Nowadays, it’s hard to pin down what the American spirit is all about, but in the past Aaron Copland, the composer known for his spare, cinematic compositions, captured an idea of its essence in works like “Appalachian Spring” and “Billy the Kid.” It’s not just the sounds, but also the way they evoke a sense of space and time. There’s an aspirational air to the music, a feeling of hope and the promise of unknown opportunities. Life could be different, and different could start now.
Justin Peck, the resident choreographer and artistic adviser of New York City Ballet, has long been attracted to Americana, on Broadway and in film — “Carousel” and “West Side Story” — and in ballet, like “Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes” (2015), his interpretation of Copland’s 1942 score, originally composed for Agnes de Mille.
By now, Peck has a playbook, which works for and against him as he flips between joy and longing. He assembles casts that work like teams. In his dances, costumes become uniforms, and dancers build communities. Increasingly, those dancers — or the characters they play — have one thing in common no matter their age: hanging on to youth.
In his ambitious “Copland Dance Episodes,” Peck has merged four of Copland’s works to create an evening-length ballet that opens with the brief, galvanizing “Fanfare for the Common Man” and a kaleidoscopic painted drop by the visual artist Jeffrey Gibson, whose inspiration comes from his Choctaw and Cherokee heritage. A phrase runs down either side: “The only way out is through.”
The drop raises like a curtain to reveal dancers, frozen in place and covered in white tulle like dusty mannequins in storage. When the fabric is removed, they light the stage with flashes of color: Each sports a different one on the top and the bottom. The costumes by Ellen Warren — it’s all very vintage Capezio — echo the colors in Gibson’s palette. Brandon Stirling Baker’s wonderful lighting makes everything glow.
Point established: “Copland” has a look. But what lies underneath its surface? As the dance progresses, Peck’s approach — weaving together dynamic group sections with overlong, ambling partnering — has diminishing returns. The exuberance of the dancers’ faces can seem too much; it doesn’t always match the musicality of their bodies. By the end, their gusto feels manufactured. It loses its vibrancy.
After the “Fanfare,” a group of men take their places for the start of “Rodeo,” lined up and raring to go in a runner’s lunge. This ballet, one of Peck’s best, forms the first main section of “Copland” and is an athletic, charming work that weaves together friendship and competition with a whiff of romance. It also introduces recurring characters. The couple here, Mira Nadon and Taylor Stanley, drift in and out of the next section set to “Appalachian Spring” and, finally, meet and part ways to “Billy the Kid.”
There may not be a synopsis, but there is something of a story, even if “Copland” is being touted as the first non-narrative, full-evening work at City Ballet since “Jewels” (1967). It features 22 episodes beginning with “The Only Way Out Is Through” and ending with “One Door Closes, Another One Opens.”
Not all the titles sound like affirmations sewn onto pillows. But these two give an idea of the general tone. There was also a hint of this sort of aspirational yearning in the unfortunate video teaser to “Copland,” in which two dancers, poised on a highway and in a studio, parted the screen with an outstretched arm — their hands gripped in the center. In the final moment, they lose their grip. It was, in retrospect, a big reveal: In this ballet, breaking up is hard to do.
“Rodeo” ends with three men standing with their fingers pointing up; three women enter from behind and point their fingers down until the tips of those fingers meet. It’s an “E.T.” reference in an episode called “Phone Home,” and, yes, embarrassingly obvious. (Steven Spielberg directed “West Side Story,” too.)
In the “Rodeo” section, Nadon is the sole woman amid a group of men, but in “Appalachian Spring,” the casting flips so that a single man (Chun Wai Chan) finds himself surrounded by women, including Tiler Peck (no relation to the choreographer). A romance begins. He is seated with a knee up; she slides her hand down his arm and grasps his hand and he rises. The gesture, like many in this ballet, is repeated — unnecessarily.
Their pas de deux — “Alone Together” happens in two parts, in another avoidable redundancy — do little to cement their physical bond. They also bring up a weakness in Peck’s choreography: his meandering duets. Any chance for connection fades away as dancers, with furrowed brows, drift through turns or attempt to convey softness in pauses that linger a second too long. How can something be at once clinical and sappy?
Throughout a section called “Spring,” Nadon and Stanley (who uses the pronouns they and them) slice a diagonal across the stage with jumps in which they face each other with their legs split apart; this phrase is repeated and each time, there is a deeper sense of weariness as their bodies deflate and their jumps sink lower. Eventually, Nadon exits but Stanley, for a moment, remains before they depart, too — on the opposite side of the stage.
When Nadon returns, she is surrounded, rescued really, by four women, almost fairy godmothers, all gloriously tall: Emilie Gerrity, Emily Kikta, Isabella LaFreniere and Miriam Miller. This is her “Armor,” as this episode is called, and they enter by jumping into a corner of the stage and rising onto pointe while bending one knee up. They look like birds. Why birds? (Not for the first time in the evening, I thought of Mark Morris’s masterpiece “L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato.”)
By the time “Billy the Kid” rolls around, the ballet has lost steam. Peck repeats old ideas as dancers move swiftly across the stage to form structures with their bodies — he loves a human haystack — or reach for the stars more or less in place. “Copland” soars, and then it stutters.
The big moment comes in Episode 20, “The Split.” It’s a confrontation: Nadon, on pointe, skids toward Stanley. They both cross their arms like lattices, buckle to the floor and rise up again (and again). Their pas de deux becomes a conversation: One, back to the audience, stands at the front of the stage while the other performs a solo. Nadon sways unsteadily, but gradually finds her strength; Stanley, with kicks and lunges, goes, seemingly, to a more internal place. It’s increasingly fraught as we inch toward the moment first revealed in the promo video: Two hands, tightly gripped, snap apart.
Stanley is intense, their confusion and regret palpable. But as striking as Nadon is — her fuchsia top and forest green bottoms heighten her otherworldly glamour — her role is laden with a kind of melodrama that seems at war with her inherent musicality and dancing freedom. In Peck’s ballets, choreography for women often has diminishing returns. Their bodies are on display, but they’re often locked in poses; their dance space is too contained. The men, however, fly across the stage. They eat up space with relish.
There were moments when the cast seemed to be acting out the music rather than dancing to it or, even better, living within it. Copland wrote: “There is something about music that keeps its distance even at the moment that it engulfs us. It is at the same time outside and away from us and inside and part of us.In one sense it dwarfs us, and in another we master it. We are led on and on, and yet in some strange way we never lose control.”
In “Copland,” there is a feeling of being led on and on, of hoping that the next episode has something vital to say. But Peck’s vision, a bright-eyed, wistful reimagining of Copland’s music, stays on the same note.
This music can be expansive in a modern setting. Spike Lee showed that by using it to set the tone in “He Got Game,” notably in the gleaming introduction: We see balls swooshing through hoops all over America, from cornfields to city streets. It’s magnificent. Basketball becomes balletic.
“Copland” makes the stage gleam, but it doesn’t transform ballet. Or even Peck’s original ballet; in this new iteration, “Rodeo” loses its identity. Partly, that has to do with the new costumes, but viewed within the lens of this rambling premiere, even “Rodeo” feels stunted and reductive — dressed in bright colors with nowhere to go.