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What's going on in "Agon"


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#16 atm711

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Posted 11 January 2003 - 06:21 AM

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

#17 Mel Johnson

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Posted 11 January 2003 - 06:26 AM

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

#18 Alexandra

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Posted 11 January 2003 - 07:21 AM

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".

#19 Mel Johnson

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Posted 11 January 2003 - 08:38 AM

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?

#20 atm711

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Posted 11 January 2003 - 12:11 PM

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'.

#21 Alexandra

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Posted 11 January 2003 - 12:21 PM

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.

#22 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 11 January 2003 - 12:31 PM

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?

#23 Mel Johnson

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Posted 11 January 2003 - 02:10 PM

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.

#24 carbro

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Posted 11 January 2003 - 02:12 PM

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.

#25 Mel Johnson

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Posted 11 January 2003 - 02:20 PM

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.

#26 carbro

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Posted 11 January 2003 - 02:22 PM

That definition is so fitting. Thank you!

#27 grace

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Posted 11 January 2003 - 02:59 PM

i can't follow mel's post about 2nd position, but THIS seems most applicable when one thinks of the agon PDD: "she was paralyzed and could not move on her own, but a therapist could move her" (alexandra).

what a curious idea, that this could have been the derivation of these balletic movements....i find it very believable - if YOU ("all") say so!

#28 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 11 January 2003 - 03:02 PM

I have to admit that I think that saying that the pas de deux in Agon is "about" Leclercq's illness or even that it comments on it is more than I'd be willing to assert but then again, I'm very gun shy of interpreting another artist's work, especially Balanchine's. I do think that it's quite possible that Balanchine watched the movements LeClercq was asked to do for therapy and they made an impression on him. Interestingly, and I can't recall the source for this, but I know that an opinion expressed was that had Leclercq been able she would have been in Agon, but in the second pas de trois - Melissa Hayden's role rather than Adams'.

Balanchine worked on the pas de deux first; Adams and Mitchell came into rehearsals two weeks before the rest of the company. Also, Mitchell has mentioned on more than one occasion Balanchine's insistence that the pas de deux be absolutely right and that it took him longer than anything else he had ever done. Importantly, he also said Balanchine's instructions were that the woman was like a doll and that he was to manipulate her, Carbro, perhaps that does give fuel to your questions, although Mitchell says directly that the pas de deux was built specifically on Adams and her "nervous intensity". Unfortunately, Mitchell has also said that the music was also choreographed as the ballet was made, which is factually incorrect, so one has to take his assertions with that in mind. For me, the pas was literally about who did what to whom. The passivity or lack of passivity in it is key to its interpretation. Diana Adams' performance in it is viewable at the Library of Performing Arts - to me, she is like Eurydice. She doesn't look at Mitchell, but it's as if she must not look at him; as if the consequences would be awful. It should also be mentioned that several people I interviewed mentioned Balanchine's fascination with Mitchell's and Adam's skin color. It was less a race issue with him than almost a design one, the patterns produced by white and black skin together fascinated him.

I could be misremembering but I think Kent understudied the pas from early on and was performing it by 1959. For me, Farrrell is right in line with Kent's method of doing the pas and her heir is Darci Kistler. Especially when Farrell was young (see the 1965 tape of her & Mitchell in a trucated performance at the Library of Performing Arts) she did the pas as an innocent. Kistler doesn't even seem to recognize the man is there. And yes, I agree about the puzzle aspect of that section in the opening, the Japanese call that sort of puzzle "sokoban", I think! It may be their invention.

Mel, by the "opening" of the pas de deux, do you mean the entree up until the point where the dancers pose in pointe tendue back and the music pauses? If so, that's technically a different piece of music than the pas itself. It's a repeated part of the score (is that a ritournel?) that is used to open each of the smaller divertissements.

I also agree about the fact that there are changes that occur in "transmission" - it's fascinating. And as fascinating was the fact that Balanchine seemed to acknowledge that fact slightly in his earliest replacement casts. Kent for Adams, Villella for Bolender, perhaps to a lesser extent Verdy for Hayden (they were physically more similar), and certainly Francia Russell and Jillana for Barbara Walczak and Milberg, where he actually completely remade their dance in the first pas de trois - in all cases he replaced the original with someone who simply had to do the role differently. Bolender didn't teach Villella, Balanchine did, and his first words according to Villella were "Don't try to do this like Todd because you are en l'air dancer." I think change was part of the ballet for Balanchine.

I'm stealing ruthlessly in this post from my own articles on the subject, and I apologize to everyone who has heard me go on and on at length about the subject.

#29 grace

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Posted 11 January 2003 - 03:11 PM

OK - i managed to get off my chair and go look up a book! (mel - i love that sign of yours - i should do the same.) my source - peter buckman's 'Let's Dance' says about the saraband:

- in the 16th century, certainly, the dance and the song that accompanied it were considered by a Jesuit historian to be indecent in its words and disgusting in its movements....(makes you wonder, doesn't it?)...

- in 1583 anyone caught reciting its words was to be punished with 200 lashes (!) males were additionally to be sentenced to 6 years in the galleys, while females were to be exiled.

- "apparently it was once a sexual pantomime, (...sound familiar?...)for in Barcelona couples twisted their bodies to the rhythm of the castanets"

- from being erotic, it became a gliding processional dance...

#30 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 11 January 2003 - 03:16 PM

As a point of reference, not only is the male solo (rather than the pas de deux) in Agon a Sarabande, but so is the interpolated solo in Square Dance and what is sometimes interpolated as a variation for the prince in Act II of Sleeping Beauty (I could be getting that wrong, I know Nureyev interpolated a sarabande for the Prince in either Beauty or Swan Lake)


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