"Agon" at 50

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.”

Latest Posts

Complexions Contemporary Ballet's Tatiana Melendez Proves There's No One Way to Have a Ballet Career

This is Pointe's Fall 2020 cover story. Click here to purchase this issue.

Talk to anyone about rising contemporary ballerina Tatiana Melendez, and one word is bound to come up repeatedly: "Fierce." And fair enough, that's a perfectly apt way to describe the 20-year-old's stage presence, her technical prowess and her determination to succeed. But don't make the mistake of assuming that fierceness is Melendez's only (or even her most noteworthy) quality. At the core of her dancing is a beautiful versatility. She's just as much at ease when etching pure classical lines as she is when boldly throwing herself off-balance.

"Selfish choreographer that I am, I want Tatiana to stay with Complexions for all time," says her boss Dwight Rhoden, Complexions Contemporary Ballet's co-artistic director and resident choreographer. "She has a theatricality about her: When the music comes on, she gets swept away." Not too shabby for someone who thought just a few years ago that maybe ballet wasn't for her.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

"My Plate Is Full": Sofiane Sylve on Her New Leadership Roles at Ballet San Antonio and Dresden Semperoper

Sofiane Sylve had huge plans for 2020: Departing her post as a principal dancer at San Francisco Ballet, she embarked on a multifaceted, bicontinental career as ballet master and principal dancer at Dresden Semperoper Ballett, and artistic advisor and school director at Ballet San Antonio—and then COVID-19 hit, sidelining performances and administrative plans at both companies. But ballet dancers are nothing if not resilient. In her new leadership roles, Sylve is determined to help shepherd ballet through this challenging time—and transform it for the better. Pointe caught up with her by phone while she was in Dresden.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

The Anatomy of Arabesque: Why Placement and Turnout Are Key to Achieving This Crucial Position

Audition for any school or company, and they'll likely ask for a photo in arabesque. The position not only reveals a great deal about a dancer's ability, but it is also a fundamental building block for more advanced movements, like penché or arabesque turn. Beyond technique, it can be the epitome of grace and elegance onstage, creating unforgettable images—just try to imagine Swan Lake or Balanchine's Serenade without an arabesque.

Yet many dancers are unsatisfied with their arabesque lines, and students frequently ask how to improve their extensions. (Social media posts of dancers with extreme flexibility don't help!) In an attempt to lift the back leg higher, dancers may sacrifice placement and unknowingly distort their position in the process. How can you improve the height of your back leg while maintaining proper placement and turnout? We talked to a few experts to better understand the science behind this step.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks