Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo: ABT marks the 70th anniversary of the moment “we put our feet on the ground”

America was at war following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour and the United States was “never more deeply determined to face the solemn tasks before it”, in the words of the president, Franklin D Roosevelt.

The shock of the attack was followed by an uprising of patriotism, speeches, movies that comforted the nation, sentimental songs from White Christmas, to Americana, such as Deep in the Heart of Texas and Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else but Me), and movie distractions, from Bambi to Casablanca.

The year was 1942, and that summer in New York, the American dancer and choreographer, Agnes de Mille, rehearsed the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (then stranded in the US) for her new ballet set in the American south west, whose characters were the Cowgirl, the Champion Roper and the Head Wrangler.

On October 16 that year, at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, the curtain rose for the premiere of the ballet, Rodeo, subtitled The Courting at Burnt Ranch, to show a deep red sky, the parched, dusty ground of a corral and de Mille herself as the Cowgirl in a red shirt, brown hat, pants and boots standing among a group of cowboys who don’t even see that she is there.

With Frederic Franklin as the Champion Roper, Kasimir Kokitch as the Head Wrangler, a score by Aaron Copland and scenery by Oliver Smith, Rodeo was a hit.

At the curtain calls, de Mille held a bunch of American corn tied with red, white and blue ribbons as, she wrote, “we bowed and bowed…at the eighth bow, I looked into the pit. The fiddlers were beating their bows on their instruments. The others were standing up yelling…we had 22 curtain calls”.

In New York today, American Ballet Theatre is presenting Rodeo in the first of four performances to mark the 70th anniversary of the ballet that led to de Mille’s great success as a choreographer of musicals such as Oklahoma!, Carousel and Brigadoon.

Rodeo was more than a successful work in the American idiom. It marked a democratisation of ballet, a merging of classical steps, gesture, modern dance, social dance (waltzes, polkas, a hoedown), tap dancing and square dance.

De Mille said later that American choreographers such as herself, Jerome Robbins, Michael Kidd had added colloquialism to the classical base of ballet.

“We have come down to earth”, she said. “We have put our feet on the ground”.

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Rodeo, Pennsylvania Ballet, photo © Alexander Iziliaev

Rodeo, Pennsylvania Ballet, photo © Alexander Iziliaev

Rodeo, Pennsylvania Ballet, photo © Alexander Iziliaev

Rodeo, Pennsylvania Ballet, photo © Alexander Iziliaev

Rodeo, production 1950, photo © Roger Wood

Richard Rodgers, Agnes De Mille, and Oscar Hammerstein II at rehearsal for Allegro] 1947, photo © Fred Fehl