Program Notes

Agon

Composer: Igor Stravinsky
Choreographer: George Balanchine
Staged by: Elyse Borne
Lighting Designer: Ronald Bates

World Premiere: December 1, 1957—New York City Ballet City Center of Music and Drama, New York, New York
San Francisco Ballet Premiere: April 10, 1976—Orpheum Theater, San Francisco, California

San Francisco Ballet (© Erik Tomasson)

Sofiane Sylve and Anthony Spaulding in Balanchine's Agon (© Erik Tomasson)

Agon

George Balanchine’s Agon is best known for two things: its nearly iconic pas de deux, often excerpted for galas and other ballet melting pots, and the mystery surrounding its name. In Greek, “agon” means contest or struggle, but there’s little of either going on in this often playful ballet. What is going on is a series of duets, trios, and ensemble dances in which Balanchine explores nearly every possible configuration of a canon.

Agon is one of Balanchine’s “black-and-white” ballets, called that because they’re danced in simple practice clothes in a (mostly) neutral palette. Created in 1957 for New York City Ballet, Agon is startlingly contemporary. “It looks like it could have been choreographed yesterday,” says Balanchine Trust stager Elyse Borne, who set Agon on San Francisco Ballet this year and in 2002, when it was last performed. “It must have been so nouveau to watch.”

Agon is notable for much more than its enigmatic name. First, it generated excitement with its pairing of a black man (Arthur Mitchell) and white woman (Diana Adams) in the premiere’s central pas de deux, at the time a radical move. Second, Agon is the last of three collaborations between Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky (although Balanchine often choreographed to existing music by Stravinsky). Third, the music for Agon marks Stravinsky’s first use of the 12- tone system devised by Arnold Schoenberg, in which all 12 musical notes must be played before one can be repeated (thus it’s not melodic). And fourth, Stravinsky based his composition on a book of 17th-century French court dances. Although you’re not likely to spot anything that’s recognizably a sarabande, galliard, or bransle (even if you knew what they were), those dances are marked in the score. And if the music has some basis in those old dances, then you can be sure Agon’s choreography does too; Balanchine was a master at bringing music alive through movement.

Stravinsky’s score for Agon—which Martin West, the Company’s music director and principal conductor, calls “pure music” and “one of Stravinsky’s cerebral pieces”—is complex and challenging. Balanchine responded in kind. The steps themselves aren’t particularly difficult, compared to some of his works, but how he uses them musically is. “With Stravinsky, everybody says it’s difficult counts,” Borne says. “But in Agon, it’s not just about knowing the counts, it’s where to place them [choreographically] in the music.” Steps and musical counts might be offset by a half beat or more. And then there are all those canons (unison movement that various dancers start at different times), sometimes set only one count apart rather than the traditional two or four.

As for the name, a likely explanation is this: in 1948, Lincoln Kirstein, New York City Ballet’s general director, proposed that Balanchine and Stravinsky create the third part of what would be a Greek trilogy including Apollo (1928; originally Apollon Musagète) and Orpheus (1948). Stravinsky came up with the name Agon and started working on the score in 1953. Four years later he came back to it, minus the Greek trilogy idea. What emerged was an abstract ballet.

Rather than thinking of Agon as depicting a contest, regard it as what Borne calls it, “a serious ballet that doesn’t take itself too seriously.” The steps are “full of humor,” she says. “It’s a fun/serious abstract ballet, but it’s a human-relationships one. Those pas de trois, the pas de deux—it’s all about the relationships.”

In trying to re-create what Balanchine intended, Borne digs into history. “Some of the best pearls of wisdom I find in the piano score from the rehearsals. The pianist would write things in, things that have gotten lost over the years. I love to find them,” she says. “I get very excited when I see a video and it’s one count off. I don’t know how I can get so excited about one count, but I do, and I make it correct. Those are little things that audiences wouldn’t notice, but it’s part of preserving the legacy.”

