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Triple bills are a great opportunity to discover rarer ballets along with new works, an essential ingredient in preserving the future of this art form. The Royal Ballet’s latest features a modern and sizzling combination well suited to those seeking refuge from an evening of tutus and tiaras.  It opens with Agon, Balanchine’s iconic work in collaboration with Stravinsky and follows with Glen Tetley’s Sphinx, originally created for American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and newly acquired for the company. The bill closes with Wayne McGregor‘s new ballet, Limen, successor to his previous works Chroma and Infra.

Ed and Melissa in Limen

Melissa Hamilton and Edward Watson in The Royal Ballet’s Limen, choreographed by Wayne McGregor. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Even if modern is not your thing, the genius concept behind Agon merits a visit. Balanchine built it from the interplay between 12 dancers and combinations of patterns and shapes. It demands pristine technique and inherent musicality to sustain the choreography. The steps are akin to those every dancer executes in class but here they do so with a twist (e.g. exaggerated arabesques) and at an incredibly fast tempo. It is always interesting to see the Royal Ballet tackle this type of abstract work because of their dramatic tradition and natural bond with the Ashton and MacMillan repertory. In their hands Agon goes beyond the exploration of movement and amalgamation with music (or its realisation in choreographical terms) and you sense at times they are trying to convey a string of short episodes.

The first cast includes up-and-coming soloists (Yuhui Choe, Hikaru Kobayashi and Brian Maloney) alongside established principals Carlos Acosta and Johan Kobborg and rising star Melissa Hamilton,  fresh from her MacMillan debut as Mary Vetsera last week. The leading men (Acosta and Kobborg, plus Valeri Hristov and Brian Maloney) make Agon’s tricky footwork sequences and off-centred positions look easy, though Daniel Capps‘s conducting seemed to be going against them towards the finale. The ladies were led by Mara Galeazzi, a charmer in the Bransle Gay and by Melissa Hamilton, in the pas de deux with Acosta. 21 year-old Melissa seemed entirely at home in the intricacies of the pas de deux, sinking into a penché so deep that her nose touched the knee as if it were no trouble at all. It was inspiring to see her unique blend of suppleness and elegance contrasting the earthy quality of Acosta’s partnering.

©BC20091102221

Rupert Pennefather and Marianela Nuñez in Tetley’s Sphinx. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Tetley’s Sphinx fits the company and this particular cast of dancers as snugly as their bodysuits. It must be quite a challenge to balance Tetley’s high-powered choreography with the characterization of each role but Edward Watson‘s acid orange Anubis dazzles and threatens with swirling diagonals while Rupert Pennefather, looking every inch the greek hero, partners solidly. The heart of the ballet comes in the shape of Marianela Nuñez as the Sphinx who risks her life in exchange for a promise of love, and who is ultimately betrayed. She initially appears dominant and powerful, with arms that recalled an elegant bird of prey, but after she whispers the answer to  her own riddle to Pennefather’s Oedipus she changes into a hopeless, defeated creature who now embraces mortality. Sphinx might not be everyone’s cup of tea (its costumes and designs look more Studio 54 than ballet) and those not familiar with Jean Cocteau’s take on Oedipus will be left scratching their heads. We like it, not only for the literary souces, but for its athleticism and this particular cast’s foolhardiness in performing this exhausting piece brilliantly in three consecutive days.

Ed in Sphinx

Edward Watson as Anubis in Glen Tetley's Sphinx (with Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather in the back). Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

McGregor’s Limen is centred around the themes of life and death, light and darkness and the thresholds in-between, to align with Kaija Saariaho‘s cello concerto “Notes of Light”. Again McGregor taps strongly into technology, via Tatsuo Miyajima‘s designs and amazing lighting by Lucy Carter, to set the mood for the various movements in the music. Limen features a cast of 15 dancers, including many of his regulars.

The choreography stays true to McGregor’s trademark quick movements, contortions and extensions, although since Chroma he has been progressively softening his edgy dance language. There are also nods to previous ballets Agon and Sphinx (e.g. the iconic Agon attitude wrapping the man and the pirouettes with arms à la Sphinx) and, as such, Limen might be McGregor’s own version of a Balanchine ballet: what we are seeing really is a representation of the music and its subliminal message of light against darkness.

Limen opens with a translucent curtain in which numbers are projected, representing the passage of time. The cello’s voice cues in the orchestra  and behind the curtain we see Edward Watson mirroring the music and slowly moving through extensions while new dancers start to emerge  to match the remaining instruments. The second movement is led by Steven McRae and an ensemble of dancers, who become “alive” as they enter a colourful square of light. The orchestra takes over and energetically fights the cello, serving as a backdrop for McRae’s remarkable solo, which combines McGregor’s language with classical vocabulary.

