How It's Done: Harnessing Time

Suzanne Farrell explains why musicality is the key to Agon.
Published in the June/July 2012 issue.

Suzanne Farrell with Peter Martins in George Balanchine’s "Agon." Photo courtesy Dance Magazine archives.

One of the most memorable moments of George Balanchine’s Agon occurs halfway through the ballet. A solo woman—whose fouetté arabesques, turned-in passés and crab walks have been slicing assertively through space—pauses momentarily to observe her wrists as they alternate, pulsing up and down, evoking the music’s Spanish castanets. It feels instinctive, as if she’s responding to an inner metronome.

Agon, choreographed for New York City Ballet in 1957, deconstructs ballet down to the bare essentials—simple practice clothes replace costumes, a plain blue backdrop replaces sets, energy and line replace plot. It also marks Balanchine’s third commissioned collaboration with composer Igor Stravinsky. The score, while atonal, is based on 17th-century French court dances (although neither Stravinsky nor Balanchine tries to literally replicate them).

“Agon” means “contest” in Greek. “But it’s not meant in an adversarial way,” says Suzanne Farrell, who learned Agon from Balanchine while a principal dancer with NYCB and now stages it on The Suzanne Farrell Ballet. Rather, the contest lies less between the dancers (man vs. woman, solo vs. duet) and more within the musical breakdown of Stravinsky’s score. “Agon harnesses time in the most sophisticated way,” says Farrell. “There’s a finite amount of time to complete each step—that’s where the contest comes in.” While the technical demands are far from easy, Farrell notes that the ballet’s most crucial challenge lies in its musicality.

The solo woman’s variation, called the Bransle Gay (a French court dance characterized by side-to-side movements), is part of the second pas de trois. Stravinsky uses 12-tone technique, a composition method in which all 12 notes on the chromatic scale are sounded as often as one another and given equal importance. Balanchine choreographed the Bransle Gay mostly in 5-count phrases. However, sometimes the dancer is suddenly required to count differently—in a 7, for example. Strict adherence to the counts is a must to avoid getting lost. “There is no room to compromise counts and make up for them later on,” Farrell says. “In fact, Stravinsky once said while rehearsing the orchestra, ‘Please do not slur my music.’ ”

Rhythm can help a dancer overcome the technical challenges, and the musical and visual repetition. For instance, early on she executes a series of high relevé ballonnés in ecarté, finishes in attitude on pointe, then sustains her relevé while opening to arabesque. “You must change your rhythm from a fast 5 to a sudden 7,” says Farrell. “Down, up, down, up, down (for the relevé ballonnés)—and up, up for the attitude on counts 6 and 7. Then, shoot the working leg out to arabesque on 1 of the next phrase.”
Think spatially here as well. Farrell notes that the variation’s choreography is very linear. Since the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, the body needs to directly shift from vertical (the ballonnés) to horizontal (the attitude) to make the most efficient use of time. 

Afterward, return to 5-count phrases for a series of turned-in piqués across the stage and passés/pas de chats moving diagonally upstage toward center. For the final turns—three sets of fouetté arabesque to fouetté en dedans pirouettes traveling forward—keep the variation’s linear properties in mind to stay on course. “Fouetté the arabesque leg straight on toward the audience,” Farrell says. And maintain your inner metronome—this passage contains another 7-count phrase, leaving two extra counts to step to the side before finishing with the last set of castanet movements.

In the absence of a story, artistic interpretation can present another challenge. “You have to establish a persona, but you can’t do that unless you participate with your whole being,” says Farrell. In other words, your whole physicality should reflect the variation’s musical and choreographic spirit, in place of deliberate acting or artifice. “Be alive,” she says. “Your countenance should reflect the energy of the step.”

Agon’s abstract nature allows a certain amount of artistic freedom. “You can vary your approach,” says Farrell, “as long as it’s loyal to the choreographic energy and musical timing. Moreover, having music confine you is liberating, because it tells you how big the ocean is in which you can swim.”

Create depth and dynamics by exploring different levels of energy. “It’s draining to dance the same way all the time,” says Farrell. “I always felt I moved differently to a violin than to a clarinet. As in mixing red and yellow to make orange, sometimes you dance in specific colors, and then you have to blend them.”