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