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nanushka

Gia Kourlas on race in Agon

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Posted (edited)

I'd be curious to hear people's thoughts on what Gia Kourlas had to say about the recent casting of the Agon PDD at NYCB:

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“Agon” had its problems, too. Its central pas de deux, created for Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams, was intended for a black man and a white woman. In 1957 that was a statement, and, at least in the ballet world, it still is. Skin color is as much a part of “Agon” as its Stravinsky score. (And that could be expanded on: What would the pas de deux look like if a black woman danced it with a white man?) This time around, there were no dancers of color in either cast; Maria Kowroski performed opposite Adrian Danchig-Waring in one, and Teresa Reichlen with Mr. Finlay, in his debut, in the other.

But that wasn’t the only reason the pas de deux was a shell of its actual self on Saturday night...

(She goes on to discuss the dancing as the other reason.)

What do people think about idea that "Skin color is as much a part of 'Agon' as its Stravinsky score"? What is the significance, if any, of race in Agon, and in its casting?

Does an all-white performance of the PDD necessarily make the piece "a shell of its actual self"?

Edited by nanushka

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2 minutes ago, nanushka said:

I'd be curious to hear people's thoughts on what Gia Kourlas had to say about the recent casting of the Agon PDD at NYCB:

What do people think about idea that "Skin color is as much a part of 'Agon' as its Stravinsky score"? What is the significance, if any, of race in Agon, and in its casting?

I actually agree with her. I have used the PdD in teaching to illustrate how dance reflects the broader culture.  Agon was made in 1957. People sometimes refer to Agon as his "Sputnick" ballet (launched the same year), but I call it his Brown v. Bd of Education ballet, which had been decided just three years earlier and set off a(nother) tumultuous time in race relations. I thought this was a bold step by Balanchine, not the only time he addressed race relations in a progressive way. 

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3 minutes ago, California said:

I actually agree with her. ... I thought this was a bold step by Balanchine, not the only time he addressed race relations in a progressive way. 

Thanks, California. What are your thoughts on what Balanchine is conveying (saying, suggesting, communicating, etc.) in addressing the issue?

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2 minutes ago, nanushka said:

Thanks, California. What are your thoughts on what Balanchine is conveying (saying, suggesting, communicating, etc.) in addressing the issue?

Racial tension was not just generally "mixing the races," although that was part of it. A big source of tension was the big black "dangerous" man preying on delicate white women. So the casting has to have a black male and white female to convey that. Balanchine was tackling one of the oldest (and ugliest) stereotypes regarding race in this country. 

This was also the cultural taboo Shirley Temple addressed when she held hands with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in the 1930s and tap-danced up and down those stairs. I understand that theaters in the old confederacy refused to show the film unless those scenes were removed. 

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Hmm what I see with Agon is that the cultural stereotypes were turned upside down. In Agon the man and the woman are absolute equals, and their pas de deux is free from the traditional female submission/male dominance trope. In fact many times the woman seems to be the dominant one. Maybe the most famous example is when she is balancing in attitude and drags him along on the floor. I think this is also one of the few times Balanchine depicted primal lust from the female. It's not the big man chasing the female. The female is openly lustful of the male. She lies down on the floor and spreads her legs for him so explicitly I still get jolted by it. Imagine watching this in 1957. When she finally relaxes her body at the end of the pas de deux I read it as "we're together because I wanted him and he wanted me." 

The pas de deux between the lily-white, princessy Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell is so very different from, say, Abderakhman's attempted seduction of Raymonda or the Pasha buying Medora as a slave. In both of those ballets the male from another ethnicity/culture is viewed as the predator who needs rescuing. The woman in Agon doesn't need rescuing. To put it crudely, it looks like she really really wants to get #@!&'ed.

 

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While the ballet certainly has all those elements in its history, I think it's possible to perform it without that specific casting.  It may read differently, but it can be equally affecting. 

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6 minutes ago, sandik said:

While the ballet certainly has all those elements in its history, I think it's possible to perform it without that specific casting.  It may read differently, but it can be equally affecting. 

Oh, of course. As far as I know, Balanchine did not add restrictions on casting his ballets. (In contrast with Gershwin's requirement that "Porgy and Bess" be cast with black artists: http://www.nytimes.com/1985/04/14/arts/in-opera-race-isn-t-a-black-or-white-issue.html?pagewanted=all)

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14 minutes ago, canbelto said:

Hmm what I see with Agon is that the cultural stereotypes were turned upside down. In Agon the man and the woman are absolute equals, and their pas de deux is free from the traditional female submission/male dominance trope. In fact many times the woman seems to be the dominant one. Maybe the most famous example is when she is balancing in attitude and drags him along on the floor. I think this is also one of the few times Balanchine depicted primal lust from the female. It's not the big man chasing the female. The female is openly lustful of the male. She lies down on the floor and spreads her legs for him so explicitly I still get jolted by it. Imagine watching this in 1957. When she finally relaxes her body at the end of the pas de deux I read it as "we're together because I wanted him and he wanted me." 

All of that would be consistent with Balanchine intending to break through cultural stereotypes of that era. I don't think he ever verbalized any such intentions, certainly nothing this detailed, but the choreography does convey this.

