Premiering in 1957, George Balanchine’s Agon marked the culmination of a decades-long collaboration with composer Igor Stravinsky often referred to as the “Greek Trilogy,” following Apollo and Orpheus. The ballet made a distinct statement in both choreography and music regarding the two titans’ approach to neoclassicism, with unprecedented structures in both the score and the footwork that represent a significant rupture in modernist art as it applied to both fields.
Strikingly original, but based in a rigorous classical tradition: this description applies to Balanchine’s choreographic voice in general, but in Agon (the Greek word for “contest”), these qualities find peak expression, and demand much of the work’s performers. Agon’s original cast included legendary members of the Company, whose contributions to NYCB and its dance community are in many cases immeasurable: Todd Bolender, Barbara Milberg, Barbara Walczak, Roy Tobias, Jonathan Watts, Melissa Hayden, Diana Adams, and Arthur Mitchell all performed lead roles in the work’s debut.
Essential protectors and communicators of the choreographers' work, NYCB’s repertory directors teach these storied roles to the dancers of today; but what exactly does this entail, and what unique challenges and inspirations does any particular ballet bring to the studio exchange? We caught up with Repertory Director Kathleen Tracey, who is responsible for carrying on Agon’s living legacy with the Company.
Please tell us a little bit about your background with the Company and how you came to be a repertory director with NYCB.
I grew up in southern Colorado, in a small town called Pueblo. I started [my training] in summer courses, with San Francisco Ballet, Ballet West, and then came out to the School of American Ballet and did two summer courses there; then I [enrolled full-time] for the winter. After graduating from SAB, I got into New York City Ballet, in 1987; I didn't have to apprentice for any portion of the time, I was just offered a contract, which was a little bit more common back when I was getting into the Company. I spent four and a half years in the corps [de ballet], and then I was promoted to soloist, and the year that I was promoted was the first time I ever got to perform Agon. So that was pretty cool. That was in 1993, for the [televised] Balanchine Celebration, which marked the 10-year anniversary of Mr. B's passing. We did 73 or 74 of his pieces in the spring season, so we only performed each ballet maybe three times over an eight-week season of just his works.
And then in 2002, I retired from the Company, but I had started staging ballets a couple of years before that and wanted to find out whether that was something that was interesting or something that was a prospect for me; it turned out I liked it, and it liked me. So I continued staging ballets. I think the first ballet I staged was Peter Martins' Fearful Symmetries, in France. Then Christopher Wheeldon asked me to stage some of his ballets, and the Robbins Trust hired me to learn their ballets and potentially stage them as well, within and without the Company. And then I finally got to stage a few Balanchine ballets here and there, outside of the Company, and got some experience, and all the while I was still associated with the Company as a kind of apprentice. That was when I got my apprenticeship—as a repertory director! So that's a little short nutshell version of the history of me here at City Ballet.
It's interesting that you began by staging works by choreographers other than Balanchine. Would you say that you have danced more Balanchine in your career than these other choreographers’ works?
I think the majority of the ballets that anybody performs here [at NYCB] is always Balanchine—the first ballets that most people do are Balanchine ballets. And because he was one of our founding choreographers and he laid the groundwork, it's hard to escape doing Balanchine ballets at least a few times a season. Some dancers were really, really good subjects for when Jerome Robbins was here and he liked to use them, but he didn't do as many ballets as Mr. B—Mr. B just did so many ballets, so it's an obvious thing for us to use his ballets in the majority of our season. And we learned so much from them—physically, temperamentally, artistically. And they range from being light and bright and easy, to a little heavier, darker; some have stories, some have implied stories; they just run the gamut, and they have such a range of possibilities. And the musical choices that he made also make them so danceable.
It is like breathing for us to do a Balanchine ballet. It is a natural thing.
