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Mel Johnson

What's going on in "Agon"

41 posts in this topic

There's a current thread going on relating to a Jennifer Homans review of Joseph's new book on Balanchine and Stravinsky. In it, she quotes the background to the score and de Lauze's Apologie de la Danse, a seventeenth-century dance manual.

It put me in mind of a time I was watching Catherine Turocy and her company dance excerpts of pre-classic dances, and when one girl stepped forward to dance a gigue, I was immediately struck..."My God, it's 'Agon' "!

So the question is put to the group: When you see "Agon", do you recognize the pre-classic forms (ah, pace, Louis Horst) which undergird the dances? For people who have seen it, what did MacMillan do with it in his version? Are there plots or plotlets going on in the dances in anyone's mind? What say, this looks like a good opportunity to open up a work of later 20th-century genius. I'd be interested in your insights.

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i wasn't aware that macmillan did an 'agon'?

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elsewhere i noticed that leigh has written a long paper on agon...is it online, leigh? maybe you could just give us the link?

;)

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Re MacMillan's "Agon," this is from Alexander Bland's "The Royal Ballet, The First 50 Years." MacMillan's ballet premiered 7 months after Ballanchine's.

"With remarkable alacrity MacMillan...studied the score and digested it sufficiently well to consider composing his own choreography. It was presented at Covent Garden in August 1958. The music, with its sharp short rhythms and epigrammatic structure carried much further the idiom with which Covent Garden audiences had only slowly come to terms in Ashton's Scenes de ballet. The wry, enigmatic mood suggested by MacMillan and his designer Georgiadis introduced a new and very personal note...."

grace, I don't think Leigh's Agon piece is on line; Ballet Review articles are not, to my knowledge.

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thanks alexandra - were there any photos of this piece?

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grace, I think (THINK) I remember one in the Ballet Annual for 1958. Do you have that in libraries down there? :)

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ballet annual? i don't think i've heard of it - unless you mean those old B/W books, which i think were put together by arnold haskell?

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gosh no - they wouldn't be in any library here.

i was just wondering what sort of 'look' macmillan's version had?

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I don't have time to check it now (I may later this week) but my memory is -- I THINK! -- black tights, geometric tops (obviously you can't tell the color), so a "modern" look (for 1958). I also have an impression that the ballet had at least comic elements, if not an out and out comedy.

One of my Curiosity Triple Bills would be:

Serenade (Fokine's ballet to that music)

Apollo (Adolf Bolm, danced at the Library of Congress by Bolm and Ruth Page)

Agon (MacMillan)

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a "curiosity triple bill"! what a great idea!

alexandra wrote, about macmillan's agon costumes

"obviously you can't tell the color"
this reminded me that, growing up with ballet books full of B/W photos, i must have unconsciously made a lot of assumptions about colours. the first time i saw symphonic variations, i was SO shocked by the backdrop - i suppose i must have assumed this ballet WAS in B/W or at least shades of grey - which would have been so appropriate...so, to see its vivid lime green was genuinely shocking.

of course, i came to appreciate the colour - and all the more so when i understood where it came from - but was amazed at how wrong i had been, in my unconscious assumption.

not meaning to misdirect the topic...

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I remember seeing a photo of MacMillan's Agon once. The dancers were in black and white costumes, but the women wore tutus. It must have been a color photo, because I remember thinking it interesting that he chose black and white as the color scheme. Still, he did go with tutus.

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I don't want to quash further discussion of MacMillan's "Agon", but I'd also like to get input on what people think is happening with the more familiar Balanchine version. After all, he said something like, "if you put a man and a woman onstage together, there's a story." In "Agon", there are twelve dancers. Anything seem to be happening between and among them, even given somewhat updated seventeenth-century "party manners"?

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I think that in its way, Agon resembles Liebeslieder. Much has been made of the transition in Liebeslieder from public (part 1) to private (part 2), and the same seems to be implied in Agon.

It opens with the full cast (public), then the two lighthearted pas de trois (not really public or private), and devolves into the (private) erotic encounter of the pas de deux. If there is any trace of preclassical dancing in the pas de deux, it is well hidden, but here again is a microcosm of the history of dance from people's everyday movements into a ritualization of same, into folk/social forms, into theatricalized forms. Only it's in reverse in Agon. Until the full cast returns.

I'm beginning to feel that I'm going pretty far out on a limb here. Help! Does this make sense? :confused: I'm gonna go think some more on this.

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Interesting analysis of a sort of "sonata form" that exists in some Balanchine ballets. In addition to the works cited, this form is also evident in "Bugaku".

I believe that the pas de deux is marked "Sarabande" in the score, and I couldn't see the preclassicism in it either, until I saw Turocy's dancers (mentioned above) doing the original dance. Of course, Balanchine quickly takes off from the historic base, but the few steps and figures that make up the sarabande are there.

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Robert Garis in his book "Following Balanchine" seems to think the PDD was inspired by LeClercq's physical therapy. ?????

