Balanchine’s Agon: Keeping modernism on Pointe

Sophie Needelman

TDPS 121

Prof. Johnson

5 November 2012

Balanchine’s Agon:

Keeping modernism on Pointe

George Balanchine is one of the most celebrated choreographers of his time, leaving a legacy of neo-classicism that continues to go down in history as a product of and response to the notorious Diaghilev Ballet Russe generation of ballet. Agon is one such ballet of Balanchine’s that is situated in this larger trajectory of dance focusing more and more on the form of ballet itself. This very stress on ballet as a medium, and on form as content, contests the classification of Agon as a ballet- as well as of Balanchine as a ballet choreographer. Thus, Agon not only expresses the influence of modernism on ballet in response to the modern dance movement, but also it contributes to this very examination of modernism. By emphasizing and exploring various modernist aesthetics of ballet, George Balanchine generates new movement possibilities that challenge the relationship between modernism and ballet as it is sourced from the human body moving through space and time.

Agon’s distinct lack of narrative ties it to the canon of neo-classical ballet. This piece does not tell a story, but rather explores formal aspects of the dancing body: “the ‘subject’ of the ballet was simply about dancing” (Denby 196). Because the form of Agon does not serve or emerge from the function of telling a story, the aesthetics of the body in motion becomes the content of the piece- a content of self-criticism that generates and explores formal elements of bodily aesthetics. These very elements of neo-classicism are also inherent to the modernist movement, which drastically impacts the relevance of Agon to a deeper understanding of aesthetic exploration. Balanchine especially emphasizes form as he tests the limits of the bodies of his dancers by warping movements of the traditional ballet lexicon and using the pointe shoe as a tool to further accentuate the body in non-traditional ways. In this sense, Balanchine’s work in Agon challenges the virtuosic and entertainment-oriented nature of ballet; he explores the human form instead of merely displaying the human form. Because his work embodies the “intentional and self-critical preoccupation with the demands of a specific medium” (Harrison 192), Balanchine actively contributes to the field of modernism with his pieces like Agon in terms of the aesthetic processes they engage in and the ways they continuously express that process in product form. Much of the explorative work executed in Agon focuses on an elemental and almost scientific expression of the body. Balanchine probes the relationship between the human body and both space and time in an incremental and highly dimensional fashion. In various sections of Agon, dancers perform extremely specific isolations of movements that establish a direct connection of the body in space to rhythm in time. Because “the structural quality [Balanchine’s] ballets all show is their power of sustained rhythm” (Denby 437), rhythm becomes a driving force of the movement of the piece as well as a source on which to base physical embodiment. Rhythm serves the movement by providing a framework for its relationship with time, as well as supporting its contestation of time and the attempt to full up time with a density of specified movement vocabularies.

The rhythmic qualities of Agon evoke a sense of constructed nature of time- and thus time’s potential to be deconstructed, unpacked, and further explored. Because the music of Balanchine’s work relates so directly to the formal elements of his movement, this deconstructed- and deconstructing- quality of rhythm heightens the function of breaking down the medium of the body. This translation of deconstruction and enhancement between music and movement as they connect in the realm of rhythm serves the modernist “exemplifications of ordinary movement, undertaken to reveal features of movement… [and] defamiliarization of the everyday in order for it to be seen afresh” (Carroll 591). Balanchine adopts a balletic and modernist perspective, and instead of overlapping them he shifts them inward to heighten the experience of movement in space and time. Thus, the outlook on dance he provides is a union but also an enhancement of the movement isolation and rhythmic deconstruction he engages.

