Agon: ‘The Acute Edge of Risk’


a ballet by Igor Stravinsky, with choreography by George Balanchine, performed by the New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater, New York City, February 24–28, 2016
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs, New York, July 21 and 28, 2016
Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell in a production of Agon by the New York City Ballet, 1963
Martha Swope/New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell in a production of Agon by the New York City Ballet, 1963

The curtain rises in silence. The stage is empty except for four men with their backs to the audience evenly spaced across the rear of the stage. They are lean and long in their simple white T-shirts, black tights, and white ballet shoes, and they are doing nothing. Just standing. There is no set, no decor, no theatrical dressing of any kind—only space, light, and a blue cyclorama stretched behind them like the sky. Faceless, nameless, no smiles, no pretty balletic girls, no lush overture. Nothing but the four men’s backs and silence.

They swivel in unison to face us. And now it is not really silence anymore: this first move is on a musical rest, and although we don’t hear it the beat is there. Immediately the men catch it, take life, and begin to move. They bend their knees, walk, walk, counting paces, in diagonals, marking time, little catch steps, walking, walking, in twos and fours, until walking becomes dancing and they are off. From this moment until the ballet’s end some twenty-four minutes later, there is no respite: the pulse that began in silence is unrelenting and the four men are joined by eight women—black leotards, flesh tights and shoes, hair pulled tightly back, almost nude.

Agon is twelve bodies in propulsive motion in a suite of dances patterned on seventeenth-century dance and musical forms, refitted to the twentieth century with twelve-tone musical techniques. It is both tonal and atonal, often in uneasy juxtaposition. It is elegant, refined, gay; dissonant, broken, jarring. It is about math: there are four parts, twelve sections, and dances for two, three, four, eight, twelve dancers that accumulate with astonishing precision as dancers tear across the stage, bend, contort, toe shoes digging, pulling, striking their way through intricate footwork, legs flying, switchbacks, acrobatic extensions, gracious bows, physical and musical wit, and always on time (the pulse, the pulse).

Finally we are back to the opening music and the same four men, making their way upstage with sweeping arm gestures, as if they were painting the space all around. They stand facing us for an instant, recalling the opening movement, and then turn abruptly and freeze. The music stops. But there is a final rest—and in its silence, they swivel back to their original pose, backs to the audience.1 The pulse stops. They stop. It is over and the curtain falls.

The ballet had two opening nights: a preview performance to benefit the March of Dimes, followed by the premiere on December 1, 1957.2 George Balanchine was standing as usual in the front wing downstage right watching the…

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