Balanchine’s rEVOLUTIONary Modernism

Daniel Durrett rehearsing Agon for rEVOLUTION.

Photo credit: Brooke Trisolini

Explore the unprecedented impact of George Balanchine’s Agon on the world of dance.

Geoffrey Rhue and Kyra Strasberg for Boston Ballet’s 1991 performance of Agon for The Balanchine Legacy.

Photo credit: Jennifer Lester, courtesy of Boston Ballet Archives

George Balanchine rehearsing with Boston Ballet dancers for Scotch Symphony (circa 1965).

courtesy of The Harvard Archives

How did George Balanchine become known as the father of American ballet?

Over the span of his distinguished career, GEORGE BALANCHINE propelled ballet beyond the imagination of delighted audiences worldwide. Along with the historic establishment of the School of American Ballet and New York City Ballet, Balanchine choreographed over 400 original works in his lifetime. His illustrious index of pieces exemplifies the ingenious style and inventive experimentation that made Balanchine one of the foremost choreographers in the history of ballet.

Balanchine’s singular influence on ballet is abundantly prevalent at Boston Ballet, where he served as an artistic advisor during the Company’s EARLY YEARS.

Creating Agon

The artistic development of Agon was born of Balanchine’s close partnership with famed composer Igor Stravinsky. Balanchine and Stravinsky were life-long friends and collaborators; together, they created some of the most highly regarded ballets of the past century, including Agon.

Most often, choreographers produce works based on music that is already written ahead of time, but for Agon, Balanchine developed the choreography in tandem with Stravinsky as he composed the score. “Stravinsky and I met to discuss details of the ballet,” said Balanchine in his book, 101 Stories of the Great Ballets. “[He] always breaks things down to essentials… We narrowed the plan as specifically as possible.”

From his extensive conversations with Balanchine, Stravinsky sketched the basic movements and precise timings for the ballet in detail on the original outlines for the score. From there, Stravinsky composed a score with sounds Balanchine described in his book as never heard before. This uniquely iterative process allowed for the perfect marriage between music and movement.



Addie Tapp and Desean Taber rehearsing Agon for rEVOLUTION.

Photo credit: Brooke Trisolini

Modernism in Agon

As one of the most prominent forms of ballet today, neoclassical ballet is known as a genre that pushes boundaries within the traditions of dance. Balanchine’s use of modernism in pieces like Agon forged neoclassical ballet into what it is now.

Agon premiered at New York City Ballet in 1957, and more than fifty years later, it is recognized as “a climax of modernism” (THE NEW YORK TIMES). Balanchine’s distinctly modern approach to choreography became the epitome of experimentation and exploration beyond the sphere of traditional ballet.

Contrary to its name, which is the ancient Greek word for ‘contest,’ Agon does not depict a narrative focused on a literal competition, challenge, or conquest by a main hero or heroine. The ballet actually does not have a central plotline. Rather, it is inspired by 17th-century French court dances and features 12 nameless dancers donned in simple costumes, with women in plain black leotards and men in black tights and white shirts. Sectioned into four main sequences with three parts each, the dancers interact with each other in intimate pairings of undefined relationships.

Balanchine called Agon a “plotless” ballet, straying from the standards of traditional ballet which typically involves a clear-cut story and a cast of well-defined characters. Instead, “the subject of the dance is the movement itself” (THE KENNEDY CENTER). By removing the ballet’s reliance on an overtly theatrical story, the impact of the dancer’s movements are magnified.

The eclectic and radical choreography of Agon, with its strikingly unadorned costumes, presented an artistic feast that was revolutionary for its time. When it premiered, audiences were captivated by the “shapes, phrases, rhythms, sounds that hadn’t been encountered before but embodied New York modernism itself” (THE NEW YORK TIMES). Agon gave ballet a new look and sound that mirrored the greater American modernist movement of the mid-century.

Another way Agon transformed the art form was through Balanchine’s interracial casting of the ballet’s central pas de deux. African-American dancer Arthur Mitchell was paired with Diana Adams, who was white, and in the 1950s, such a pairing was perceived as scandalous and improper. Despite the controversy and backlash, Balanchine choreographed the pas de deux especially for Mitchell and Adams. “My skin color against hers, it became part of the choreography,” said Mitchell (POINTE MAGAZINE). Once again, Agon defied norms to emphasize powerful storytelling.

Imagine the most sophisticated game of Twister ever played, for that is what Balanchine orchestrated with Agon. Right hand on classical ballet technique, but left foot on contemporary conventions and aesthetics. Balancing the two allowed for a rare artistic configuration that pioneered the genre of neoclassical ballet.