The Company in Justin Peck’s Copland Dance Episodes. Photo credit: Erin Baiano

Saturday, July 22nd at 7:30pm

There’s much to like about Justin Peck’s Copland Dance Episodes. Peck is the resident choreographer and artistic adviser of New York City Ballet. A masterful choreographer, he creates pieces for large ensembles on stage just as easily as for small. Copland Dance Episodes premiered earlier this year, and there’s much to like about this full-length ballet.

Set to Copland’s popular compositions, both music and dance are evocative of americana place and spirit, as was Peck’s earlier work in 2015, Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes. Copland Dance Episodes consists of 22 sections (“episodes”) to the music of Copland’s “Rodeo,” “Appalachian Spring,” “Billy the Kid”—and “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Although more a marathon than a war, Peck’s dancers deserve fanfare for the task at hand. “The only way out is through” is a phrase written on a kaleidoscope stage drop by visual artist Jeffrey Gibson—fitting for the marathon ahead.  

The ballet opens with the dancers posed, covered in tulle which then disappears as the piece begins. And that’s when the brilliant colors of the two-piece costumes designed by Ellen Warren jump out to the viewer. The ensemble wears leotards and tights or shorts of solid golds, blues and olive greens, chartreuse, pinks, mauve, fuchsia, hunter green. Gibson’s stage setting is often in bright white—which exposes the dancers even more—aided by the glow of Brandon Stirling Baker’s lighting design.

Danced over 80 minutes without intermission, the Saratoga Saturday evening performance featured principals and soloists: Miriam Miller, Russell Janzen, Alexa Maxwell, Chun Wai Chan, Emilie Gerrity, Ashley Laracey, Unity Phelan, Roman Mejia, Sebastian Villarini-Velez, Olivia MacKinnon and corps members David Gabriel, Christina Clark, Naomi Corti, Meagan Dutton O’Hara, Devin Alberda, Daniel Alberda, Gilbert Bolden III, and Alec Knight, as well as a dozen other dancers. The exquisite moves of Mejia, Villarini-Velez, and Gabriel are threaded throughout the ballet and highlighted in the “Start your Engines” and “At the Rodeo” sections. Villarini-Velez also dances in a precise solo in “Dinner for One.”

Chun stuns in his dancing—his bold, pliable arms and gorgeous balances moving breezily into arabesque, in a trio in “Tumbleweed.” But also in the spry pas de deux with Alexa Maxwell (“Alone Together,” Parts 1, 2, and 3). Together, their turns and balances, even their pauses, are emotive. Janzen and Miller spring into a lyrical pas de deux in “Two Birds,” with fully expressive arms, moving as one throughout, yet little foreshadows their dramatic duet in “The Split.”

Russell Janzen and Miriam Miller in Justin Peck’s Copland Dance Episodes. Photo credit: Erin Baiano

The later pas de deux, ridden with angst, shows their hands gripping each other, then forcefully pulling apart at the end. Miller also heads an impressive all-women ensemble in “Armor” with her turns, rises on pointe, and light jumps.

The “Roundtable episode” is pure joy (if not pure exhaustion as it’s performed towards the end of the ballet) for dancers Gerrity, Laracey, Phelan, Mejia, Villarini-Velez, and Gabriel. Each revels in breakout moments of soliloquy. Together, they move in a centrifuge-like rotation, with quick-shift changes of direction.

Copland Dance Episodes is loaded with whimsey, soaring lifts, batterie small and large (double cabrioles), turns, and lots of jumps with legs split apart. There are duets danced like razor sharp pointers and some like taffy—and a lot of posing, almost as in contact improvisation. The company astounds, but no more so than David Gabriel. A member of the corps for about a year, he substituted in for Cainan Weber that Saturday evening. Eminently watchable, even among principals and soloists, Gabriel balances easily as he turns in on himself. With his buoyant high jumps and personality, he exudes unstoppable confidence.

At times a stamina test for its dancers, at its core, Copland Dance Episodes is rousing stripped-down dancing that displays a singular camaraderie on stage. To this reviewer, the work itself dances between determination and delight in a demanding and exhilarating ballet.

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