Sarah and Eric in Limen

Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood in The Royal Ballet’s Limen, choreographed by Wayne McGregor. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Classical dance fully inhabits the third and fourth movements and their lyrical pas de deux. Marianela Nuñez and Brian Maloney echo the brief harmonious dialogue between the cello and the orchestra, while Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood represent Saariaho’s cello eclipse. As Underwood embraces and lifts Sarah, she folds her body in every possible way (with the costumes and dark lighting enhancing the effect) to the fading sound of the instrument.

The final movement is a return to the light, symbolised by a panel of blue LED lights which loom over the dancers now dressed in flesh coloured leotards. Watson carries the emotional baggage of the movement, once more showing his wonderful use of extension. The ballet (or is it the music) ends with a question, as the cello sings its last note (a very high F sharp): have we reached the heart of light or are we back into darkness? The dancers face the back of the stage and the lights dim, Watson the only dancer who stands at a threshold between this ensemble and the front of the stage. Once again McGregor has delivered a keeper, perhaps even a natural conclusion to the trilogy that started with Chroma (Chroma is the absence from white, while Limen might be the absence of colour). It has become clear that he is now more comfortable with classical vocabulary and could be interesting to see what choreographic surprises he might throw at us from now on. We can’t wait.

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Agon is probably one of the quintessential Balanchine pieces in every balletomane’s punch card. You should go if you love Balanchine, abstract, short and/or neo-classical ballets. Or try it for the landmark score: this is where Stravinsky began exploring his twelve-tone technique (more on this below).

Skip If

You are a strictly 19th century classical ballet fan and all of the above makes you cringe, especially the thought of music without an overall melodic theme (as you often exit the theatre whistling to Swan Lake!).

Dream Cast

NYCB (particularly if Wendy Whelan dances the pas de deux), after all, they are the Balanchine company per excellence.

Background and Structure

Balanchine and Stravinsky. Source: Oberons Grove. Copyright belongs to its corresponding owners.

Balanchine and Stravinsky. Source: Oberon's Grove. Copyright belongs to its corresponding owners.

Around 1948 Balanchine‘s benefactor Lincoln Kirstein had an idea for a ballet which would form a “greek trilogy” together with that choreographer’s earlier collaborations with Stravinsky: Apollo and Orpheus. The concept was discussed at the time but a couple of years would pass before concrete plans were drawn and a structure agreed. Stravinsky started composing for the new ballet in 1953. He came up with the title Agon, the greek word for contest but also a  reference to the various 17th century French court dances he had studied from Lauze’s Apologie de la Danse (1623) and this set the frame for Balanchine’s choreography.

Agon marked the third and last time Stravinsky would specifically compose music for a Balanchine ballet (though the choreographer continued to use other Stravinsky music in  later works). On the other hand it was the first time where Stravinsky applied to his work 12-tone serialism techniques, which he had just started experimenting with.

Stravinsky’s previous compositions had been structured in diatonic scale, in other words, they had been based on major and minor scales (click links for audio examples), which give a strong feeling of a tonal center, the major keys a bright sound and the minor keys a moodier sound. One can build a diatonic scale by playing the white keys on a piano keyboard within an octave, in the sequence -Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do – (see figure) 

Octave on a Piano

Octave on a Piano. Image: Guido Tattoni © Source: Smack my pitch up

Between two half steps or semitones (Mi-Fa and Ti-Do – or in the picture Si-Do) there are either two whole steps or tones (Do-Re-Mi) or three whole steps (Fa-Sol-La-Ti), giving the diatonic scale its rich tonality and clear sounds.

There are however, other types of scales. Chromatic scales for instance are sequences of tones (whole steps) preceeded by semitones (half steps). One can build a chromatic scale by playing a sequence of black and white keys in order, without leaving any out. The result is uniform and different to the major scale above where tones and semitones are arranged in a particular way. A chromatic scale has 12 tones (NB: there are 12 tones or notes in an octave. Just count the number of keys in the figure above: Do, Do Sharp, Re, Re Sharp, Mi, Fa, Fa sharp, Sol, Sol sharp, La, La sharp, Ti).

The twelve-tone technique of serialism arranges notes from a chromatic scale so that in an octave none of its 12 notes prevail over another, each note appearing just once before a new series begins. This method was developed by Arnold Schoenberg in the early twenties and later developed by his disciples Alban Berg and Anton von Webern. The resulting music is often referred to as atonal and cerebral.

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.