I staged Peter [Martins]'s ballets quite a bit because he was my boss. I performed in a lot of his ballets and I was an original cast member in quite a few, so that was also a natural thing. And it was nice because we had a relationship in the studio such that I could go in, once I had retired, and ask him, “What would you like for this ballet? Do you want this version, or do you want that version?” So it was a living creative process that we could still engage in, as choreographer and repetiteur—that was a real gift, to be able to work with a living choreographer. It’s the same thing with Christopher [Wheeldon]: I can ask him, “Which version do you want? Who would you like to do your ballets?” There's always an open-door policy in terms of communication, and in terms of relevance—what would you like this time, what would you like the next time? So, I like that kind of relationship.
With Mr Balanchine, It's a little bit more guess work because I wasn't a member of his company while he was alive. So I have depended on many of the people that I learned the ballets from to translate that information for me, to understand it and to then pass it down accordingly. I'm honored that I get to do any Balanchine ballets because they're all such gifts, they're so beautiful, and I pinch myself knowing where I came from—dancing in a garage or a gas station as a kid, and now I'm here in a beautiful, big Lincoln Center theater. It's just a magical opportunity every day.
Can you talk more about learning Agon, specifically, and share any memories you might have from rehearsals or performances?
When I was in the studio, it wasn't the first time I had been exposed to Agon; I'd seen other dancers do it. But I didn't have an intimacy with it. First of all, I couldn't believe I was called to [perform] it—I was so shocked and amazed that I would get to do the ballet. I was called alongside [former NYCB dancers] Zippora Karz and Peter Boal, and the three of us got to do the first pas de trois of Agon. And like any Balanchine collaboration with Stravinsky, it’s incredibly intricate. The counts are very complex. The choreography seemed complicated because it was new, but now, in retrospect, 30 years later (approximately), [I know that] it's based on pure classical technique that just got expanded; so not having that realization back in 1993, I was just struggling to learn and make sure that I could understand what I needed to do. I felt pretty okay, the first season—not great. I remember being a bit disappointed with myself.
We had a final performance of the Balanchine Celebration season and it was an all-day affair. It started at two o'clock in the afternoon [and went] until 10 o'clock at night. The audience members got to start with hors d'oeuvres, then they had dinner, and then they had dessert, so it was a long affair. And the dancing started, I believe, with an excerpt from Apollo, and then it went to all of these excerpts from all these ballets, with amazing dancers from everywhere, like Isabelle Guerin from the Paris Opera Ballet, and Manuel Legris [also of the Paris Opera Ballet] did the male variation of Square Dance. It was just unbelievable the number of people that came in; Elizabeth Loscavio, who was at San Francisco Ballet for years, and then she went over to Europe, and all these guests from companies everywhere—like Patricia Barker from Pacific Northwest Ballet. It was just this onslaught of amazing talent here to celebrate with us on this wonderful evening.
That night they excerpted the first pas de trois, the second pas de trois, and the pas de deux from Agon. [NYCB guest artist] Darcey Bussell did the pas de deux with [former NYCB dancer] Lindsay Fischer; I remember that very clearly, she was ridiculously wonderful and amazing. We did the first pas de trois and right at the very end, I kind of messed up a little bit and I remember thinking, “Oh, this is going down in history, it's going to be seen forever.” Which of course, in hindsight, it was one little mistake. But at the time it felt very significant, and now I'm like, “It’s nothing.” The kinds of mistakes that people have made in Agon are either epic or very minor; sometimes the music can be very confusing and people don't know what to listen for, because it's very layered and complicated. Mistakes are bound to happen and we just have to be a little bit less concerned with mistakes and just give our all and hope for the best. That's what I remember.
That sounds like a very Mr. B. thing to say.
“Just do your best.”
Are there any unique moments or challenges that stand out in the rehearsal process as you coach Agon to current Company members?
I see the same challenges, usually for the person who's learning it for the first time. For example, at the very, very beginning of the ballet, it’s four gentlemen, and they start doing the opening steps. They're very simple, but musically they tend to be a bit more layered and complicated, and rehearsing with the piano is different from hearing the orchestra. So what I tell the guys is, listen in the beginning; if you can find your anchor—maybe there's one person in the cast who has done it—find your anchor and just try to use your peripherals and use that person to help ground you. Look at them in the mirror when you have it, keep them in your visuals when you don't—like when we have a rehearsal onstage. But the opening always trips up the guys. There's a part in the opening group section that always trips up the ladies, as well. I can name several places in the first pas de trois that get people a little off their balance in terms of musicality.
