When American Ballet Theatre revives this week at New York City Center its production of Rodeo, it celebrates the 70th anniversary of a milestone: the first truly American ballet, with an evocative score by Aaron Copland, painterly sets by Oliver Smith, and the groundbreaking choreography of Agnes de Mille. De Mille’s dance combined classical ballet with Broadway and popular styles, including square dance, pantomime (cowboys ride imaginary horses and rope cattle), and an exuberant tap dance solo.
Tap dance in ballet? In this Western love story, where a cowgirl falls in love with a champion roper who dazzles with a tap tour de force—de Mille’s novel use of tap dance was and remains a showstopper. And in a lead up to the ABT’s performances of the landmark Rodeo, ABT dancers, including Craig Salstein, who performs the role of the champion roper, gave tap dance lessons to 100 New York City public school children at South Street Seaport.
More than ever, American Ballet Theatre represents an international troupe, with dancers from Russia, Ukraine, Europe, Cuba, South America, Asia, and the United States. Its Russian-born artist-in-residence, Alexei Ratmansky, is one of today’s most sought-after choreographers and this week the company also gives the world premiere of his latest ballet, set to music by Dmitri Shostakovich, a quintessentially 20th-century Russian composer. Among Shostakovich’s symphonies, his ninth is distinct, distinguished by its high-spirited tone. The music was written in 1945, only three years after Copland’s Rodeo, yet it’s a world away.
Mario R. Mercado is arts editor at Travel + Leisure.