Here we continue with Brook Manning’s exploration of George Balanchine’s Agon, one of five pieces on the program for OBT 25, playing at the Keller Auditorium through October 18. Part 1 can be found here: http://oregonballettheatre.wordpress.com/2014/09/28/agon-a-trip-into-outer-space-part-1/.
Agon was one of Balanchine’s “leotard ballets” (so called because the dancers performed wearing simple practice clothes), it made headlines when it premiered in 1957 for its remarkably modern American aesthetic, its meaningful interracial casting and Stravinsky’s complex 12-tone score. The title, Agon is from the Greek word for contest. During the ballet we do see persistence and daring worthy of Olympic athletes, but a related Greek word, agora, refers to a sense of community that is rooted in civic life. And for those in attendance on opening night, the ballet was so enthralling that, like a Greek chorus, they found themselves part of the work’s energy. (Marcel Duchamp noted that the electricity in the theater was so palpable that it recalled the premiere of The Rite of Spring.) Where did this sense of immediacy come from? From a seventeenth century manual of French court dances, titled “Apologie de la Danse”. Lincoln Kirstein had sent a copy of the dance text to Stravinsky with a note that explained Balanchine’s original idea for the ballet, in which “the dances which began quite simply in the sixteenth century took fire in the twentieth and exploded.” This historical starting point was reflected in the headings of sections of the score and with a few baroque steps and gestures that reference courtly dances. But as Edwin Denby remarked, the ballet “recalls court dance as much as a cubist still life recalls a pipe or guitar.” However, the seventeenth century reference does remind us that ballet traces its roots to social dance forms of the Renaissance. In the court of Louis XIV, dances had a sense of grandeur; they were lavish, colorful spectacles of costume and décor. In contrast, Balanchine’s ballet stripped down the dancers’ bodies and the stage to their essential elements, giving audiences a sense of the here-and-now. In so doing, Balanchine uses the past to comment on the present. The manual also discussed protocol, promoting the virtues of classicism and manners. In Agon, Balanchine deliberately presented some of his own moral ideas. Full of intricate patterns, both visually and musically, we watch human interactions as the dancers perform a series of duets, trios, pas de quatres, and eventually the climactic pas de deux. Balanchine began his choreography for Agon with the pas de deux, saying, “It’s the longest it’s ever taken me to choreograph anything because everything has to be exactly right.” For Agon’s premiere, the pas de deux was danced by Diana Adams, a pale-skinned Caucasian ballerina, and the African-American dancer, Arthur Mitchell. Bear in mind, that at this time the U.S. was at a critical juncture in the civil rights movement. Agon premiered the year after the Montgomery bus boycott that put Rosa Parks in jail for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white patron, and just months after the U.S. Army had to be called in to desegregate Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. Balanchine specifically chose the dancers not only for their skills, but for their skin tones. He was specific when coaching them, that he see exact placement of body parts so that the contrast in skin colors was made clear. Part of the success of the pas de deux was the physical tension between the two dancers. Mitchell recalls, “The whole pas de deux was built on Diana’s body. The nervous intensity that Diana had made the whole pas de deux work because it’s not so much the difficulty of the steps but the precariousness.” As if testing his partner’s range, the man holds his partner in various positions, often more extreme than classical. (She places her foot on his shoulder while he is on bended knee, almost as if commanding him. The next instant he rises, her leg still on his shoulder and now at head-height, emphasizing the risk inherent in their relationship. In another instance, he lifts her leg up behind her and presses her head back to meet it in a gesture that is both uncompromising and intimate. Later she balances on pointe in arabesque while he lies on his back to partner her, rotating her by turning her supporting leg. In response, her raised leg sweeps over his head like an exacting compass.) The improbability of their actions is sometimes sensuous, sometimes a test of wills.
And the ballet is not without wit. One Balanchine Trust stager called Agon “a serious ballet that doesn’t take itself too seriously.” The steps are humorous in the way they address human relationships and their sense of surprise. Balanchine wanted to keep things light; he called the ballet “a machine that smiles.” The overall structure of Agon features dance sections that highlight movement in canons of endless variation, unison action, and the flow of symmetry to asymmetry and back again. The movement has characteristic Balanchine touches: flexed feet and angled wrists, turns on bent knees and off-balance pelvis thrusts. Balanch ine redefined ballet from the inside – not attacking its tradition, but using it as a springboard for something new: a turned-in leg is understood in terms of the turnout that preceded it, a flexed foot is seen in relation to a pointed one. Balanchine built his choreography in response to Stravinsky’s score. Considering Stravinsky’s foray into the 12-tone musical language, Balanchine cast the ballet with twelve dancers (four men and eight women) and created twelve movements (four sections with three dances each). Stravinsky’s score was like a blueprint for the choreography; the movement serving as a physical interpretation that complimented the score. The visual and aural designs are so interlaced that musicologists have rightfully suggested that one can’t really understand the score without simultaneously seeing the ballet. Agon ends as it began: in C major, with four men in an upstage line with their backs to us. What happens next you’ll have to see when OBT performs Agon for the first time since 1999. This radical work, stemming from a heritage of Italian, French and Russian cultures, proved that ballet had found a new direction. Five years after Agon’s premiere, Balanchine took his company to Russia, where he was greeted by an interviewer: “Welcome to Moscow, home of the classic ballet!”. Balanchine replied, “I beg your pardon. Russia is the home of romantic ballet. The home of classic ballet is now America.” -Brook Manning