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Billy the Kid


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#1 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 25 March 2002 - 10:40 PM

Avant-propos - a few days ago in the Aesthetic Issues forum we had a very interesting discussion on interpreting a ballet using Loring's Billy the Kid as an example. Some comments Paul Paris made on the ballet itself prompted me to copy off relevant portions of the thread to create a discussion of the ballet itself. For those of you who'd like to join in the original discussion about how one interprets a ballet, it's still right there in the Aesthetic Issues forum, called "Interpreting Ballet?" - please add your thoughts!

Here, I'd love to hear people's recollections of Billy the Kid. How many of us have seen the ballet, or even danced in it? Does anyone recall any particular productions or dancers with fondness? Any impressions or interpretations you would like to share?


A few days ago, when I was in Louisville, I got to see a performance of Billy the Kid (on tape) for the first time (I had seen the ballet in rehearsal at Pacific Northwest Ballet, but it was not a complete run)

I was very impressed by the solidity of the work, and there was something in it that very much reminded me of the time of its creation (the late 30's) and so I decided to look on the web to see if I could find more commentary on the ballet.

An article on Copland's music (including the score for Billy the Kid) by David Schiff, a professor of music at Reed College. was published in 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly - view it at http://www.theatlant.../001schiff2.htm - this link is to part two of a two part article.

What I found so interesting about the article were the very different styles of interpreting a work of art. When I was in college studying English Literature, I had a teacher whose general approach to a literary work was to place it in a social and historical context - "this is what was happening in the world at the time this work was made." There are plenty of other ways to look at a work of art, but this one always appealed to me the most. When I look at The Four Temperaments or Agon, I find myself looking at the ballet and the performance itself, but I also find myself thinking as well about the world of 1946 or the New York of 1957 that engendered these works.

In Schiff's article, the section on Billy contained a passage similar to what I had been thinking about when I watched the film -

By the late 1930s Copland had found an American voice that was folklorist and Modernist combined -- in Billy the Kid and two ballets that followed it, Rodeo and Appalachian Spring. An instant hit, Billy the Kid gave the politics of the Popular Front a musical popular front of borrowed cowboy tunes fitted out with modern harmonies and edgy, irregular rhythms.

In the libretto of Lincoln Kirstein, especially (which added a fictional incident of Billy's mother getting accidentally shot to propel Billy into his outlaw state) one could sense the politics of the Left of that time, a desire to understand and humanize those on the margins of society. Compare it to another time when Billy might have been explained as simply being "born bad."

After Schiff places the ballet in an historical context, he then interprets both Billy and Rodeo in a completely different way -

Although Billy dances a waltz with his nameless Mexican sweetheart, he seems preoccupied by homosexual feelings for the sheriff, Pat Garrett, who eventually kills him. Few listeners will notice this undercurrent when they hear the suite from the ballet at an orchestral concert. Copland omitted the romantic waltz episode from the suite, thereby emphasizing the macho side of the music -- a side that would resound in cowboy movies and Marlboro cigarette commercials to come.

[and of Rodeo]

If we view the sexually ambiguous figure of the tomboy as a woman, her capitulation seems politically incorrect, as feminist critics have noted. But think of the cowgirl as a closeted homosexual male, as Copland may have, and the story takes on a very different feeling. Indeed, with its stageful of faux cowboys, Rodeo has always had a camp undertone that actually fits well with the Chaplinesque quality De Mille gave to her own performances as the cowgirl. Once again subtext vanishes in the concert hall, where Rodeo seems as American as mock-apple pie.


Here, Schiff does something that often gives me pause; goes for a psychological interpretation of the artist's intent, particularly in the area of gender. My own problem with that sort of interpretation is it diminishes my enjoyment of a work. Setting the work in a historical context widens the horizon of a work for me; to think of Agon as happening at the dawn of space travel and the beginnings of the computer gives it associations which enlarge it in my mind. And in the opposite way, I find for me that often setting the work in a personal and psychological context can reduce the horizon of a work, and it gets smaller.

Schiff's article makes interesting reading because it exhibits several ways to look at and interpret a work. Which of them work for you? Predictably, that article drew fire from one of Copland's biographers and she and Schiff got into a heated exchange in the Letters to the Editor. She basically says he's reaching and he says she whitewashes his life. It shows how many different ways there are to look at a body of work. Copland's biographer seems to look primarily at the works themselves. Think of Balanchine or Robbins, constantly refusing any interpretation of their works. "It means what you see." It's that insistence that also makes me more comfortable with historical context - for me, it illuminates the work without "interpreting" it.