NYCB in Agon. Photo: Elliott Franks © Source: The Telegraph

NYCB in Agon. Photo: Elliott Franks © Source: The Telegraph

Balanchine built his choreography in response to Stravinsky’s score. Taking into account the serial 12-note concept he  conceived a ballet with 12 dancers (4 men and 8 women) and 12 movements (4 sections of 3 dances each). The ballet starts with the four male dancers facing the back of the stage and the dances develop as follows:

Pas de Quatre – the men
Double Pas de Quatre – the women
Triple Pas de Quatre – the ensemble

Prelude – 1 man, 2 women
Saraband-step – 1 man
Galliard – 2 women
Coda – 1 man, 2 women

Interlude – 2 men, 1 woman
Bransles:
Simple – 2 men
Gay 1 woman
Double – 2 men, 1 woman

Interlude – 1 man, 1 woman
Pas de Deux – 1 man, 1 woman*
Four Pas de Deux – the men and 4 women
Four Pas de Trois – the ensemble
Coda – the ensemble

NYCB in Agon. Photo: Tristram Kenton © Source: The Guardian

NYCB in Agon. Photo: Tristram Kenton © Source: The Guardian

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.

PNBs Olivier Weavers and Louise Nadeau in Agon. Photo: Angela Sterling / PNB © Source: ArtsPlace

PNB's Olivier Weavers and Louise Nadeau in Agon. Photo: Angela Sterling / PNB © Source: ArtsPlace

When the score calls for serial 12-note themes, dancers respond with isolated movements and hints of the courtly dances on which they are based (the men bowing to the women). If the music presents a canon of two trumpets, the dancers perform in canon (ie. successively) to match the trumpets in the music. In the final section, as the score goes back to opening motifs, the dancers resume the same opening image of four male dancers facing the back of the stage.

Stravinsky finished the score in the spring of 1957 and Agon premiered on December 1, 1957, as part of a triple bill featuring Apollo and Orpheus. It was an easy winner with the audience, since it depicted classical ballet in a different and novel way, showing conflict and resolution between various forms of dance, movement and shape.

Videos

Sorry no YouTube videos! But there are certain DVDs and VHS* tapes (if you are able to view these) featuring glimpses of Agon.

  • Balanchine (1984) [link]
  • The Balanchine Celebration, Part Two* [link]
  • Bringing Balanchine Back [link]
  • Dancing for Mr. B: Six Balanchine Ballerinas [link]
  • Peter Martins: Dancer* [link]

Music

Agon had its first concert performance in June 1957 in Los Angeles. It is still often performed on its own and much valued as a piece which combines both serial and non-serial elements. At an average length of 25 min, it can be easily uploaded to your favourite mp3 player. It can be downloaded from iTunes [link] or streamed via Spotify [link].

Mini-Biography

Choreography: George Balanchine
Music: Igor Stravinsky
Original Cast: Todd Bolender, Barbara Milberg, Barbara Walczak, Roy Tobias, Jonathan Watts, Melissa Hayden, Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell.
Premiere: December 1, 1957, NYCB. City Center of Music and Drama, New York.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Agon in Context by Richard Jones. Ballet.co Magazine, April 2004. [link]
  2. Wikipedia Entry for Agon (ballet) [link]
  3. NYCB Agon Repertory Notes [link]
  4. 50 Years Ago, Modernism Was Given a Name: Agon by Alastair Macaulay. November 2007, NY Times [link]
  5. The Bransles of Stravinsky’s Agon: A Transition to Serial Composition by Bonnie S. Jacobi. [link]

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As UK audiences flocked to catch free ballet & opera performances via the BP/ROH summer screenings, The Times, invited by Royal Opera House (ROH) Chief Executive Tony Hall for a chat during the broadcast of Ondine at Trafalgar Square, ran an article which accentuated one of the biggest opera world dividers in the following line:

…the ROH does not just cater for the arts snobs who can afford the £380 ticket in the Grand tier

While the article focused largely on the ROH’s accessibility campaign via UK-wide free screenings and cinema distribution across Europe, it was hard to ignore the hint of inaccessibility suggested in the above quote. Most newspaper articles covering this initiative tend to adopt the same tone of “it’s either opera in cinema or top seats in the house”, intentionally or not leaving out the seating layers in between and perpetuating the notion that only the rich can afford an evening at the ballet or opera. By pushing these two extremes at the general public, the media is preserving the snobbish/elitist perception of these art forms. The point about cinema is simply that it can reach a wider, global audience for an extended period (ie. months vs. weeks in the case of live performances), not necessarily that it is so much cheaper than attending a performance at the opera house.

The article made me think back on a brief conversation I had on the tube a while ago. I was slightly dressed up so a man next to me asked if I was going to Covent Garden. I responded I was on my way to a performance at the ROH. Upon probing further he finally asked how could students afford the cost of a ticket. My  reply that the ticket in question had only cost me £12, and that there were times in which I could get into the theatre for even less via the Student Standby scheme, seemed to surprise him greatly.

Royal Opera House. Photo: Peter Mackertich / ROH ©. Source: BAFTA.com

Royal Opera House. Photo: Peter Mackertich / ROH ©. Source: BAFTA.com

Turning this debate into  figures: irrespective of ticket prices, ballet and opera companies are non-profit organisations which are supported by citizens, in North America via donations and in Europe via taxes. For instance, the ROH has an annual grant equivalent to (approx) £27.5M in public money to fund both the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera. In return for the subsidy the company must seek to broaden its audience. The ROH receives a further £15.3M from donations and legacies, and box office takings of around  £35.6M (based on last year’s figures, a healthy number for recession times). When added, the previous numbers indicate that the ROH generates more than £2 for every £1 given by the government grant, thus avoiding deficit and justifying public spending on it. To keep its side of the bargain, recent changes have increased the costs for a top tier ticket whilst creating cheaper seats in certain areas of the house. In 2008, a quarter of the tickets were cheaper than £30 for full-length ballet productions (costing less in the case of shorter works), with the least expensive tickets costing a mere £6.

In 2008, The Guardian published the following “top tickets” price comparison:

  • The Royal Opera £210
  • British Grand Prix (formula 1) £169 / per day
  • Glastonbury (music festival) £155 / per weekend
  • Men’s Final Wimbledon (tennis) £91
  • Hairspray (musical), London’s West End £60
  • The God of Carnage (play), London’s West End £47.50
  • Odeon (cinema) Leicester Square £17.50

A more up to date web search returns the following price estimates:

  • Chicago,(musical) West End: £25 – £59 + £4.50 service charge
  • The Royal OperaCarmen: Grand tier £210 – £880, Stalls £14- £219, Balcony £14-240, Amphitheatre £9-£97.90
  • The Royal BalletThe Sleeping Beauty: Grand tier £110 – £480, Stalls £10-£120, Balcony £10-£170, Amphitheatre £6 – £70
  • Hamlet starring Jude Law, West End: £32.95 – £42.75
  • Coldplay (music) at Wembley Stadium: £44 – £63 + £4.50 service charge
  • U2 (music) at Wembley Stadium: £61 – £93.50 + £4.50 service charge
  • Odeon cinema (non central) Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: £9.00 – £11.00
  • Odeon cinema Leicester Square The Proposal £13.50 – £19.00
  • Chelsea FC (football) Premier League Ticket: £39 – £64

The comparisons above tell us that whilst top tickets for ballet and opera are indeed very expensive (notably those eye-poppingly exclusive grand tier seats), there are plenty other alternatives in every tier of the house, ranging from the equivalent of a movie ticket to the price of a football match (it brings to mind the quote – football is “poor man’s ballet” – a 180 degree shift in paradigm if you look at Premier league ticket prices).

If one considers the production costs associated with a full-length ballet, the expensive designs and costumes, the orchestra, etc. £15 for a ticket seems better value for money than all the other options above. Add to the equation the fact that certain ballet and opera companies run schemes with bulk discounts or membership deals (such as the Friends of Covent Garden scheme or The Sadler’s Wells multi buy discount) and costs dip even further.

(NB: For the sake of this comparison exercise I’ve taken into account the costs for full-length productions which are more expensive than a programme of mixed bills: £6 – £260 for the Royal Ballet’s Agon/Sphinx/New McGregor Triple Bill next season).

Of course, there will always be cheaper entertainment options out there and why not, plenty of stay-at-home ways to watch ballet and opera (TV, DVDs, Iplayer). However, live stagings give audiences a proper opportunity to fully connect and engage with the performers, the scale of which cannot be reproduced in cinema screenings or on DVD. And once you have experienced a live ballet or opera, chances are you will want to return as often as possible. Hopefully the above will serve to demonstrate that opera and ballet do not have to be a once in a lifetime experience or a special occasion treat.

Sources and Further Information

  1. From the Ten O’Clock News to a night at the opera, Tony Hall is taking it to the people. Interview at The Times by Dan Sabbagh [link].
  2. Royal Opera raises Top Ticket Prices by Charlotte Higgins at The Guardian [link]
  3. Ticketmaster.co.uk [link]
  4. Arts Council UK Website [link]

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