Eugene Loring, Mr. American Ballet

Once a giant of the stage, the choreographer of ”Billy the Kid” now is barely remembered.

The hard truth about death is that it inevitably brings obscurity, even to a legend. Artists are lucky—paintings, novels, poems, and music all secure some posthumous recognition. ¶ When the medium is dance, though, the equation is trickier. Even with the advent of videotape and written score, dance still is passed down largely through oral tradition. The key to longevity is the human connection, a chain created when each generation of performers teaches a ballet to the next.

Last fall, UC Irvine dance professor Molly Lynch invited students to audition for a revival of Eugene Loring’s Western-style, 1938 masterpiece, “Billy the Kid.”

Who? What?

Many of the students had no idea who Loring was, even though he was the founding chair of the university’s dance department. Still, about 120 of them auditioned for 23 spots in the cast. Sophomore Sara Schroerlucke was an exception among her classmates; she’d at least heard of Loring. Her mother, a clarinetist, played Aaron Copeland’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Billy” score.

“I didn’t know he was the founding chair,” Schroerlucke says before rehearsal. “But I was like, we’re doing ‘Billy the Kid.’ It’s not every day we get to do such an important and inspiring piece.”

 

Loring was only 27 when he made “Billy the Kid” for the short-lived Ballet Caravan, a company created by Lincoln Kirstein, the impresario who was devoted to establishing an American ballet—American stories by American choreographers, composers, and designers. “Billy” was a hit, and Loring was proclaimed a pioneer of American choreographers. In 1962, American Ballet Theatre performed it at the White House.

The 5-foot-4 Milwaukee native, who died in 1982, had a slew of other successes. A charter member of ABT, he made William Saroyan’s “The Great American Goof” for the troupe’s inaugural performance. He choreographed hit Broadway shows and acclaimed movie musicals, including “Silk Stockings” (1957). He developed a unique, well-rounded curriculum for his popular American School of Dance in Hollywood. And then there was the last major chapter of his life at UC Irvine’s dance department, when in 1965 he distinguished it from other public universities with a conservatory-style approach.

But first and always, Loring, whom friends describe as cerebral, reserved, and serious, but kind, was associated with “Billy the Kid.” This link was both a blessing and curse—as these things tend to be. Deserved or not, he got a reputation for being a one-ballet choreographer. It was frustrating for an artist who made his mark in diverse arenas, says Patrice Whiteside, a Loring student, muse, and the artistic executor of his estate.

“I think he struggled with that a lot,” she says. “When you choreograph a masterpiece in your 20s, where do you go from that? [Yet] he choreographed many wonderful works.”

At “Billy’s” 50th anniversary in 1988, eight companies had it in their repertories. This year, Whiteside says, no professional troupe has the complete 40-minute piece on its schedule.

 

Loring was concerned with more than just the mythic tale of William H. Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, who some say killed 21 men before lawman Pat Garrett gunned him down at age 21 in 1881. Loring opens and closes the ballet with pioneers pushing their way across the prairie, literally thrusting their arms out, hands flexed. Every gesture conveys meaning—a character’s personality, for example, or an action, such as shooting a gun (index finger extended, thumb up). Billy’s act of killing is a repetitive ritual: first a double pirouette (spin), then a two-revolution leap, he “fires,” kicks the corpse to show his ruthlessness, but then convulses his torso, suggesting that the violence makes him vomit.

 

The future of Loring’s work greatly concerns Whiteside, who is 60, and Howard Sayette, the 79-year-old ballet master who flew from his home in Denver for the first rehearsals in late October. Who will be the next generation of teachers to keep the ballet going?
Sayette is showing the students a series of steps and poses for the posse. They scan for their prey, pull out a “rifle,” aim, and fall to the ground to avoid detection, then  repeat the whole series. It’s not exactly mime, but it’s not abstraction, either.

When he first got the commission for “Billy,” Sayette says, “Loring couldn’t figure out, ‘How am I going to do a ballet with guns and horses?’ He said, ‘Well, we used to play cops and robbers when we were kids.’ Then he also saw a performance of ‘Our Town,’ on Broadway—probably the original production.” Thunderstruck by the unconventional staging, a nearly bare set, Loring set his  imagination free.

 

“Billy’s” success had unintended consequences. In 1942, four years after its premiere, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo commissioned its own cowboy ballet from Agnes de Mille. She called her piece “Rodeo” and it, too, had an Aaron Copeland score. She also used evocative body positions, such as “horseback riding” cowboys loping on imaginary animals with U-shaped legs. Whiteside says Loring had a bitter taste in his mouth because “Rodeo” overshadowed “Billy.”

“He often felt that de Mille plagiarized his movement,” she says. “I think a lot of times ‘Rodeo’ is considered more accessible than ‘Billy’ because thematically it’s a happier story.”

Dance historian Don Bradburn, a former student and friend of Loring’s, says the choreographer’s work would stand the test of time—but only if his pieces are staged. Bradburn has been on a personal campaign to spark a revival of “Great American Goof.”

“Because of his stage, film, television work and the ‘Goof,’ I would put him up there with George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. His training methods put him way ahead of the game,” Bradburn says.

 

Back in studio DS 128, the students admit the steps and style are difficult—exacting, quick-paced, rhythmically complex, and grounded, rather than lifted like traditional classical dance. The challenge, says 19-year-old Schroerlucke, is in how meticulous Loring’s choreography is. And there’s no way to fake it, the way you can in some dances.

“What I’m realizing is how important it is to maintain that detail because it’s a tradition. It’s a legacy. And if it’s not, if it doesn’t stay special, it doesn’t transcend generations.”

 

See it! “Billy the Kid” at Dance Visions concert, Feb. 11 through 15, dance.arts.uci.edu or 949-824-2787

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