Monday, June 23, 2014

Balanchine's Agon: Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell, Anxiety and Beauty

Agon (1957) is a ballet for twelve dancers, with music by Igor Stravinsky and choreography by George Balanchine. Composition began in December 1953 but was interrupted the next year; work was resumed in 1956 and concluded on April 27, 1957; the music was first performed on June 17, 1957 in Los Angeles conducted by Robert Craft, while the first stage performance was given by theNew York City Ballet on December 1, 1957 at the City Center of Music and Drama, New York (White 1979, 490). The composition's long gestation period covers an interesting juncture in Stravinsky's composing career, in which he moved from a diatonic musical language to one based on twelve-tone technique; the music of the ballet thus demonstrates a unique symbiosis of musical idioms. The ballet has no story, but consists of a series of dance movements in which various groups of dancers interact in pairs, trios, quartets etc. A number of the movements are based on 17th-century French court dances – sarabandgalliard and bransle. It was danced as part of City Ballet's 1982 Stravinsky Centennial Celebration.

Just what was needed for this day, these times:  A 27-minute ballet with 12 dancers, the creation of Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine.  Within that frame, a 1 minute 44 second concentration on Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell, who danced the début for the New York City Ballet in December 1957.  That short video elicited this comment on YouTube (Yes, a YT comment worth repeating!):

mproche571:Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell in Agon. It just doesn't get better. Later dancers brought more strength and athleticism, but no one demonstrates the anxiety and beauty of this most particular Balanchine ballet and Stravinsky score the way that they do.

With its emphasis on form, erotic play, and design, Agon has been called an "argument-free ballet." It was the last collaboration between Stravinsky and Balanchine, and I think that is what many people miss -- this only works, this music and that choreography, through collaboration.  Presented as a concert, Stravinsky's work is almost universally panned.  What I'd give to see the score outline, which apparently includes the contemporaneous description of the dance.  Collaboration.

Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine in rehearsal
while working on Agon in 1957. Photograph: Martha Swope

In 1934, as George Balanchine was working on what would become the first ballet he would choreograph in America, SerenadeIgor Stravinsky was asked by the press about whether he personally saw a future for ballet. Stravinsky replied, with characteristic frankness, "There is not a great deal of good ballet music. Either it is sunk in the dance or it is irrelevant to it as a rule. Music and dance should be a true marriage of separate arts, a partnership, not a dictatorship of the one over the other." 

Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell rehearsing Agon
From "Moments in Time: Tracing the history of diversity in ballet"
by Gus Solomons jr
December 1957: George Balanchine pairs Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams in Agon’s erotically charged pas de deux. In a world still a decade away from the civil rights movement, this was casting as political act, and it shocked some members of the ballet community. Twelve years later, Mitchell founded Dance Theatre of Harlem, a haven for classical dancers of color.
Embedding has been disabled for "NYC Ballet's Megan LeCrone on George Balanchine's AGON," but please watch it... for Megan LeCrone is to Agon as Diana Adams was to Agon.  It's eerie.

The pas de deux is one of Agon’s most unique features. The music sounds disjointed, with few instruments being used at a time, but it is still possible to identify the basic components: an adagio, two variations and a coda with the key difference of a role reversal for the dancers, the woman seeming to lead the male into assorted extreme poses rather than the opposite. There are several famous images such as the one where the ballerina wraps around her partner with her leg in attitude, or her 180º arabesque whilst the male dancer is lying on the floor.

Uploaded to YouTube by NeryssaPaige -- 11 July 2012

Compare to this later video of a rehersal with Arthur Mitchell paired with Allegra Kent. I'd love to know the date, should any Dear Readers know it.  (Not to be missed, though to be read with a calming agent at hand, is Kent's autobiography, Once A Dancer.  Preface it by reading Joan Acocella's review... and give the book purchase a second thought.)

Uploaded to YouTube by Approximatesonata --  5 December 2012

Agon is the Greek word for contest; the movements of the ballet are named after French court dances. The score was commissioned by New York City Ballet with funds from the Rockefeller Foundation and dedicated to Lincoln Kirstein and Balanchine by the composer. Together, Balanchine and Stravinsky designed the structure of the ballet during the creation of the music. The outline for the score specifies in detail, with exact timings, the basic movements for twelve dancers clad in simple black and white costumes.

Agon, part of the repertoire of the Dance Theatre of Harlem --
 DTH Founder and Artistic Director Emeritus: Arthur Mitchell 

The "12-tone serialism" technique employed in Agon for the first time by Stravinsky is explained well, for those of us stupid in music, at the Ballet Bag, a website dedicated to "freshening" the art, and supplies helpful interpretive notes, too:

Even though Agon starts with a diatonic, non-serial structure, Stravinsky combined parts that had a tonal centre (think of the violin solo in the coda of the first pas de trois) with serialist parts (the flute, mandolins & harps in the Galliard). In order to concentrate on other works and further his experience with serialism Stravinsky shelved Agon for a couple of years and then returned to create the central – very serialist – part of the work (the first coda and the bransles, ie. the moves from side to side), following Schoenberg and Webern’s ideas. 
Besides the new composition techniques, Stravinsky also used specific instruments to identify the dancers in the ballet – brass for men and woodwind for women – as well as traditional French court dance references: the bransles (couples dancing in circle, side to side), galliards (an athletic dance with plenty of jumps),  sarabande and pas de deux/quatre.

Sadly, a satisfying video of the whole, I cannot find.  Below is an honorific, of sorts -- part of a gala on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Balanchine's death -- The Balanchine Celebration in 1993.

Peter Boal, Zippora Karz, Kathleen Tracey, Albert Evans, Arch Higgins, Wendy Whelan, Darcey Bussell, Lindsay Fischer,

And just to leave you laughing... and why not, with all this unexpected balletic divertissement... here is a charming interview with Arthur Mitchell who relates Balanchine's personal vision for "sixteen nubian dancers":

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