It's usually the music that is, I wouldn't ever say that it was making it harder, but understanding it is the challenge. I keep hearing new things each time I teach it, and I try to point out those moments. I’ll say, “Oh, listen to that. There's one section where you're going to hear this series of notes; when you hear that, that means this, this, and this,” trying to give people some audio anchors so that they don't feel like they're lost onstage. But the problem is that Agon is very exposed. You're wearing a leotard and tights, you've got these big bright lights shining in your eyes, and the steps are very challenging—to be able to switch from being fierce and dynamic to having a sense of being very malleable, and then you have to pop back into the strong technique of musicality again.
And of course the finale can either be a hit or miss, and hopefully, again, I'll have an anchor on each side, because they do slightly different things at one point. So I'm hoping there's an anchor on one side and the other and hopefully that will ground everybody and make them feel a little bit more confident. But even when it's a brand new cast of people, you just have to give them the opportunity to experience it, learn from it—“Well, that didn't go right, what do you think happened?” And then you analyze it, you go on, you can't let it stop you from still performing it.
I guess that's why it’s translated as “contest.”
It's a contest for your mind more than your body, sometimes. Because you think more about what is going to have to happen rather than being in the moment, and when you get to be in the moment, you've won the contest.
Please tell us about learning Agon—who coached you, and what from their teaching do you try to pass down today?
I learned it from Rosemary Dunleavy, she's been our senior repertory director for over 50 years. She had a relationship with Mr. Balanchine that I feel fortunate to glean information from. The fundamentals of this particular ballet relate to a few of our so-called Black & White ballets, like The Four Temperaments or Symphony in Three Movements. There's a streamlined kind of approach, and the emphasis that Rosemary gave us was to find the shapes, know the shapes, execute the shapes. Be precise. She was an extremely efficient person to teach this kind of ballet. She knew what started, where it went, and how it finished. But also with Rosemary, you can ask any question—“Is this on count three? When do I come out? And when do I pose?” You could ask her any questions about the details, but it was the confidence that she gave us in terms of letting us dance, and letting us make the mistakes sometimes, and not having to point them out, because we already knew that we made the mistakes. She'd say, “Oh, you know what you did,” and yes, I know what I was supposed to do and I know what I did. There was never judgment if there was a mistake.
[Rosemary] is of the school of thought that you teach, and you let them do it. Sometimes people want to be coached, you know, where their left pinky goes. And Balanchine just wanted to see people dance. I'll give pointers, but in terms of technique, there's something ingrained in us all, and that has been the gift of somebody like Rosemary, who has been able to translate that for as long as she's been here. I just try to remember, it's not exactly what Rosemary said—it's just the idea, the delivery, the efficiency, because this is an efficient ballet. You can't waste time somewhere. You can't waste your energy somewhere.
You have to just be, do, carry on.
Her gift to all of us, in particular with Agon, is that she didn't stress us out—it was already stressful enough. We know the historical significance of this ballet. We know the effect that this has had on audiences worldwide. We understand how important it is and we also recognize what a coveted ballet it is to get to perform. And it's a coveted ballet to get to stage. It's a treasure, and you can't put a price on that opportunity. So I think this ballet in itself has been gifted to all of us in such a classic and classy way by those few people who have been able to translate it for us. That's what Rosemary has done.
Anatomy of a Dance
Maria Kowroski on Balanchine’s Agon
Maria Kowroski discusses how this Balanchine classic is, at its root, the story of a relationship. Agon translates as “contest” in Greek, and the ballet’s central pas de deux is a back-and-forth conversation between a couple, manifested in physical form.
Can you describe the role of repertory director as you see it, and share what you think audiences might not realize about the role or the coaching process?