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It certainly could have been an influence; I wouldn't dismiss the possibility.

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ATM, I was told that by dancers in Copenhagen (where LeClercq began her physical therapy) as well. He was fascinated by her passive movements -- she was paralyzed and could not move on her own, but a therapist could move her. That sounds quite related to the original idea for the Agon "pas de deux".

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Thinking again about it, I can recall procedures used for paraplegics where the patient is lying flat on the back and the therapist moves up or down the body in what is essentially a second position, adjusting the patient and manipulting joints and whole body areas as s/he goes. Sounds familiar, no?

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Well, it's not as lofty as inspiration from an ancient dance.....I like Mel's musings--but I need to see an example of a Sarabande. The Oxford dictionary is a help-----"originally a distinctly improper and lascivious dance..." sounds like 'Agon'.

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That's an interesting definition of a Sarabande! Thank you for that, atm. By the time of the court ballets it was a "slow and stately measure," one of the measures of the noble genre, as opposed to the speedy courant.

But I have no idea of the dates for either definition, nor any knowledge about the change. (Remembering that simply turning was considered vulgar onceuponatime -- or vulgar in France, at any rate; it was a German specialty. There's an anecdote in Kirstein's Classic Theatrical Dancing about how you could tell the guest at the ball was a German because he inserted a turn in the dance. Think of it!)

Is anyone familiar with Louis Horst's "Pre-Classic Dance Forms"? I used to have a copy but can't find it. It should have information on the sarabande.

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For the record, the Sarabande is the male solo in the first pas de trois. I believe the pas de deux is simply marked "pas de deux" in the score.

I've also heard the comments the movements in Leclercq's physical therapy were channeled into the Agon pas de deux. It's certainly within the realm of possibility.

I also think the structural throughline that Carbro talks about is there, though I think it's more practical than a movement from the "public" to the "private" - the traditional centerpiece of a ballet is the pas de deux. Balanchine is mirroring a traditional format (just as he does in Sanguinic) and we get the secondary diversions that anticipate the main event.

A musical sideline that may help here - the music was composed over three years (1953-6) with a hiatus. Stravinsky started in a tonal style and became interested in serial technique before he completed the score. You hear two styles (the opening, the repeated entrees are tonal, the pas de deux and the close of the first pas de trois are serial). Perhaps this is what some people instinctively feel as a bifurcation in the ballet?

My feelings about the ballet are comparitively simple (and more strongly influenced by what Denby and Kirstein wrote than from any other sources). My most fanciful interpretation of the ballet is that it's a time capsule of New York in the late 50's. It probably wasn't intended as such, but for me it captures the zeitgeist of the City as I think it might have been, from the switching places in the triple pas de quatre in the opening (the dancers remind me of pedestrians dodging traffic) to the re-entry of the other dancers after the pas de deux, which for all the world reminds me for a moment of West Side Story.

Kirstein translated the title "Agon" as "contest" and further elaborated that he felt it was more of an exhibition of athletes displaying feats of prowess and strength than a contest with winners. I've always felt this was as close to the "truth" of Agon as I was going to get. We get much more conflict today in performances by Heather Watts or Wendy Whelan in the pas than one saw in Kent's performance, or Adams', which for me is sui generis. Is some of what you see "going on" in Agon dependent on who dances it?

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At any rate, the measure (step and figure) of the Sarabande are seen in the beginning of the pas de deux, whether it is so marked or not - there is also a bit of the Pavane later on.

I am fortunate enough still to have my copy of Horst, thanks largely to a sign I keep over my bookcases, "I am not allowed to lend people books. If I try to force a book on you, knock me down."

I believe that the dances in "Agon" are highly dependent on the personalities of the dancers interpreting the roles. I further believe that a lot of what goes on in a lot of NYCB ballets today is suffering from the "telephone" game, in which information is passed on from person to person, but with tiny glitches peculiar to the passer. Sometimes this phenomenon is helpful, sometimes it is less helpful, as in the "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" of another thread.

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What a stimulating thread! I am enjoying this so much!

Not knowing Greek, I wonder if the meaning of "agon" could pertain as well to a struggle to overcome an obstacle (eg., paralysis) as to an athletic striving.

I did see Allegra -- once, late -- in Agon. It might be noted that she was around when LeClerc was stricken, and would likely be more directly aware of its source of inspiration. Leigh, where would you place Farrell's pdd on the scale between the Watts-Whelan sense of it and the Kent sense? (In how many roles did we not get some feeling of conflict from Heather?)

The opening section does resemble pedestrians dodging traffic -- and each other -- but it also reminds me of those little, plastic, slide-y puzzles with the numbers that you try to arrange in sequence.

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In Classical Greek, "agon" is most usually translated "test, examination". Examination could easily work for a physical therapy session. "Contest" or "argument" have also been uses I've seen for the word in the original, but it's been years since I had any opportunity to use the stuff. Thanks for the mental shakeout.

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