At NYCB, Justin Peck Premieres His New Full-Length Copland Dance Episodes

January 19, 2023

In February 2015, Justin Peck premiered his Bessie Award–winning Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes, a ballet set to a symphonic arrangement of Aaron Copland’s iconic Rodeo score. Now in his ninth year as New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer, Peck takes a full dive into the musician’s work with his upcoming Copland Dance Episodes, a full-length piece incorporating artwork by Jeffrey Gibson set to premiere at New York City’s David H. Koch Theater on January 26.

The ballet’s score combines selections from Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid: Ballet Suite, Fanfare for the Common Man and Rodeo. And though most ballets set to Copland’s music err on the side of lighthearted, energetic Americana, Peck seems to harness a more serious feel in Copland Dance Episodes. But as NYCB soloist and cast member Emily Kikta explains, the piece still exudes Peck’s signature athleticism. “Like all of Justin’s work,” she says, “Copland is very alive and very athletic. The whole cast creates this great energy and world of movement for over 80 minutes.” (See the NYCB trailer for the work below.)    

In the ballet, Kikta is part of a quintet with “fast and intricate” movements and cites teamwork as a requisite for making it go smoothly. The rehearsal process, she explains, has been “surprisingly efficient” for a work of its scale: “Justin created the majority of the second section in a week and from then has finessed the structure and choreography.”

While Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes included a cast of 16 dancers, Copland involves 30 per performance and two casts. “It’s rare to have the majority of NYCB in one room at any given time,” says Kikta. “[The company] hasn’t made such a large ballet in quite some time.” Copland is, in fact, the first original full-length work made for NYCB since 2004.

In a large dance studio, Emily Kikta leans on her right leg in a stylized pose, her left leg pointing and turned in with her right arm curved upward, across from her hip. She wears black pants, a black face mask, a light floral-print leotard, and pointe shoes. Other male and female dancers rehearse behind her.
Emily Kikta, center, rehearsing Justin Peck’s Copland Dance Episodes. Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy New York City Ballet.

Gibson, a Brooklyn-based Choctaw and Cherokee artist, has designed scenic elements for the ballet. Kikta looks forward to opening night and seeing Gibson’s artwork incorporated into the ballet, which she considers “the final piece” in Peck’s creation.

“As a dancer [Copland’s music] is a part of our history,” says Kikta. “At NYCB specifically, Copland’s Rodeo has become synonymous with Justin’s era as resident choreographer here, as it’s one of his most acclaimed works. I’m thrilled that this is being expanded to create an even deeper relationship between NYCB, Justin and Copland.”