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Hmmm ... I take issue with Kourlas' assertion that the Agon pas de deux was "intended" for a black man and a white women or that "Skin color is as much a part of 'Agon' as its Stravinsky score."  It was certainly choreographed on a mixed race couple, but "intended" for one for all eternity? That seems unlikely. 

I'd have to crack open the reference books to check, but I seem to recall reading that Balanchine liked the juxtaposition of Adams' and Mitchell's sharply contrasting skin tones but wasn't wholly alert to the fraught implications his decision to cast them had in the America of the 1950's and was somewhat surprised by the reaction he provoked.

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45 minutes ago, Kathleen O'Connell said:

Hmmm ... I take issue with Kourlas' assertion that the Agon pas de deux was "intended" for a black man and a white women or that "Skin color is as much a part of 'Agon' as its Stravinsky score."  It was certainly choreographed on a mixed race couple, but "intended" for one for all eternity? That seems unlikely. 

I'd have to crack open the reference books to check, but I seem to recall reading that Balanchine liked the juxtaposition of Adams' and Mitchell's sharply contrasting skin tones but wasn't wholly alert to the fraught implications his decision to cast them had in the America of the 1950's and was somewhat surprised by the reaction he provoked.

Well ... Balanchine cared enough to stipulate that if the company was touring to any city and the city would not welcome Mitchell in their hotels/restaurants then the company would simply not tour there. So while he might not have been a vocal civil rights activist I think he did push Mitchell very aggressively as one of the company's stars and in those times, that was quite bold.

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Posted (edited)

That’s a very interesting historical detail, canbelto, and great to know. Thank you. Where did you see that info, do you recall?

Edited by nanushka

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Posted (edited)

Balanchine may well have been both concerned by the discrimination Mitchell was subject to as a black man in America and unwilling to accommodate it. Good for him. But that doesn't mean that Agon without a mixed race couple in the central pas de deux is somehow less of a ballet, which is what Kourlas seems to suggest, or that the ballet is in some way a statement about race. 

Interestingly enough, I think a mixed race couple might perturb today's audiences less than the central pas de deux' frank eroticism. 

Edited by Kathleen O'Connell

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I can't find the exact quote (I think it was in a book) but there are several articles where Mitchell talks at length about the support he received from Balanchine:

https://www.salon.com/1999/06/29/mitchell/

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/05/arts/dance/arthur-mitchell-harlem-ballet-lenfest-center.html

This quote stood out:

Quote

“There were many people that said there shouldn’t be blacks in ballet, and Balanchine said, ‘Then take your daughter out of the company,’” Mr. Mitchell continued. “He always stood up for me.”

Quote

 

Some dancing, though, will be on view at the exhibition in two video loops that include a broadcast of “The Nutcracker” from CBS’s “Playhouse 90” in 1958. Mr. Mitchell dances the part of Coffee (Balanchine refashioned it as a female role in the 1960s) and partners Diana Adams, the Sugarplum Fairy, as one of four Cavaliers.

“Mr. Balanchine walked by me and said, ‘I hope Governor Faubus is watching,’” Mr. Mitchell said, referring to the Arkansas governor who was against the desegregation of the Little Rock School District in 1957. “So he knew what was going on in the country, and he was showing, in his way, how he felt about it.”

 

 

 

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Posted (edited)

Thanks very much for looking up those references. Much appreciated.

I find this discussion most interesting.

Edited by nanushka

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Posted (edited)
11 hours ago, canbelto said:

I can't find the exact quote (I think it was in a book) but there are several articles where Mitchell talks at length about the support he received from Balanchine:

https://www.salon.com/1999/06/29/mitchell/

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/05/arts/dance/arthur-mitchell-harlem-ballet-lenfest-center.html

This quote stood out:

 

 

Wonderful! And quite consistent with everything else we know about Balanchine's support for civil rights in that era.

I have been unable to find back the source on this (if anybody has it, please post): Balanchine was invited to bring NYCB to perform for a week at a summer festival in North Carolina - but festival organizers asked him to leave Mr. Mitchell at home. Balanchine: we bring Mitchell or we aren't coming! The festival director relented and Balanchine cast Mitchell in almost every performance. 

EDITED TO ADD: For people too young to remember the 50s, the film 42 about Jackie Robinson is a powerful reminder of the state of race relations in this country in the 1950s. And surely Balanchine was aware of that, too.

Edited by California

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Thanks to Mme Hermine for the clip from Nutcracker -- I had forgotten that part of the work included a quartet of men, like the Rose Adagio.  Tangentially, when Adams is upstage left, about to run to the quartet downstage right (around 2:36) it reminded me of the sequence in Scotch Symphony where the ballerina leaps into a group of men, who lift her up in front of her partner in a kind of "look but don't touch" moment.

Mitchell has spoken often about Balanchine's support of him during this period -- in the Dance Theater of Harlem touring exhibit that was in Seattle a couple years ago there was some wonderful interview footage from the BBC with several of these stories.

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Posted (edited)

The Todd Haynes film Far From Heaven I believe is set in 1957, the year Agon premiered. The film is very much about the sorts of cultural anxieties that California described above (re black men and white women), and it's striking to think of the ballet being performed at that very same historical moment.

Edited by nanushka

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