 

Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola

 

 

Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet

Composer: Johannes Brahms
Orchestrated by: Arnold Schoenberg
Choreographer: George Balanchine
Staged by: Francia Russell
Costume Designer: Judanna Lynn
Lighting Designer: David K.H. Elliott
Music: Arnold Schoenberg’s 1967 orchestration of Johannes Brahms’ 1861 Piano Quartet No. 1

World Premiere: April 12, 1966, New York City Ballet, New York State Theater, New York, New York
San Francisco Ballet Premiere: August 16, 1985—Meadowbrook Festival; Rochester, Michigan

Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet

Four ballets in one—that’s George Balanchine’s Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet. From a neoclassical opening that starts with a bang through Romantic and classical mini-ballets to a wild, Gypsy-style ending, this ballet offers a spectrum of gorgeous, exhilarating dancing.

Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet premiered at New York City Ballet in 1966, which means it preceded (and perhaps served as inspiration for) the better-known Jewels (1967), also composed of discrete-but-related ballets, but in an evening-length format. Since then Brahms has been performed by only San Francisco Ballet (1985 and 1986), Pacific Northwest Ballet, Dutch National Ballet, Munich’s Bayerischen Staatsoper, and Suzanne Farrell Ballet (portions). As lush as Brahms is, performing it takes a large company with depth in the top ranks; principal dancers appear in only one movement per performance.

Francia Russell, the former co-director of Pacific Northwest Ballet (with her husband, Kent Stowell), staged Brahms for SF Ballet in 1985 and again this season. “It’s not one of the iconic works like Agon or Serenade,” she says, “but it’s one of the great works, I think. The variety in the four movements is really interesting; to me, that’s one of the things that makes it great.”

Staging Brahms, Russell says, is all about the “music, music, music.” Beyond that, she says, “it’s always a challenge to persuade dancers to be free. Wayne McGregor wants one kind of freedom, Balanchine wants another. The dancers need to learn from the person staging [a ballet] what kind of freedom, what kind of tension, what kind of approach. And in this case, all four movements are different.”

The first movement, which Russell describes as rich in detail, begins with such intensity that it’s as if the ballet were already in progress when the curtain rises. But the stage is empty until a solo woman “charges out and takes over the stage,” Russell says. “The curtain rises, and then boom! There she is. She has to gobble up the stage. And then the four men join her—it’s so dramatic. And it stays at a high pitch all the way through.”

The second movement has, in Russell’s opinion, “the most beautiful pas de deux.” About the partnering she says, “I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Rapturous abandon.” The third movement, with a principal couple backed by 15 women, seems to have been imported straight from imperial Russia. “It’s classical ballet, beautiful patterns, exactly what you’d expect,” Russell says. “Lines, lines, lines; the girls have to have beautiful arms and heads. It’s Petipa, you know.” And the fourth movement,” she says, “is just a romp—it’s so lusty and rhythmic and exciting.”

The third movement, says Principal Dancer Frances Chung, is “very lush and slow. I have a little solo that picks up; it’s to a march.” Learning the role, she says, was “straightforward. But it’s very ‘classroom’ movement, and you have to add the lush quality that the music embodies in it. Sometimes simple things are the hardest.”

Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet, as is typical for Balanchine, is named for its music, Arnold Schoenberg’s 1967 orchestration of Johannes Brahms’ 1861 Piano Quartet No. 1. The quartet, Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West says, is “considered Brahms’ fifth symphony. It’s such a big piece; it has everything a symphony would have—the structure, the importance, the length.”

In CD notes for The Music of Arnold Schoenberg, Vol. IV, conductor Robert Craft quotes Schoenberg on his reasons for orchestrating the Brahms: “I like the piece. It is seldom played. It is always played very badly, because, the better the pianist, the louder he plays, and you hear nothing from the strings [violin, viola, cello]. I wanted [for] once to hear everything, and this I achieved.”

If Schoenberg got what he wanted, then so should Balanchine. “When I’m teaching the ballet, I’m trying to give the dancers what Balanchine would want,” Russell says. But later, when she’s watching it in performance, “I’m watching them,” she says. “With Balanchine, it’s the marriage of music and movement that always wrings your heart and inspires your mind.”

