Oregon Ballet Theatre begins its 25th anniversary season with an unparalleled program, OBT 25. The opening piece on the program is a watershed collaboration between George Balanchine, one of ballet’s greatest choreographers, and Igor Stravinsky, a musical giant who pushed creative boundaries. The work they created was a genre-shattering ballet titled Agon. OBT’s performance will be a chance for audiences to see and hear what those in the late 1950’s did when, in the half hour time-span of the work, they had experienced a dramatic shift from classical to neo-classical in this singular ballet.

Balanchine had been a dancer in St. Petersburg, trained in classicism at the Imperial School, and performed at the Mariinsky Theatre. He then became a choreographer with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. By the 1950’s, Balanchine had been in the United States for over two decades and fallen in love with everything American. He had founded the School of American Ballet in order to train dancers in his own style – stressing precision, speed and placement. He had also established his own company, New York City Ballet, and with each of his works proceeded to shape the new aesthetic of American ballet.

Balanchine enjoyed a creative collaboration with composer Igor Stravinsky that spanned decades. Although theirs was a twenty-year age difference, they shared a common past, having spent their childhoods in St. Petersburg, both raised in the Russian Orthodox religion. Stravinsky was one of the great composers of the 20th century with a broad range of styles. Ballet fans will recognize his scores for Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, Pulcinella, Les Noces, Apollo and Orpheus. He was a musical revolutionary who changed the way composers thought about rhythmic structure and he didn’t disappoint with Agon.

Agon marked the last time Balanchine and Stravinsky would collaborate. In the late 1950’s both Balanchine and Stravinsky found their work influenced by personal issues. With preliminary work done, in October of 1956, Stravinsky had a major stroke and doctors predicted he had no more than six months to live.

Balanchine took the news hard, but the 70-year old Stravinsky did make a healthy recovery and, with it, an unabashed move away from the traditional diatonic musical language (based on major and minor scales). Throughout Agon we sense tension in the score, with Stravinsky’s move towards serialism, a compositional technique based on a 12-tone scale.

I agree with both Melissa Hayden (an original Agon cast member) and distinguished dance history scholar Jennifer Homans, who believe that life influenced art and that the time Balanchine spent nursing her influenced Agon’s choreography – particularly the ballet’s climactic pas de deux, wherein the man manipulates his partner, moving her body into different position.  Dance critic Martha Ullman West and Balanchine Trust Répétiteur Bart Cook (who performed Agon with NYCB in the 1970s) disagree.  Fortunately, these kinds of conversations are what keep dance history lively.   

A week before Agon opened the world saw the dawn of the Space Age, as the Soviet Union hurled a tiny artificial satellite called “Sputnik” into orbit. Tensions were high and people had space travel on their minds. Dance critic Edwin Denby said Agon pioneered exploration of the limits of the dance universe with its “jetlike extensions”, “soundless whirl” and “intent stillness”. He said the ballet was “like travel in outer space.” And indeed, Balanchine and Stravinsky’s newest collaboration challenged both musical and balletic time and space.

Onstage, everything was immaculate: the stage was flooded with light, the dancers wore simple, revealing black and white leotards and tights. There was nothing for them to hide behind – no set, no story, no characters. It was just them onstage with the movement and the music. They were to dance a ballet that in the opening program Balanchine described as “a machine, but a machine that thinks.” The ballet’s precise, computer-like sense was in keeping with the spirit of this new era.

Check back later this week for more on what you’ll see when Oregon Ballet Theatre performs Agon as part of OBT 25, October 11-18 at the Keller Auditorium. Also on the program are excerpts from Trey McIntyre’s Robust American Love, Christopher Stowell’s Carmen, and James Canfield’s Romeo and Juliet, as well as a world premiere from choreographer Nicolo Fonte accompanied live on stage by Portland’s favorite musical ensemble – Pink Martini – and costumed by Project Runway winner Michelle Lesniak – Never Stop Falling (In Love).

Find out more and purchase tickets at http://oregonballet.wpengine.com/season_program1.html. Also, join the dancers of Oregon Ballet Theatre and the musicians of Pink Martini at an exclusive Gala event onstage immediately after the opening night show. Tickets for that event can be purchased here: http://oregonballet.wpengine.com/season_program1_afterparty.html.

-Brook Manning

Brook Photo by Francie Manning.
Dance Historian and Teaching Artist Brook Manning. Photo by Francie Manning.

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