One of the things to know about a repertory director is that all of us have danced the ballets here at the Company, except for the new pieces—we're on the other side of the studio to experience that. But the role of a repertory director is to translate or transcribe and then pass along a choreographer's work and intention. Sometimes, like with a Jerome Robbins piece, it's not just steps that you see onstage; there's an atmosphere, there's a camaraderie that is different from when you do a Balanchine ballet. Balanchine ballets, to me, are purely abstract, storyless, but still have that kind of artistry that gives an audience member an opportunity to make up their own story. You see the ballerina and you see the partner and you're like, “All right, let's see where they go,” and you can kind of choose your own story. But Robbins ballets have a different intention; while they are wicked hard and super challenging technically, they're also challenging in the way that they bring out the artistry in a dancer. So those of us who are in charge of a Robbins ballet, we either had the experience with him or worked with those repertory directors who did work closely with Jerry, and then we can translate that information to the dancers.
Simply put, we get into the studio with a bunch of dancers called to perform in a particular ballet. We teach them every single step—we teach them when they start, where they start, how they finish. It's really just making sure that the entire choreographic content is put back out as the choreographer [intended], be he or she alive or passed—we have to make sure that again, the intention of the choreographer is put out onstage with all of its integrity. We look at little details like, “Is that person's technique strong in that area;” if it's not, let's work on that. We rehearse them in a way that they feel confident and more than competent to do the work that is required of them.
Sometimes it takes dancers a longer period of time to learn a ballet like Agon. I've been teaching since the first week of the rehearsal period, which was seven weeks ago, plus the first week of the performance period. A ballet like Agon is very complicated. It takes longer to teach than a very straightforward, Nutcracker-style ballet where it's like, “Oh yeah, we do it every year. All right. We can slip these people in, most of them have done it. Everybody knows Tschaikovsky's music. It's not that big of a stretch of the imagination.” Some ballets take longer to teach, and some take a little less time.
Some people have 40 dancers, some people are in charge of two people. It just depends on the ballet, the choreographer, the type of music that's being used, and if it's been performed recently, or if it’s being dusted off and seen for the first time in 10 years. And we have to do a lot of research in terms of, “What are the current requests?” Maybe the Balanchine Trust wants to make sure that there are certain elements that might have gotten missed or passed by, by somebody who has never worked with Balanchine. So we've had a few repetiteurs from the Balanchine Trust come in and say, “We need to make sure that this is in the ballet.”
[Former NYCB dancer and Balanchine Trust Répétiteur] Victoria Simon, for example, has come in; I got to talk to her once on Zoom, and then she was able to come into a rehearsal [for Agon] and pointed out a few details that are really important to make sure and emphasize. She's a link to our Balanchine history and she's able to keep us current and make sure that we're doing right by Mr. B. [Simon] performed the corps of Agon and she danced a slew of Balanchine ballets, so she's somebody who's a really great resource that we have been able to tap into and get information from, especially for those of us who didn't have the experience or the history with Mr B. We rely on the oral tradition, we rely on making sure that those who came before us give us as much information as they can.
Sometimes you look back at old video tapes or films that they might have made. For example, there's a film of La Valse from 1972 or ‘73 that they made in Berlin, with Sara Leland, who was a principal dancer [with NYCB]; she then taught the principal dancers’ roles in La Valse, and that was passed to me. And so I go back and I look at that video of Sally [Leland] actually performing the ballet to see details, to try to understand a little bit better the musicality that she encapsulated in her dancing and that was transcribed to everybody that she taught after she stopped dancing. It's like a living legacy that we have to continue to uphold, and a tradition that we need to make sure is still staying intact. So it's intimidating to have some of these legacies in our laps, but we are well armed with many, many great resources to be able to tap into. And while it's not the same as it was, our heart and our soul goes into making sure we do the best we can. And that's all that we can do.
This is the first in our ongoing series of Studio Visits, where the artists and professionals of New York City Ballet provide a firsthand glimpse behind the curtain into what it takes to bring our repertory to life onstage.