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"Fireflies in Tights": On Balanchine's Agon [by Eden Elieff]

Ed note: This is part two of a series. Find part one here. sdl

Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams in "Agon""The New York Public Library Digital Collections, 1957.

Agon. What the hell was that? The program revealed that agon is a Greek word, meaning contest. Okay, but how do you pronounce it? Short a like apple? Or long a like acorn? It didn’t dawn on me that agon is cousin to agony: short a then.

This scene began NYCB’s week-long Ravinia residency:

The stage is bare, devoid of even a minimalist Godot-style tree. Four men in white Fruit of the Loom T-shirts and black tights appear. They walk upstage, place themselves equidistantly from each other with their backs to the audience, their curved arms extended downward— an image of grace. They pivot in unison to face us. Before the music starts, they move as a unit, doing simple steps at first—walking, feet angling inward and then out. They, not the orchestra, begin the piece.

A few counts later, the musicians blare a brass fanfare. The men engage in familiar steps, a plié, feet in first position. They strut across the stage in lockstep to the music’s rhythm. But immediately, Balanchine inverts the classical lines. The feet turn inward. Legs extend off-balance. Chests protrude beyond “elegance.” Heels flex upward on the floor, anchoring the leg. Arms swing casually. We’re in “West Side Story” territory, which also premiered in 1957.

Two minutes later, eight women in “practice clothes” uniform—pink tights, black leotard—enter. The urgent music borders on angry. They attack the beats, matching the tone of the music, and explode in jumps and turns, as if on a trampoline, sometimes in unison and sometimes following each other a count or two later: a visual fugue. Always moving, they create a stream of patterns: architecture in motion. Balanchine’s choreography unspools seamlessly, insistently, to the music’s flow.

The ballet continues for eleven more movements—trios, solos, full ensemble, and most famously, a male-female duet—and reveal shapes, patterns, and a kinetic dynamism I’d never seen before. There are no explicit guideposts that help you absorb the ever-churning complexity of the rhythm, tempo, and musical phrases these dancers literally embody. You can’t anticipate the progression of synthesized sight and sound, the amalgam of the past with an unchartered present, of this blend of grace and angularity. I could see the ballet a hundred times and still not understand how the dancers mastered its rhythm, still incapable of internalizing the choreography’s trajectory. The dancers are fireflies in tights. And all I wanted to do was catch them.


So what was the contest? Were the dancers really antagonists? Or were they protagonists, a group of equals exploring this new world? Balanchine was recasting old forms and contexts into an avant-garde vocabulary, but was he framing them as adversaries, as the title suggests? Don’t think so. This was a friendly face-off, an invitation to discover that evolutions embody the sources from which they emerge. The “contest” between eras is implied, inherent in the choreography’s unfolding. The ballet’s plotlessness might feel revolutionary. But for me, “Agon” declares that the imagination’s ability to transform the dimensionless medium of sound into a three-dimensional locomotive, is the greatest ballet plot of all.

Yet there is a basic scheme.  Several of the twelve sections are based, loosely, on 17th century French court dances: the branle, galliard, and saraband. Balanchine called the other sections after the number of dancers in them.

The late Arthur Mitchell, who originated the pas de deux, revealed that it was the first section Balanchine choreographed. Thus it was the ballet’s centerpiece, though chronologically, it was the penultimate section—the climax of the preceding ones. And you wouldn’t be wrong to see a sexual context here. The choreography’s six minutes involve an intimacy that ranges from a simulation of court dancing—slow, processional movement—to serpentine entanglements that look lifted from the Kama Sutra. Sometimes there’s not much “dancing” at all, if dancing is continuous movement. Rather, there’s a blossoming of consecutive poses that suggest images on Greek amphora or the mirror images of Rorschach tests.

But in 1957, the choreography was almost beside the point. Arthur Mitchell was black. His partner, Diana Adams, was white. Interracial marriage was not legal throughout the US. It took a full decade later for Loving v. Virginia to settle the matter. Yet Mitchell and Adams enacted this choreographic coupling as if the only thing missing was the certificate.

Ultimately, if there are opposing energies here, it’s the failure of words to convey the full impact of this visceral, ephemeral experience, which, as we’re verbal creatures, is indeed a kind of agony: Dance, kaleidoscopic in form, always resists our ability to communicate its spell. Three-dimensional movement doesn’t readily translate into the abstraction of language. So, are all ballets agons? Maybe Balanchine in his sly way trying to make a universal statement about his art.


Ed note: Here is former NYCB principal dancer Maria Kowroski on Balanchine’s AGON

This season, the NYCB is celebrating the 1972 Stravinsky festival with a series of special performances. Find the schedule and buy your tickets here. 

June 08, 2022

May 26, 2022

May 18, 2022

April 27, 2022

April 23, 2022

April 14, 2022

April 11, 2022

March 20, 2022

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February 13, 2022

February 11, 2022

February 08, 2022

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January 05, 2022

December 31, 2021

December 17, 2021

November 25, 2021

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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