Perhaps no criminal in American history has been the subject of more revisionist romanticizing than William H. Bonney Jr.–alias Billy the Kid–famed for having killed one man for every year of his life before he was gunned down in 1881 at the age of 21. Sympathetically portrayed in films by such actors as Robert Taylor, Paul Newman, and Emilio Estevez, this vicious serial killer has become a mythic icon of our national folklore. When impresario Lincoln Kirstein wanted to develop a ballet with a uniquely American identity in the 1930s, he brought together composer Aaron Copland and choreographer Eugene Loring to create Billy the Kid. Premiered by Kirstein’s short-lived company Ballet Caravan in October 1938 at Chicago’s Civic Opera House, this one-act turned Billy’s short, violent life into a symbol of westward expansion, dramatizing the pioneers’ inexorable movement into dangerous, untamed territory. Copland’s beautiful score–by turn tense, jaunty, and elegiac–reinterpreted such tunes as “Goodbye, Old Paint” along spiky modernist lines without sacrificing their emotional straightforwardness, and Loring offered dramatically gripping dance storytelling. The work’s popular and artistic success inspired many choreographers, among them Robert Joffrey, whose mission it was to meld classical and contemporary dance idioms into a distinctly American style. The Joffrey Ballet first revived Billy the Kid in the fall of 1988–only a few months after Joffrey died following a long struggle with AIDS. On the opening weekend of its first engagement of the fall season, the Joffrey is remounting Billy the Kid as part of a program heralding Copland’s upcoming centenary; Davis Robertson and Willy Shives alternate in the title role (first danced by Loring), and Robert French’s scenery and costumes are modeled on WPA painter Jared French’s striking originals. The bill also includes Martha Graham’s 1944 Appalachian Spring (the first Graham work the Joffrey has ever attempted), which also incorporates folk idioms to depict pioneer life; Copland Motets, a 1991 trio by Chicagoan Randy Duncan set to choral music performed live by the Oriana Singers; and the world premiere of Lyric Discourse, an homage to Copland with music and choreography by Tony Powell, based in Washington, D.C. The second program, October 26-29, features works by artistic director Gerald Arpino. Beginning Thursday, October 19, and running through October 29: Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 (plus a matinee Thursday, October 26, at 2), Saturdays at 2 and 7:30, and Sundays at 2 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress; $22-$62. Call 312-902-1500 for tickets, 312-739-0120, ext. 33, for group sales, 312-739-0120, ext. 34, for Joffrey subscriptions.

–Albert Williams

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Migdoll 2000.