In dance theory and performance studies discourse, the avant-garde, the off-beat and the uber post-modern exert overwhelming pressure. There is nothing wrong with any of these characteristics; what is problematic is the insistence that for art to be meaningful, it needs to be anti-mainstream. The emergence of this opinion is not surprising nor is the accompanying disdain for the traditional. What is somewhat unexpected is that the contempt has also become extremely vocal. It is possible for the contemporary and the conventional to peacefully co-exist; the two are not mutually exclusive. Some performance companies, like the San Francisco Ballet, are successful at marrying these two styles. They seek to combine new and exciting experimental works with more classic pieces, presenting a repertoire that can actually be described as well-rounded. At Stern Grove this past weekend, the SF Ballet once again constructed a program that beautifully combined modern works, such as Tomasson’s Concerto Grosso and Possokhov’s Reflections with Balanchine’s neo-classical Allegro Brillante and Agnes de Mille’s Americana masterpiece, Rodeo.
It is with the production of Rodeo that San Francisco Ballet confirmed that the current breed of vanguard dance theorists can be so misguided in their criticism of traditional material. Revivals of Rodeo constantly come under fire from academic circles, who have historically found fault with two aspects of this ballet: 1) what they describe as the archaic nature of its primary theme and 2) the portrayal of women in society which they argue is both humiliating and degrading. With in-depth exploration of the ballet and the choreography, responses to these two accusations begin to surface. And, the clearest realization of all is that these ‘critical’ interpretations are representative of a simplistic assessment and superficial analysis of the work. Disliking a performance piece is one thing, and an entirely valid reaction-no one expects that everyone will like everything they see. But, there is no excuse for skimming the surface of an artistic work and trying to disguise it as academic rigor.
In response to the first accusation (that the theme is archaic), Nancy Mason said it best in a 1972 edition of Dance Magazine, “…Women’s lib may now quibble about the theme-‘How to get a man’-Rodeo isn’t dated because it deals with basic emotions.” This comment is so accurate-the story of Rodeo is really about finding love and going after it, which is a phenomenon that is timeless. Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we both see and participate in the formulaic yet, incredibly popular adage of finding love everyday. We are inundated with novels, magazine covers, movies, song lyrics and advertisements for internet dating services that illustrate this point. Is the issue really that the theme of Rodeo is outdated or is it that we don’t like being told that pursuing love is the only way to be happy?
With respect to the role of women in Rodeo, it is much more complicated than it appears. At first glance, one may argue that the depiction of women in the ballet is old-fashioned and subordinate, but this is oversimplification at its core. You have to go much deeper into the role of the cowgirl to see that sections of de Mille’s choreography and Anita Panciotti’s staging are painting a profoundly contrasting picture: an image of women as strong, confident, willful and determined. The beginning scenes between the cowgirl, the Head Wrangler and the Cow-Hands are overflowing with images of women attempting to accomplish goals traditionally reserved for men. Despite ridicule from the men, the cowgirl is resolute. After falling or failing, de Mille has the character brushing off the dust, and hitching up her trousers and trying again. This gestural choreography occurs throughout that entire first scene, and produces a feminine character who refuses to give up and goes after what she wants with incredible drive. Is that not the image of a strong woman?
Maybe the abstract, anti-establishment scholars should think more about what they believe art and dance is. Is it not a post-modern ideal to step out of the box and explore alternative explanations for what we see? Judson dancers pushed the limits of categorization by walking down buildings and jogging around gymnasiums and calling it dance. They stepped outside of the comfort zone. Isn’t it possible that de Mille did the same thing and reached outside of the role of women in the 1940s when she choreographed Rodeo? Avant-garde dance criticism should look for the avant-garde, even if it comes in the form of a traditional Americana story.