Marking a dance milestone: Former ballet dancer and Princeton Ballet School instructor Katherine Moore starred in and worked with the choreographer on Agnes DeMille’s groundbreaking “Rodeo” when it was revived in 1989. (Photo by Stephen Dolan)
On October 16, 1942, European touring company Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo premiered a rodeo at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. With an evocative score by Aaron Copland, Oliver Smith’s realistic settings set on an American ranch, and starring Agnes de Mille ) combined with the groundbreaking choreography of American tap and folk steps, this ballet is a big step up from the traditional Russian classics of the Ballets Russes. It left an indelible mark on dance and musical theatre.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the premiere. Celebration performances and discussions are taking place across the country. Rodeo was recently staged by the Ballet of the West in Salt Lake City, with events planned for the upcoming spring and fall at the New York City Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. This ballet tells the story of a scrappy cowgirl who has trouble fitting in. Her love for a man (The Head Wrangler) is unrequited love. But after trying to find her way, often in a humorous and touching way, she finds happiness in another man (The Lead Roper).
Princeton resident Kathleen Moore has vivid memories of teaching at the Princeton School of Ballet, American Repertory Theater Ballet and Princeton University. When the American Ballet Theater (ABT) revived the rodeo in the late 1980s, Moore starred as the cowgirl. De Mille mentored her one-on-one, an experience she fondly recalls.
“In our rehearsals, she was always full of energy, full of energy,” she said of DeMille, who was in a wheelchair after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage a decade earlier (DeMille died in 1993). . “Timing is important, not just for comedy. It’s too specific.”
In a subsequent email, Moore described Cowgirl as “an emotional character – brave, going for what she wants, a bit vulnerable but often funny, always ‘back on horseback’, wanting Be loved. Someone you stand by. You care about her.”
Moore was a member of ABT during Mikhail Baryshnikov’s artistic directorship. He was a “big fan” of de Mille,” she said. “He wanted her in the company. She came in with her own small group of dancers and started working with us on a ballet about the Irish Resistance called The Informer with a girl and two boys. It’s a big deal and I’ve created a lot of things with her. After that, they decided to revive the Rodeo, something they hadn’t done in at least 10 years. They went back and recreated the original design. They’ve created new backgrounds for Oliver Smith’s beautiful prairie, and we’ve got new costumes. “
De Mille would rehearse at the front of the room. “She’s weaker, a little weaker, but totally with it,” Moore said. “When she smashed her big diamond on the mirror, you heard it. She would spend 30 minutes studying how the cowboys turned and walked off the stage. For me, in my role, when the curtain came up, I’d raise my hand and look out over this vast prairie. It’s a simple gesture. But she spends a lot of time on it. This character is finding who she is and who she’s going to be. She’s alive. She Doing all the boy things but never fitting in. It’s an American theme — you can live your dreams, and for her it wasn’t sewing in the kitchen with her mom.”
According to theater lore, Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein attended the opening ceremony of the rodeo. They asked de Mille to choreograph their new play, Oklahoma, which is credited with changing the trajectory of American musical theater. Her career is set.
Despite her reputation in dance and theater, DeMille was approachable, and she struck up a friendship with Moore. “I’d go to her apartment, have lunch with her, or just sit by her bed and talk,” Moore said. “I got married in 1988, and her husband died before that. When I went to see her, she would talk about him a lot.”
Moore said the rodeo is still important because its theme is timeless. She values humor, and the importance of being honest and direct about how steps are done. “There is no artifice in her work,” she said. “Theatrical, maybe, but her choreography is visceral movement and often creates a theme or statement that is bigger than a single step or phrase. That’s always important.”