And on the other side of the issue in this instance, Schiff argues that without the personal context of Copland's life, we've missed half (or more) of the story.

#2 Paul Parish

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Posted 26 March 2002 - 06:34 PM

Again, I'm running out the door, but htis is all such interesting stuff...

I just want to say, I really respect Leigh's sense that Billy the Kid is a great ballet and you WOULD want to try to get to hte bottom of WHY.....

Blly the Kid is VERY great ballet. It's so much greater than Filling Station, I don't know where to begin.... But start with that dance Billy does every time he kills someone... it ends with him tossing himslf onto one foot, crossing the ohter in front in a kind pf B-plus devant, and then this wave rises up his spine, upthrough the chest and spreading so his shoulders mantle, he looks dangerous, like a cobra that's spread his hood, ready to strike....

Lance James, who was coached in the role by Loring himself, told me that it's "a controlled retch" -- he's throwing up. And James was famously great in the role, Lroring thought Oakland Ballet did it the best...

But to me, this is where "overdetermined" applies -- it's somuch more suggestive and ambiguous than that.

The first time I saw it, Michael Myers had done the role, and looked like Marlon Brando....I came out of the theater doing that move, did it all the rest of hte week, like I was singing some song.... what it made me feel was glamorous -- like a cobra, or like Dracula spreading my wings -- a glamorous outlaw, separated from the rest of mankind but FAMOUS....becoming confirmed in my glamorous crime. It was incredibly poignant, to see Billy hardening in his outlawry, confirming his destiny....... and all because he killed hte man who shot his mother...

However you read it, it's one of htose places where a sequence of movements has a fantastic metaphoric power, it's like a proverb-- and it makes me think of Loring as having unique penetration, insight .....

I also would love to hear how Manhattnik's encounter with Eifman went. I was not prepared for how absorbing I'd find the Grand Inquisitor section of "the Karamazovs" -- I'm not exactly a convert, but that vision of Ivan Karamazov was righteous, and the dancer was magnificent.

Gotta run.

#3 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 31 March 2002 - 11:36 PM

A brief note to bump this thread into view. Please share your thoughts on Billy the Kid!

#4 Victoria Leigh

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Posted 01 April 2002 - 05:38 AM

Glad you bumped this one up, Leigh, as I had missed it the first time :)

Billy The Kid was in ABT's rep throughout my tenure there. I was fascinated with it, especially the opening and closing march. Until I saw that from the audience though, I did not really appreciate it. Doing it did not really give you the same sense of it's importance and, I think, it's choreographic genius. Actually the impact of the whole ballet was very different from the front, perhaps a lot more so than other ballets. At least for me. My appreciation for this work grew over the years, perhaps because learning it and dancing in only certain parts of it never gave me the same sense of the whole work as when I was able to watch it later, after having only danced in it.

The lead roles were danced at that time by John Kriza, Ruthann Koesun, and Bruce Marks as Alias. Johnny and Ruthann were, I felt, very special in this ballet. But the whole work was different from anything I had seen or danced before. It was not particularly difficult to dance, except for the counts in the gun battle! I was thrown into that late in my first season, and my first performance in it was at the White House! It was a special performance, on the tiny stage in the East Room, during the presidency of JFK. It was a reception for the President of the Ivory Coast and his strikingly beautiful wife.

We were flown to DC from New York for the day, and it was quite an experience. We were taken to the White House to rehearse during the afternoon. (Trying to fit that ballet onto that stage was quite a feat!) Then we were given some rooms at a nearby hotel for the rest of the day, as the performance was not until late, following the dinner. After the performance there were photos taken on stage with the company and the President and Mrs. Kennedy. Then Jackie herself took us on a tour of the White House! We were still in costume :)

So, Billy the Kid has a very special place in my memory, aside from it being a wonderful ballet!

#5 liebs

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Posted 01 April 2002 - 06:03 AM

I remember the ballet fondly as well. Especially in the performances by Daniel Levin as Billy, he really caught the pyschopathic quality of the character.

I've always wondered whether ABT might have eventually decided that one Western ballet - Rodeo- was enough. The pieces aren't really similar but the backgrounds are.

Could it be ripe for revival? Maybe for Stiefel, there's an edge to his personality that might make for interesting performances.

