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.