The following is a guest post from Sophie Benn, one of the Music Division’s Fellows from Case Western Reserve University this past summer. Dance Archivist Libby Smigel introduces her.
I’m beginning to believe that every dance historian could benefit from working alongside a dance-loving musicologist. This past summer graduate student Sophie Benn fit that role for me. A talented musician as well as budding musicologist, Sophie tangoed her way through a challenging mass of scores we had acquired from both the American Ballet Theatre and the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation. Before she returned to her graduate studies, the Library of Congress Music Division staff benefited from her show-and-tell of exciting finds. Sophie kindly agreed to share one of those finds in the blog posting below. Enjoy, and I hope this persuades some of you to visit the Performing Arts Reading Room sometime soon so you can see the treasures yourselves.
Rodeo is perhaps the most iconic American ballet, and for good reason. Not only does its Wild West setting and playful theatricality show us a nostalgic view of the United States, the piece’s performance history is wrapped up in the very formation of American ballet as an international force.
Agnes de Mille originally choreographed Rodeo for the New York-based Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1942, and the ballet was quickly recognized for its unique gestural language and effective, funny storytelling. Its greatest successes, however, would be found at Ballet Theatre, which gained the exclusive performing rights to the work in 1950. It became a major calling card for the company, with many of its star ballerinas becoming known for their portrayals of the Cowgirl lead, including de Mille herself in numerous guest appearances. Ballet Theatre was renamed American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in 1957, and Rodeo remained one of its most popular offerings for decades.
The vast ABT Archive at the Library of Congress contains many treasures, one of which is the score and orchestral parts to Rodeo, which were in use by the company from these first 1950 performances until about 1973. Because it was one of ABT’s most in-demand works, the company frequently took the piece on tour during these years. They performed Rodeo at Covent Garden in 1956, in Italy, Cuba, and Bulgaria in 1960, in the Soviet Union in 1966, and on many other occasions. On these tours, ABT used Rodeo and other programming choices to show the rest of the world what American theatricality was all about.
These travels are well-represented in the parts themselves. At the time, it was common for an instrumentalist to sign his or her name and the date of performance on their part during a show’s run—sort of a graffiti-ed “Joe Smith was here.” Many of these parts include such signatures. After decades of touring, these notes really started to crowd their back pages.
Due to the curious nature of their work and the similarity of their lives, artists share a purpose that transcends national, and even temporal, boundaries. This trans-historical community of performers, which in the case of ABT’s Rodeo parts, spans two decades, is made up of professionals striving to keep this work alive. Musicians and dancers are the living element of their art, and the embodied humanity of these arts is precisely what makes studying them worthwhile.
By adding their names, locations, and dates to these pages, these musicians are demonstrating a type of pride in their work that is particular to orchestral playing. Despite the anonymity of the theater pit, their contributions to a greater whole are worthwhile, and are something to be commemorated. In the best of situations, participating in a performing art creates an intense collegial bond. These musicians seem aware of this. Their notations give the impression of a culture in which everyone works very hard together to create something greater than themselves.
In the case of Rodeo, such sentiments are particularly apt. This kind of thinking echoes the optimistic American spirit that Copland’s music and de Mille’s choreography have come to represent on the world’s stages. The idealized America found in works such as Rodeo is undeniably attractive. It was particularly so at midcentury, when the multiplying complexities of the American condition created a deep desire for art that reassured its audiences of the singular assets of their nation. In Rodeo, Ballet Theater found a piece that fulfilled its mission to introduce uniquely American voices to ballet.
Sophie Benn is a second-year PhD student in musicology at Case Western Reserve University. Her work focuses on social dance and ballet in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She is particularly fascinated by the intersection of music and dance theory, notational systems, and historical anatomies. Sophie is also a professional cellist, specializing in contemporary and Baroque music.