#6 E Johnson

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Posted 04 April 2002 - 08:10 AM

I have a vague recollection, which might be entirely incorrect, that ABT did have Billy the Kid in its rep a few years ago, with Steifel (and probably others, given the way they cast things) in the lead. I didnít see it but remember it being in ABT's subscription brochure.

#7 atm711

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Posted 04 April 2002 - 11:07 AM

Victoria, I saw the production you were in. John Kriza was a great Billy. He is so associated with Billy in my mind that I have avoided seeing anyone else perform the role. I'm sure it's a foolish way to be---but, there it is.

#8 Estelle

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Posted 04 April 2002 - 12:36 PM

The ABT did dance "Billy the Kid" during their Paris tour in 1999 (but I didn't see it...)

atm, you should write a book about all the works you saw! You seem to have seen about everything which happened on the ballet stages... :)

#9 atm711

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Posted 06 April 2002 - 06:13 AM

Estelle---if you keep up your present interest in ballet---in 50 years you will have seen it all, too.

#10 cerky

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Posted 07 April 2002 - 06:51 AM

I know Leigh has been waiting for me to reply. He is here in Louisville watching his knew work "Gavotte" being performed at our Choreographers' Showcase. I was happy that he wanted to come here and work with our dancers in this important project. For those of you who haven't had a chance to meet him, he's a very nice, extremely sincere man. But anyway, about "Billy".

I was the last Billy cast by Loring. He was here in the early '80's, frail but determined. The Louisville Ballet was the first Company to have his work staged after his death.

I first saw Billy at a Ballet West rehearsal shortly after my services were no longer required there. I recognized it's genius early on during the "Rememberance Dance". The period of time that Billy grows to a young outlaw. I was extremly jealous of my ex-fellow dancers that were doing the role and even more so when the late editor of Dance Magazine Bill Como commented on their performance at a regional ballet festival I was attending. It should have been me.

I was new in Louisville but I approached Alun Jones the artistic director and told him to get Billy for the company and that I would kill to do the role. Alun has an amazing appreciation for dance and dance history and recognized the power of the ballet. Nobody had to die and Patrice Whiteside, a long time dancer at Oakland Ballet staged the work.

We performed the work dozens of times in theatres, high school gyms and even at Epcot Center in Florida. It is a role I understand completly and a lot of that is to do with my interpretation of the character.

The first entrance as a child when his mother slaps his hand. When his mother is killed and his reaction to it. (The beginning of the wretch movement) The first posse and the arrogance he displays. "How dare they". The strut around the dead body and yes the wretch. Sick, but at the same time confident and poised as he casually roles a cigarette.

The cardgame with Garrett and the parting of ways. Yes I cheat. What's the big deal? I can't help it and I'll cheat again. After a quick argument and Pat gets on his horse to ride away. the future is set with a quick salute.

The gunbattle. (Yes Victoria, the counts are tricky.) When Billy falls and is surrounded by Garrett and Alias. We took our time at that point. I had a great Alias in Keith Kimmel. As he held his gun on me, he would laugh as he pushed his hat back a bit. I looked at him and said you son of a bitch, (pardon my french Estelle) and blew him away.

This is getting long and Leigh and I have a show to do in a couple of hours. But I continue.

The Jail scene was my favorite. Going from a very angry captive to molding the jailer to your wishes with a series of three identical phrases the last one ending with the toss of a card. When the jailer knew he was going to die, he pleaded saying don't shoot me. Billy of course laughed as to say "you stupid man. You put yourself in this situation and yes you're going to die." But just before Billy draws his pistol in the now familiar pirouette, double tour, I got angry that I was in that situation and was forced to kill again. As soon as the body hit the floor I kicked him hard and then stood quietly looking down on what Billy's life had become. There was a tremendous amount of regret and saddness. After quite a few moments I would draw myself up to the familiar pose and slowly, circle the body, not as a cocky strut as before but as a ritual. The jump, the wretching, the rolling of the cigarette became a reflection of his life but at the end on the contraction, the confident pose. I am still here.


I'm truly sorry but I must run. And I'm sorry if there are typos. Leigh understands.

I will tell you that I did get my fifteen minutes of fame. Bill Como came to our performances celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Billy in 1988. His editors log in the December 1988 issue of Dance Magazine reflect his thoughts about the Louisville Ballets production.

