November 30, 2022

Local Ballet Teacher Kathleen Moore Reflects on Her Role in “Rodeo”

MARKING A DANCE MILESTONE: Former ballerina and Princeton Ballet School faculty member Kathleen Moore starred in Agnes de Mille’s groundbreaking “Rodeo,” and worked with the choreographer, when it was revived in 1989. (Photo by Stephen Dolan)

By Anne Levin

On October 16, 1942, the European touring company Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo premiered Rodeo at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House. With its evocative score by Aaron Copland, realistic setting at an American ranch by Oliver Smith, and groundbreaking choreography incorporating American tap and folk dance steps by Agnes de Mille — who also danced the lead role — the ballet took a giant step away from Ballet Russe’s repertory of traditional, Russian classics. It left an indelible mark on dance and musical theater.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of that premiere. Celebratory performances and discussions are underway in locations across the country. Rodeo was recently staged by Salt Lake City’s Ballet West, and events are planned for the coming spring and fall at New York City’s Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. The ballet tells the story of a feisty cowgirl who has trouble fitting in. Her love for one man (The Head Wrangler) is unrequited. But she finds happiness with another (The Lead Roper), after often humorous and touching attempts to find her way.

Among those with vivid memories to share is Princeton resident Kathleen Moore, who teaches at Princeton Ballet School, American Repertory Ballet, and Princeton University. When Rodeo was revived in the late 1980s by American Ballet Theatre (ABT), Moore danced the lead role of the Cowgirl. She was coached, one-on-one, by de Mille, an experience she recalls with enthusiasm.

“In our rehearsals, she was always so full of energy, so vibrant,” she said of de Mille, who by then was in a wheelchair as a result of a cerebral hemorrhage suffered a decade before (de Mille died in 1993). “Timing was huge, and not just for the comedy. It’s so specific.”

In a subsequent email, Moore described the Cowgirl as “a character that was full of emotion — spunk, going after what she wanted, a bit fragile and yet often funny, and always ‘getting back on the horse,’ wanting to be loved. A person you rooted for. You cared about her.”

Moore was a member of ABT during the years that Mikhail Baryshnikov was the artistic director. He was “a huge fan” of de Mille,” she said. “He wanted her involved with the company. She came in with a small group of her own dancers and started working with us on a ballet called The Informer about the Irish resistance, with a girl and two guys. It was a big deal, and I worked with her so much on the creation of that. After that, they decided to revive Rodeo, which hadn’t been done for at least 10 years. They went back and recreated the original designs. They made the new backdrop of Oliver Smith’s gorgeous prairie, and we had new costumes.”

De Mille would run rehearsals from the front of the room. “She was weaker and somewhat infirm, but totally together and with it,” Moore said. “When she’d bang her big diamond on the mirror, you listened. She would spend 30 minutes just on how the cowboys turned and walked off stage. For me, in my role, when the curtain would go up, I would bring up my hand and look across this vast prairie. It’s a simple gesture. But she spent a lot of time on it. The character is looking for who she is and who she’s going to become. She’s feisty. She does all the boys’ stuff but never fits in. It was such an American theme — you can achieve your dream, which for her was not to be in the kitchen with her mom doing needlepoint.”

According to theater lore, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were at the opening performance of Rodeo. They asked de Mille to choreograph their new show, Oklahoma, which is credited with changing the trajectory of American musical theater. Her career was set.

Despite de Mille’s stature in dance and theater, she was approachable, and she and Moore developed a friendship. “I would go to her apartment, have lunch with her, or just sit by her bedside and talk,” Moore said. “I got married in 1988, and her husband had died right before that. She would talk about him a lot when I would go to see her.”

Rodeo remains relevant because its theme is timeless, Moore said. She valued humor, and the importance of being honest and direct about how a step is done. “There was no artifice in her work,” she said. “Theatricality, perhaps, but her choreography was movement that came from within, and often created a larger theme or statement than the individual step or phrase. This is eternally important.”