Ballet West leaps onto a history-making ‘Rodeo’ |

Ballet West leaps onto a history-making ‘Rodeo’

Company will perform Saturday at the Eccles Center

Ballet West 'Rodeo'

  • When: 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 25
  • Where: Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd.
  • Cost: $35-$100
  • Tickets:
  • Web:
Ballet West will cast a lasso on Park City audiences during its performance of Agnes de Mille’s “Rodeo” on Saturday at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
Photo by Beau Pearson

Ballet West will bring some history to Park City when it performs Agnes de Mille’s “Rodeo,” on Saturday, Feb. 25, at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.

Not only does the production, which premiered in 1942, take place in the historic Old West, it is also an historic, ground-breaking ballet work — along with Eugene Loring’s “Billy the Kid” in 1938, and Martha Graham and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge’s 1944 piece, “Appalachian Spring,” all set to scores by Aaron Copland — that signaled a shift in the modern ballet aesthetic, said Ballet West Artistic Director Adam Sklute.

“Prior to this period of time, ballets were really about old European stories,” he said. “So, here we have a young American choreographer, Agnes de Mille, who wanted to create a ballet about America set on an American theme.”

De Mille, the daughter of William C. deMille and niece of Cecil B. DeMille, both Hollywood directors, created “Rodeo” for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and danced the lead role of “The American Cowgirl.”

That role is one of the reasons why Sklute thought it would be important for Ballet West to perform the work.

“At that time in the early 1940s, Agnes de Mille was working with gender identity and inclusion, which was profound in many ways,” he said.

The story is about a young woman who is a tomboy and likes to be one of the guys, Sklute said.

“She loves to ride horses and be out there with the other cowboys,” he said. “She falls in love with the head wrangler of the ranch, but her best friend, the champion roper, is the guy she pals around and feels the most closest with.”

During a hoedown, the Cowgirl is discouraged because the head wrangler isn’t attracted to her, because she isn’t “girly” enough, according to Sklute.

“So her best friend tells her to put on a dress, which she does, and the head wrangler notices her,” he said. “In the process, however, the Cowgirl realizes the man who she really loves is the champion roper, who loved her just as much when she acted like a cowboy as opposed to a girly girl. And this is one of the things I find so fascinating about presenting the ballet in the 21st century.” 

The Cowgirl will be danced by Principal Jenna Rae Herrera during the Park City performance, Sklute said

“She is so marvelous in the role,” he said. “She brings so much joy, so much comedy and so much heart and pathos to it, too. “

The Champion Roper will be performed by First Soloist Tyler Gum.

“Tyler has a unique skill that was one of the reasons why I thought this would be a good ballet for him,” Sklute said. “He is an expert tap dancer, and there is a long tap solo for that character in the ballet.”
Rounding out the cast is Soloist Brian Waldrep as the Head Wrangler and corps member Lillian Casscells as the Ranch Owner’s Daughter.

“They are all really fantastic dancers,” Sklute said.

Another reason Sklute wanted to bring “Rodeo” to Ballet West was another historical aspect.

“Last year was the 80th year of its creation, and it changed the way we approach ballet and dance in the theater,” he said.

Last August, Paul Sutherland, whom de Mille appointed in 1979 as the only repétiteurin in the world authorized to teach “Rodeo,” and Diana Gonzales, associate director and repetiteur for The De Mille Working Group, set the production on Ballet West.

“It was a very special experience,” Sklute said. “I have known Paul Sutherland for years. He was a teacher and mentor of mine when I was at the Joffrey Ballet.”

In addition to Agnes de Mille’s “Rodeo,” Ballet West will perform George Balanchine’s 1941 work, “Concerto Barocco” on Saturday at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
Photo by Beau Pearson

Sutherland helped the dancers find the movement vocabulary needed to present the ballet correctly, according to Sklute.

“One of the biggest things I have talked about wanting Ballet West dancers to be is stylistic experts when we go into a ballet and approach it through the eyes of the choreographer and style of what the choreographer wanted,” he said. “Our dancers did just that. But at first it was very foreign to them in how to move and how to act, and how to be natural. It expanded their horizons as artists. And the work they did will help them in everything they do moving forward as artists.” 

Sklute was honored to see his dancers working with his former mentor. 

“(Since) Paul worked directly with Agnes de Mille, he could tell us all the stories about her and the ballet and how to bring out the characterizations,” he said. “He’s also very proud of the fact that he’s 86 and still going strong.”

While Sklute didn’t have the opportunity to perform “Rodeo” while he was in the Joffrey Ballet, he understudied the ballet. He had the privilege of being in the studio with de Mille, who passed away in 1993.

“She was very old at the time and in a wheelchair, but she was quite a remarkable person and a very powerful figure,” he said. “I felt a lot of energy from her and learned a lot.”

In addition to “Rodeo,” Ballet West will also perform George Balanchine’s elegant “Concerto Barocco,” which originally premiered in 1941, and Jiří Kylián’s “Return to a Strange Land,” Sklute said.

“Since ‘Rodeo’ only takes up one-third of an evening, I wanted to add works that would give a spectrum of the type of work Ballet West does,” he said.

The night opens with “Concerto Barocco,” which shows off the neo-classical purity of the dancers, Sklute said.

“It is fiendishly demanding of the women in the company,” he said. “In the New York City Ballet it’s danced by primarily short women, but I put our tall women in the cast. And what makes it so exciting is to see these tall, long-limbed women dancing at the speed of light. They are beautiful and wonderful in it.” 

“Return to a Strange Land,” which premiered in 1975, is also a very different aspect of classical ballet, Sklute said.

Jiří Kylián is one of my all-time choreographers, and this is such a powerful and moving piece,” he said. “I danced in it many times when I was with the Joffrey Ballet, and Ballet West has, I think, the second largest repertoire of his works in the United States.”

“Return to a Strange Land,” which is set on six dancers, is not only athletic and acrobatic, but “emotionally moving,” Sklute said.

Jiří Kylián’s “Return to a Strange Land,” which will be performed by Ballet West on Saturday in Park City, was created in honor of choreographer John Cranko of the Stuttgart Ballet who died suddenly in 1973.
Photo by Beau Pearson

“Kylián was a dancer with John Cranko’s Stuttgart Ballet, and the company was returning to Germany from a triumphant premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City in 1973,” he said. 

On that flight, John Cranko passed away, and Kylián, who had been dabbling in choreography, began working on this piece, which is about longing and sadness, Sklute said.

“He named it ‘Return to a Strange Land,’ because he said returning to Stuttgart without John Cranko was like ‘returning to a strange land,’” he said. “And one of the reasons I love the piece is because it balances out the elegant neo-classical dancing in ‘Concerto Barocco” and the unabashedly fun and joy we have in ‘Rodeo.’”

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