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Justin Peck’s bold new American ballet

In 2011, In Creases, Justin Peck’s first dance for the New York City Ballet, enjoyed its world premiere at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Since then, he has made twenty-two more works for the company, and Thursday’s matinee at SPAC brought his newest. Copland Dance Episodes, billed as his first evening-length work, is a big, bold, winning ballet for thirty dancers, filled with pure feeling and excellent performances.

Running seventy-five minutes without an intermission, Copland Dance Episodes pulls together three ballet scores by Aaron Copland—Rodeo, Appalachian Spring, and Billy the Kid—with Fanfare for the Common Man serving as an overture, all wonderfully conducted by Andrew Litton. The three original works were story ballets, and their choreographers, respectively, were Agnes de Mille, Martha Graham, and Eugene Loring. At thirty-five, Peck has competitively placed himself in strong company.

Even without an overall narrative, Copland Dance Episodes touches implicitly on larger American stories and themes. Brandon Stirling Baker’s bright lighting reflects the emotional openness of Copland’s music and illuminates the emotional directness of much of Peck’s choreography. In this ballet without irony, Peck eliminates the fashionable quotation marks around much postmodern dance gesture. A solo by Miriam Miller, for example, with energetic kicks and amazing extensions, expresses pure joy, and the daredevil spins and leaps of Roman Mejia and Sebastian Villarini-Velez display an innocent masculinity devoid of testosterone-fueled exhibitionism. A slow, precise solo expertly danced by Unity Phelan exudes quiet contentment, and a series of duets for phlegmatic Chun Wai Chan and patient Alexa Maxwell concludes with the pair discovering the promise of satisfied desire. The ballet continuously explores our human capacity for pure, unalloyed feeling.

Peck incorporates material from his 2015 Copland ballet, Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes, most of which looks quite different integrated into the new work. The earlier ballet had an unorthodox cast of fifteen men and one woman, and when the ballerina danced a luscious legato solo while the men, chatting in small groups, ignored her, it looked like a gay joke. With fifteen women now dancing alongside the fifteen men, Copland Dance Episodes creates a new context for that solo, and after Miller performs it, superbly, she partners up with Russell Janzen. When they join both hands and raise them high, it might signal a wish to build a house and start a committed life on the American prairie. In this way, Peck slips the merest hints of narrative into his plotless ballet, and the hope expressed in such passages is immensely touching—so much so that when Miller and Janzen split up late in the work, their drawn-out, explanatory dances make the breakup unconvincing, imposed instead of inevitable.

Peck creates superb new dances for the women, especially the trio of Phelan, Emilie Gerrity, and Ashley Laracey, whose technical daring rivals that of their male counterparts, Mejia, Villarini-Velez, and David Gabriel. In one section, all six form a circle and launch into a can-you-top-this dance competition, ending with a series of barely detectable head feints as they try to decoy each other into false moves. This and other sections recall the friendly contests in Jerome Robbins’s 1969 Chopin masterpiece, Dances at a Gathering.

The Americanness of Peck’s ballet, however, differs strikingly from the European music and flavor of the Robbins work, not only in the directness of its emotions, but especially as a meditation on American identity. Geometrically painted curtains by indigenous artist Jeffrey Gibson remind us that Copland’s music nostalgically evoked the pioneering mission to “Go West” into wide open spaces where sophisticated civilizations were already living. As NYCB grows more racially and ethnically diverse, Copland Dance Episodes is a big American ballet that looks great on a company that itself looks more and more like America.

Copland Dance Episodes ends NYCB’s SPAC residency Saturday at 7:30. For ticket information, visit spac.org.

Jay Rogoff is a poet and dance writer who lives in Saratoga Springs. His latest poetry collection is Loving in Truth: New and Selected Poems, and his book of critical essays, Becoming Poetry, will be published by LSU Press this fall.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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