Balanchine’s isolation of movement to break down the medium of the body contributes to and tests the boundaries of gesture in choreography. The gestures in this work focus on the engagement of the whole body and the use of repetition of a movement to create significance, which is juxtaposed with ballet gesture in the traditional sense. In Classical ballets, gesture is extremely character-based and stands apart from the ballet lexicon of whole-body technical movements. It also traditionally serves a larger narrative, which in the case of Agon does not exist. Without that narrative undertone serving the purpose of including gesture in choreography, Balanchine’s work blurs the boundary between gesture and whole-body ballet movement like a jete or pirouette. Specifically, Balanchine’s work Agon explores the very gestural qualities and potentials intrinsic to movements of the reappropriated ballet lexicon.  Upon serving the same purpose- exploring and expressing the potentials of bodily aesthetic- gesture and ballet step become one and the same. Instead of being juxtaposed and pitted against one another in the Classical sense, balletic movements of the body become gestural and gestures become applied to the entire body: “it is as if a gesture were made in its simplest form by the whole body as it dances” (Denby 439). This overlap and reclamation of movements’ potential to signify challenges our various signification capacities and assumptions as viewers of dance. Balanchine thus emphasizes deriving meaning of movement from frequency within a particular work in regard to time, and not from the traditional sense of classifying movement based on a higher universal pool of meanings laced to movement.

Balanchine’s work Agon emphasizes time as a marker of meaning through various manifestations of repetition. Specifically, this piece uses repetition to demonstrate how movement can achieve meaning and significance as it occurs over various points in time. The canons and layered repetition of a sequence of movements over time by a series of different dancers expresses the internalization of modernity on a bodily level: “industrialization and urbanization are conceived of as the principal mechanisms of transformation in human experience” (Harrison 189). While Balanchine’s choreography may not have emerged from a preconceived thematic source, the form of the movement itself gives tangibility to the themes it generates and relates to in the modernist sense. Agon also includes repetition of specific movements at various points throughout the duration of the piece, performed by both the same bodies over time and by different individuals- thus, by differently gendered bodies. The layering and change of context of this repetition among distinct bodies probes our understanding of the body as a medium- as well as the boundaries that various human bodies moving in space and across time can both generate and challenge.

While Balanchine’s exploration of ballet technique as gesture clearly distinguishes Agon from previous classical ballets as neo-classical, it also engages with and heightens its modernist affects. Agon contains various reinterpreted gestures from the ballet lexicon, which ties it directly to the modernist regime: “’modernism’ serves to declare an interest in the revision or renewal” (Harrison 189). This challenges the traditional use of gesture as a representation of a previously coded idea. Gestures and movements from the traditional repertoire of ballet technique have historically been employed because they glean value from their claim to representation of broader narrative themes, qualities, and emotions. Along those lines, “’representation’ is understood primarily as imitation- the process of referring to actions, events, and people by stimulating their appearances” (Carrol 584). Because of his conflation of bodily movement and/as gesture, Balanchine not only explores but re-presents our conception of representation as limitless and in flux. He thus assigns value to the form of the human body as it is refers to a means of signification based on frequency in the present rather than reiteration of the past, which makes his work that much more applicable to exploration in any present.

The value of exploring the aesthetic capabilities of the human body as Balanchine does is in the generation of new movement potentials. Balanchine engages in the creative process- and poses creative products- in an extremely strategic way, for he works within the infrastructure and very developed framework of Westernized concert ballet. Because of this, he has a strong foundation rich with the potential for alternative nature on which to launch his aesthetic revolution and base the scope of his work. The ways in which Balanchine’s Agon situates the crux of his artistic manifesto between neo-classic ballet and modernism- and combines the two in the heavily supported context of Westernized concert ballet- allow him to capitalize on “the aesthetic significance of classic form in terms of its capability for generating systematically infinite movement possibilities” (Carroll 588). It is this exploration of possibility that Balanchine not only expresses in his works like Agon but also claims in his artistic processes as a choreographer at large that truly sets him apart from both the neo-classical ballet and modernist genres from which he drew inspiration. Balanchine ensures his relevance to various fields of art for generations to come by magnifying these profound manifestations of movement exploration- all the while redefining our conception of “agon” as creation through that very legacy.


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