On December 1, 1957, ballet turned a corner at New York’s City Center. That night, George Balanchine’s Agon made its official debut. “It was a major point in the [New York City Ballet’s] history,” says Arthur Mitchell, who was in the original cast. “It was the most difficult thing to dance—or to play—but it established what we call neoclassical.”
Agon is a raw bolt of energy. The word means “contest” in Greek, and the ballet unfolds as a series of competitions set to a notoriously thorny commissioned score by Igor Stravinsky. The 12-member cast, costumed in leotards and tights, continually combines and recombines with a restless, propulsive drive. Pas de quatres break into pas de trois, then back into quatres, only to resolve into solos and duets that lead up to the famous pas de deux.
“Balanchine used to say that the pas de deux took the longest of anything he ever choreographed in his life,” says Mitchell. “It is not the normal ballet steps, so it was very exploratory. He kept saying, ‘This has to be perfect.’”
But Agon was startling not only because of its music and the unconventional movement. Mitchell thinks that Balanchine was consciously making a political statement in the pas de deux by pairing him with Diana Adams. “Mr. Balanchine was politically aware of what was going on racially in America,” he says.
Mitchell cites the moment toward the beginning when the two dancers stand center stage, facing downstage, and the man very emphatically places his hands on the woman’s wrists: “I think one of the major things that’s missing now is the use of the skin tones as part of the choreography. My being black and Diana being very pale meant the color of the skin tones was incorporated into the choreography.”
As with any ballet, things do get lost—or changed—over the years. Balanchine himself continued to make adjustments; nonetheless, in the 50 years since its debut, Agon has entered the repertoires of companies around the world.
This year, former NYCB principal Colleen Neary and her husband, Thordal Christensen, a former Royal Danish Ballet dancer and artistic director, co-founded Los Angeles Ballet. The two chose Agon for the company’s first season, partly in celebration of the ballet’s 50th anniversary, but also for practical reasons.
“I thought it would be an excellent exercise,” says Neary. “You can’t equal the way this ballet represents Balanchine’s style and his musicality.” Agon may be the quintessential neoclassical style primer, but there’s an added value, says Neary. “It’s one way of getting a company to be cohesive and work together. It is so challenging for the dancers. They have to count together, and they learn to work as a group. After you do Agon, you can do almost anything.”