Earlier this year, Justin Peck, New York City Ballet’s Resident Choreographer and Artistic Advisor, was given what is perhaps the ultimate compliment a dancemaker might hope for from his dancers and other artistic collaborators: a crowd-sourced analysis of his style by those who know it from within. (“What Makes a Peck a Peck” by Genevieve Smith, New York Magazine). Complete with photographs and online videos, it shows the isometric dynamics of his movements and their paradoxical coordination. The ballerina Tiler Peck, for instance, compares his manipulation of groups to the working of a Rubik’s cube. This remarkable analysis of how those magical effects are made is a tribute from those who embody and help to realize them, an example of how deeply an artist can be not only appreciated, but seen.
In Peck’s Copland Dance Episodes, you can see all these elements and others at work. However, there is a context for them that suggests meaning. The structure of the libretto in the program—22 episodes, each with its own title—gives a clue that, although there is no declared narrative, the ballet is not story-less. Its relationship to the music becomes a story in itself, and, from there, the action guides the viewer’s thoughts outward to social themes. (To build the score, Peck used Fanfare for the Common Man and Aaron Copland’s own suites for Rodeo and Appalachian Spring, as well as much of the full score for Billy the Kid. NYCB’s orchestra plays the Copland sumptuously, with pleasure and commitment.)
Peck responds to each of Copland’s long musical lines, canonic interludes, and unexpectedly accented phrases with the assurance of a person in his own home. He does not set up a conversation with the music; he marries it, registering its emotions and its tonal variety while also creating imagery that invokes “common man” situations, such as horseplay among peers, a romantic couple on a carousel, a trio who share space but not interior worlds.
Manipulating light, space, and choreography, Peck effects astonishing transformations. A hand that is tendered in a moment of submission becomes, once grasped, the agent of disunion. A head gently resting on a heart (a detail that Peck has slyly plucked from Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo and recontextualized), placed on that heart once too often, lightly yet decisively becomes the lever for divorcement. A section that ends with several male figures Biblically pointing straight skyward is revised in a subsequent section that ends with several female figures pointing forward into the future on a 45-degree angle, and that image is subsequently revised by a group of male and female figures seated in a circle, each lifting one leg with the foot pointed (the circle invoking a nocturnal moment in Billy when Eugene Loring’s outlaw is triggered into ruminations by a campfire).
A woman’s variation to the “Simple Gifts” tune from Appalachian Spring does not quite lasso the entire herd of conflicting emotions that animate the Bride of Martha Graham’s frontier-wedding masterpiece, but the more joyous qualities are caught on the fly. An early duet, with a partnered cartwheel and little catch step piquantly sited on the music, is one of Peck’s loveliest.
Copland Dance Episodes is bathed in color as well as pure light: Greeting the audience is Jeffrey Gibson’s front curtain, both minimalist in its geometric targets and triangles and maximalist in its multicolored profusion of forms, as he puts it in his biographical note in the program, “inspired by indigenous American artifacts with the lyrics and psychedelic palette of disco music.” It’s also noted that although Gibson’s work “fuses his Choctaw-Cherokee heritage and experience of living in Europe, Asia, and the USA,” its references “span club culture, queer theory, fashion, politics, literature, and art history.” The ballet is marvelously lit by Brandon Stirling Baker; the cast is costumed in Ellen Warren’s leotards with trunks, or tops with tights, each person given a unique combination of deeply saturated, contrasting hues.
Welcome to the 21st century. In case the audience forgets that’s where we are, the ballet opens on a tableau of the full cast, each person uniquely positioned and wrapped in a transparent tulle-like packaging. Nearly everyone then runs off into the wings to remove the wicked caul of yesteryear and returns in up-to-the-minute living color, bright-eyed with eagerness to, once again, embark on Peck’s westering of their spirits.
Copland Dance Episodes is performed by New York City Ballet February 11, 13, 17 at 2pm, and 21, 2024.
Mindy Aloff is a dance writer in New York City. Her book of essays, Why Dance Matters, was published this year by Yale University Press.