#11 Alexandra

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Posted 07 April 2002 - 05:27 PM

Thanks very much for posting that, cerky. It's wonderful to have a dancer's insight -- the inside view of a role :D (Hope the showcase goes well!)

#12 Paul Parish

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Posted 07 April 2002 - 08:59 PM

Thanks, Cerky --

wow, my hair is standing on end, from just reading about it -- the cards, the gun, the double tour, the contraction, the cigarette.... what theater!! doesn't need a word....just inevitable, that sequence is his fate...

I wish I'd seen you...

Paul

#13 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 10 April 2002 - 08:21 AM

I'd like to thank cerky for taking the time and effort to respond in the midst of a production week. When he had talked to me about Billy while I was in Louisville I was hoping he would share his experiences with the ballet with all of us. To me, the most fascinating thing about a performer's experience with any ballet is its immediacy. A dancer doesn't comment on a work or set it into context; they dance it and live it for us - as Suzanne Farrell often says about her life, "I am living in my now" and that is what a performance is. Now, this moment, this music, these steps, these dancers, this story. We bring our associations to it from the richness of their performances. For another cogent example of a performer's perspective on a work, see Liebling's comment on Serenade in the "Interpreting Ballet" thread in the "Aesthetic Issues" forum.

Being me, I'm going to look at Billy in my usual historical way ;) . So sue me, I can't help it. What fascinated me about the work (alas, from a single viewing of a wide angle tape - I really want to see the ballet in performance badly now) was the point in dance in America it represented. Lincoln Kirstein had brought Balanchine to America in 1934 to create an American Ballet. He obviously had incredible faith in him, but in many ways his original goals were left by the wayside. Balanchine created a few narrative works (Alma Mater, anyone?), but Kirstein's initial hope seemed to be for the creation and dramatization of American myths and narratives. A never realized ambition of his was for Balanchine to choreograph a ballet based on Audubon's The Birds of America which would intertwine such mythic figures as Audubon and Johnny Appleseed. When Balanchine went to Hollywood, Kirstein formed Ballet Caravan, and kept pressing toward the goal of new American ballets with works like Filling Station and Billy.

The original cast included Loring as Billy, Marie-Jeanne as the Mother and Sweetheart, Lew Chistensen as Pat Garrett and Todd Bolender as Alias. Ballet was young in America at that time, academic or conservatory training in ballet was a new concept. Many dancers had come into ballet from other backgrounds, Bolender had trained with Mary Wigman and Hanya Holm, and ballet was as important to theatrical dance as jazz later became. Though Billy isn't a classical ballet, it uses ballet freely where it needs it (Billy's double tours, his sweetheart's dance on pointe) but there's also an expressionistic vocabulary to the work, like the great opening and closing sequences in parallel representing the trek westward. In Repertory in Review when talking about another of his ballets (Harlequin for President) Loring describes his mixed style as "free-form movement". In another interview quoted in the same book, he talks about Billy's double tours and says it "isn't a technical thing, but an emotional one" and that the Sweetheart's dance was on pointe because it was a dream. He also recalls he got criticized for "mixing boots and toe shoes." I'm unsure Loring was attempting a "fusion" vocabulary, but rather representing the training and dance milieu of the time with his "free-form" work.

Where I see the similarities in bloodlines is not so much in the vocabulary but in Loring's subject matter. Loring, like Graham, concerned himself with characterization and the hero (or anti-hero in this case). We have the danced drama with the pivot being the life and story of the protagonist, something Kirstein also showed innate sympathy to. Yet Balanchine was moving away from this towards abstraction. He returned to Ballet Caravan when it became American Ballet Caravan for a tour of South America in 1941, creating two major works, Ballet Imperial and Concerto Barocco. In Ballet Imperial, the narrative of the classical ballet is distilled to abstraction, even with the earlier pantomime uncut (it was removed in later revivals) there still was no story. There is a pivotal figure, but she is not the Heroine, but the Ballerina - a heroine in abstract form. Concerto Barocco moves even more towards abstraction with not a single ballerina, but two, and a corps de ballet that form the architecture of the dance, rather than the atmosphere and narrative.

By this time, Billy the Kid was being performed by Ballet Theatre. We can see pretty clearly the two parallel paths of American Ballet in these two companies, and that as time went on, one style or the other would be in ascendance. That path becomes fascinating to track.

P.S. Apologies - I tried to do as much research as I could while writing this, but I'd welcome any factual corrections


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