Ballet Stars
Diana Adams and Irving Davies in "Invitation to the Dance," via YouTube.

Elegant, enigmatic and versatile, Diana Adams was a muse to the choreographic visionaries of her day. She originated roles in works by Agnes de Mille, Antony Tudor, George Balanchine and Gene Kelly, most famously the edgy pas de deux in Balanchine's Agon alongside the recently departed Arthur Mitchell. But outside the ballet world she may be better remembered for her role in Gene Kelly's 1956 film Invitation to the Dance. In a swanky, style-blending duet, Adams's polished pointework and long lines juxtapose British tap dancer and choreographer Irving Davies' suave, grounded style.

Diana Adams and Irving Davies - Invitation to Dance

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Ballet Stars
Edward Villella, Arthur Mitchell and Jacques d'Amboise. Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images, Courtesy NDI.

On Monday night, the National Dance Institute—the arts education organization founded by former New York City Ballet star Jacques d'Amboise—presented Balanchine's Guys, a lively discussion with d'Amboise and two other NYCB greats: Arthur Mitchell and Edward Villella. Many of their former NYCB colleagues, including Patricia McBride and Suki Schorer, were in the audience, and while the evening was sold out, NDI live-streamed part of the conversation. We know many of you weren't able to catch it, so we've included the video from NDI's Facebook page below. (There's a bit of a sound delay, but it's well worth the watch!)

All three shared priceless anecdotes of working with Balanchine. While NDI wasn't able to stream the whole discussion and performance, here are a few highlights from after the camera stopped rolling:

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Ballet Stars
Arthur Mitchell. Photo by Eileen Barroso, Courtesy Columbia University.

When American Ballet Theatre soloist Calvin Royal III and New York City Ballet soloist Unity Phelan burst into the opening diagonal of George Balanchine's Agon on Monday, they had reason to be nervous. Sitting in the downstage corner of Columbia University's Miller Theater—precisely where they'd need to spot their pencil turns—was Arthur Mitchell, the Dance Theater of Harlem co-founder and longtime director who originated the male role at NYCB in 1957. It was a rare and exciting moment of the future meeting the past. (Royal later described the experience as "surreal.") The two dancers, who had been coached by former NYCB principal Heather Watts, gave an electric and intense performance. Afterwards, Mitchell turned to the audience from his blue leather chair and smiled. "I would say it's in good hands."

Royal III and Phelan performing "Agon" during the Vail Dance Festival. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy Vail Dance Festival.

Their appearance was part of "An Informal Performance on the Art of Dance," an evening directed by Mitchell to celebrate both his legacy and the Arthur Mitchell archive at Columbia's Rare Book and Manuscript Library. (The first exhibition featuring Mitchell's donated archives will be on display at Columbia's Wallach Art Gallery January 13–March 11, 2018.) A slew of guest artists came together for the program, which included works by Balanchine, Alvin Ailey and Mitchell himself (including his South African Suite and Rythmetron).

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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.”


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