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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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Go if: You like to mix & match different ballet styles or you want to take a crash course on Balanchine’s work: this particular piece covers all his styles and influences.

Skip if: You do not fancy abstract, plotless ballets. Though that would be your loss, between Emeralds, Rubies & Diamonds there might be at least one rock that is right for you!

Ballerina Pin by Van Cleef and Arpels ©

Ballerina Pin by Van Cleef & Arpels ©

Dream Casts:

Emeralds with the Royal Ballet (Tamara Rojo or Alina Cojocaru) or the Paris Opera Ballet

Rubies with NYCB (Ashley Bouder please!)

Diamonds with the Mariinsky (Uliana Lopatkina or Viktoria Tereshkina!)

Background:

Jewels is said to be the first full-length abstract ballet, although in reality its three acts, while sharing a common theme of gemstones (as represented in the costumes), are independent from each other, with music by different composers and choreographed in various styles. There are also several versions of the story as to how Balanchine came up with the inspiration for Jewels: according to one, jeweler Claude Arpels would have suggested it after inviting Balanchine to his showroom. In another, the idea came when Balanchine was trying to buy a ring for his muse & beloved Suzanne Farrell.

Despite having claimed that the ballet had nothing to do with actual jewels, Balanchine did evoke the colour and glitter of jewels in dancing – watch for the elaborate floor patterns and shaping of groups, reminiscent of necklaces and chains – and on the dancers themselves. For this, Barbara Karinska, his long time collaborator, created distinct, matching looks for each section of the ballet. The costumes were also designed so that the dancers could move freely, to meet the demands of Balanchine’s choreography.

Given that most of the glitter would come from the reproduction of the stone colours and their shine in the costuming and dancing, the settings were left bare with only minimal jewels reflecting the light. Perhaps for this reason, ballet companies around the world have certain artistic freedom when choosing stage settings for Jewels, whilst the costumes have to remain 100% true to Karinska’s original creations. The Royal Ballet’s staging for instance has set designs specifically created by London based Jean-Marc Puissant.

Emeralds

The opening piece, Emeralds, is set to music by Gabriel Fauré. This is Balanchine’s ode to Romantic ballets, which is hinted at not only in the long (aka Romantic) tutus but also in the choreography: fluid, wafting and delicate, full of floating bourrées, Giselle-like balances and sinuous steps. It evokes 19th century Paris and French ballerinas of that era. Composed of a small corps of ballet of ten women, three soloists and two leading couples, the piece starts with an opening Pas de Deux from the first couple, two solo variations for the ballerinas, a vivid Pas de Trois (one of the highlights of Emeralds), a Pas de Deux for the second leading couple and an ensemble finale.

Rubies

If Emeralds is about 19th century Romantic Paris, Rubies brings us nearer to 1930’s jazzy America, thanks to Igor Stravinsky‘s extremely energetic and syncopated “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra”. Here the girls’ costumes are short, “Ballet-on-Broadway” looking skirts. The choreography attempts to display all the different twists in the music, so one sees angular shapes, high extensions, jutting hips, flexed feet and more. Due to its “wow factor” Rubies has been the most successful of the three sections and can be seen staged on its own in certain occasions. Dancers usually compare performing in Rubies to running a marathon, given the stamina required. The ballet involves a leading couple, together with a female soloist and a corps of eight women and four men. After an opening  introducing the dancers, a solo role for a tall typical-Balanchine ballerina, we see a very sparkly Pas de Deux for the leading couple and a real marathon of a finale  where the dancers prance and chase each other, like “running horses”, full of fun, energy and intensity.

Balanchines Rubies. Photo by Paul Kolnik ©. Copyright belongs to its respective authors.

Balanchine's "Rubies". Photo by Paul Kolnik ©. Source via ArtsJournal.

Diamonds

This final section is Balanchine’s homage to both his grand ballerina Suzanne Farrell and to Russian balletic tradition, in all its choreographic nods to the Imperial Russian Ballet schooling and to Petipa‘s classical masterpieces. Unsurprisingly, Balanchine chose a Russian score (Tchaikovsky‘s Symphony No. 3) and dressed his ballerinas in wonderful classical white tutus. The ballet opens with a waltz for a corps de ballet of twelve women and two soloists. The next movement is a remarkably regal Pas de Deux for the principal couple, structured in the classical way with an extended adagio and variations – think Sleeping Beauty, Raymonda, Swan Lake and La Bayadere all rolled into one – followed by an even more spectacular final polonaise (a crowd-pleasing, applause-generator essentially), in which all the dancers return to the stage forming intricate swirling patterns, as if replicating Diamond chains in their dancing.

Balanchines Diamonds. Photo: Erik Tomasson © SF Ballet ©. Source: Voiceofdance.com

Balanchine's Diamonds. Photo: Erik Tomasson © SF Ballet ©. Source: Voiceofdance.com

In short, even though Jewels has no underlying story and may look on paper like detached sections unified by the overall “gemstone” theme, on stage the mix of dancing styles and music honours ballet’s roots and wraps up mood, excitement and drama in one dazzling, vibrant package.

Playlist for your Ipods

Emeralds:
Gabriel Fauré. Pelléas et Mélisande (op. 80) and Shylock (op. 57).

Rubies:
Igor Stravinsky. Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra.

Diamonds:
Pieter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Symphony No. 3 in D major op. 29 (omit first movement).

Mini-Biography

Original Choreography: George Balanchine
Premiere: NYCB at New York State Theatre, April 13 1976.
Original Cast:
Emeralds: Violette Verdy and Conrad Ludlow, Mimi Paul and Francisco Moncion,
Sara Leland, Suki Schorer and John Prinz
Rubies: Patricia McBride and Edward Villela, Patricia Neary
Diamonds: Suzanne Farrell and Jacques D’Amboise
Original Designs: Peter Harvey with lighting by Ronald Bates and costumes by Barbara Karinska

Sources and Further information

  1. Wikipedia entry for Jewels
  2. Ballet Notes from BalletMet Colombus by Jeannine Potter [link]
  3. The Balanchine Trust
  4. The Balanchine Foundation
  5. Patricia Neary speaks for the ROH Podcast. Available to download free from iTunes.
  6. How brightly shining? Jewels review by John Percival at danceviewtimes [link]

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