 

Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola

 

 

Glass Pieces

Composer: Philip Glass
Choreographer: Jerome Robbins
Staged by: Jean-Pierre Frohlich
Production Designer: Jerome Robbins and Ronald Bates
Costume Designer: Ben Benson
Lighting Designer: Ronald Bates
Music: Glass Piece #1 (“Rubric”), Glass Piece #2 (“Facades”), Glass Piece #3 (“Funeral” from Akhnaten)

World Premiere: May 12, 1983—New York City Ballet, New York State Theater, New York, New York
San Francisco Ballet Premiere: February 5, 1998—War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California

San Francisco Ballet (© Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet in Robbins' Glass Pieces (© Erik Tomasson)

Glass Pieces

Glass Pieces fills the stage, the mind, and the eye. Like the energetic pulse of a big city—a simile frequently used to describe this work—it sends hearts racing and blood surging. Set to a circuitous score by minimalist composer Philip Glass, this popular ballet by Jerome Robbins is anything but minimal.

Choreographed in 1983 for New York City Ballet and first performed by San Francisco Ballet in 1998, Glass Pieces might not exist were it not for a failed plan for Robbins to direct Glass’ opera Akhnaten. According to Deborah Jowitt’s book Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance, Robbins, preparing for the opera, asked Glass for some music for a ballet, “ ‘to get my feet wet,’ in terms of dealing with Glass’ style and musical structure.” The composer complied, and Glass Pieces, sparked by Robbins’ interest in postmodern dance, was born.

Attempts to categorize this ballet fail. “It changes,” says Jean-Pierre Frohlich, a member of the advisory committee for the Robbins Rights Trust who has staged the work for San Francisco Ballet several times. (The Company last performed it in 2012.) “It’s like three different pieces—I think the second one [a pas de deux backed by a never-ending assembly line of women] is timeless.” A mix of ballet, modern, and jazz dance, Glass Pieces mesmerizes with its frenetic ensemble work, folk dance influences, contagious exuberance, and a heck of a lot of fast walking.

San Francisco Ballet (© Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet in Robbins' Glass Pieces (© Erik Tomasson)

The image of urban urgency and isolation, reinforced by a grid-patterned backdrop reminiscent of city blocks, is most obvious in the ballet’s first movement, but it tends to dominate our perception of the work. “There’s a lot said about [the urban theme], but I think it’s valid,” Frohlich says. “The New York Times ran a picture of Grand Central Station at the holidays, and at the bottom it mentioned Glass Pieces. And if you go to Grand Central Station at rush hour and you look, they’re all walking like that, zigzagging to different areas.” The ballet’s pedestrians, hell-bent on their destinations, don’t see three couples that land in their midst to dance. “They don’t even know they’re there. Jerry [Robbins] used to call the couples aliens or space Martians,” Frohlich says.

That sense of otherworldliness continues in the second movement pas de deux. The line of women chugging behind the couple, Ballet Master Betsy Erickson says, “is like life going by while this couple is having this beautiful, breath-filled moment. It’s abstract, more than human, a super-beautiful human quality. It’s like a machine contrasting with the superhuman.”

In the third movement, folk motifs dominate in a complex rush of bodies on and off the stage—movement that “goes totally to the folk celebration, the harvest,” says Erickson. In rehearsals, she calls out the names of various sections: Apples and Oranges, Coming Forward, Ins and Outs. “They’re from Robbins,” Erickson explains. “He would say things like, ‘Gather the apples and oranges.’ The women should look like they’re gathering and harvesting.” The complex rhythms defy counting. “The women are doing their movement in a six and the men do theirs in an eight,” says Erickson. “That’s what gets tough in the last section—the overlay of rhythms, of choreography in different sequences. It keeps gathering momentum. The dancers love it—they catch on the momentum, like horses chomping at the bit.”

Commenting on the ballet’s many layers, Erickson says, “Every time I come back to it I find something new, things I didn’t realize were going on simultaneously or that connect with something else.” A perennial audience pleaser, Glass Pieces’ nonstop barrage of repetitive yet ever-changing images captivates viewers. What’s most fascinating, Erickson says, is the “constant discovery.”

 

Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola

Agon
Composer: Igor Stravinsky
Choreographer: George Balanchine

Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet
Composer: Johannes Brahms Orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg 1937
Choreographer: George Balanchine

Glass Pieces
Composer: Philip Glass
Choreographer: Jerome Robbins

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