sue, bouncing into the sky."