Choreography: George Balanchine
Music: Igor Stravinsky
Debut: New York City Ballet (NYCB), 1957
I have seen Agon in live performances by the NYCB several times and, like many ballet fans, perhaps too many times to truly remember its brilliance. I blame this sad fact on a summer intensive I attended as a middle school student at the Briansky Ballet Center, which was in Saratoga Springs, NY at the time. Oblivious to my luck, I attended 3 or 4 NYCB performances during my two weeks at the camp. Unfortunately, several pieces, including Agon as well as Apollo and Sleeping Beauty excerpts, were repeated in several of the performances I saw and I (please forgive me, I was only 12 years old!) grew bored of the repetition.
Today I would have a much happier response to such a treat but the experience at the time had the unfortunate effect of making me feel bored of Balanchine. I think that some audiences today might be suffering from the same over-playing of certain standard repertoires. Although an innovator and an inspiration in his time, Balanchine has been so revered and so pristinely preserved in the years since his death almost 30 years ago that I’m afraid, for some of us, his works have lost some of their lustre.
In “Apollo’s Angels,” the book that is the impetus for this blog, author Jennifer Homans depicts Balanchine as the last, best choreographer. Perhaps she is correct, although I hope there will be more to come. But a significant aspect of Balanchine’s choreography was his approach to each production, each performance as a unique moment in time, never to be repeated exactly. He made ballets for particular dancers and eagerly retooled them for subsequent casts. In efforts to capture his legacy, NYCB and other companies seem to have embalmed Balanchine’s works. Today they are performed constantly and with strict adherence to past presentations. For some of us who have seen them a few too many times, Balanchine’s ballets no longer feel fresh. They feel like part of the canon – important but not particularly exciting.
So today I’m trying to set aside my jadedness and reexamine Agon with new eyes, as though it is new to me. I’m remembering my reaction to the ballet when it was new to me … and I’m fascinated. I am refreshed by the black, practice-clothing costumes and drawn in to the dancing by the simplicity of the minimalist set: a plain blue backdrop. Balanchine said, “When too much goes on on stage, you don’t hear the music.” Quickly, I enter a state of mind that is at once concentrated and active. The steps are unpredictable. The dancers are precise but alive: “like a machine, but a machine that thinks,” as Balanchine described the ballet.
Much analysis of the meaning or “plot” of Agon can be found on the Web. Of course there is no “story” to Agon or, indeed, to most of Balanchine’s work. In Agon, one sees varying traces of complex relationships – among the 12 dancers and within the smaller groups of twos and threes in which they also dance. In “101” Balanchine credits Stravinsky with the “happy inspiration” for the title, from the Greek word for “contest, protagonist, as well as agony or struggle.” It was also Stravinsky who envisioned the use of a seventeenth-century manual of French court dances as the basis for the ballet. Hence, some of the unfamiliar names of the sections: sarabandes, gaillards, branles. The title, according to Balanchine, however, “was to be the only Greek thing about the ballet, just as the dancing manual, the point of departure, was to be the only French.”
What is most clear when reading Balanchine’s entry for Agon in “101” is his absolute admiration and respect for Stravinsky. “As an organizer of rhythms, Stravinsky, I have always thought, has been more subtle and various than any single creator in history.” Balanchine choreographed with the intention of complementing and showing off Stravinsky’s score. Indeed, Agon is a worthy culmination of nearly four decades of collaboration between the two men.
Keeping in mind the larger goal of this blog – to reach a personal conclusion, after thorough study, regarding the possibility of a future for ballet – I return to the hope that new ballets will excite us in the way that Agon did (and sometimes still does), by challenging our understanding of movement and redefining our perception of dance. If we are to see new generations of innovation in ballet that can carry the art form into the future, we must first set aside the notion that the greatest work has been completed and make way for new possibilities. Yes, Balanchine advanced ballet in dramatic and important ways. But, as he himself said in reference to the development of Agon, “History was only the takeoff point.”