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Subject: "MacMillan's 'Agon'" Archived thread - Read only
 
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Ann Williams

10-02-01, 01:14 PM (GMT)
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"MacMillan's 'Agon'"
 
  
Does anyone have any information about 'Agon' choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan to the Stavinsky score with designs by Georgiadis? It was apparently performed by the RB in their 1958/59 season, according to details I found in a catalogue of the ROH's 25th-anniversary exhibition at the V & A in 1971. The dancers listed were Linden/Park and Blair/Doyle.

Since I've never before heard any reference to this ballet, I'd be intrigued to know more about it.


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  Subject     Author     Message Date     ID  
  RE: MacMillan's 'Agon' Jane S 10-02-01 1
     RE: MacMillan's 'Agon' Richard J 10-02-01 2
         RE: MacMillan's 'Agon' Ann Williams 10-02-01 3
             RE: MacMillan's 'Agon' Richard J 11-02-01 4
                 RE: MacMillan's 'Agon' Richard J 11-02-01 5
                     RE: MacMillan's 'Agon' Ann Williams 11-02-01 6
                         RE: MacMillan's 'Agon' Shirley 11-02-01 7
                         RE: MacMillan's 'Agon' Richard J 11-02-01 8
                             RE: MacMillan's 'Agon' Ann Williams 12-02-01 9
                             RE: MacMillan's 'Agon' Richard J 12-02-01 10
                             RE: MacMillan's 'Agon' Shirley 13-02-01 11

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Jane S

10-02-01, 03:41 PM (GMT)
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1. "RE: MacMillan's 'Agon'"
In response to message #0
 
   MacMillan's version of Agon was premiered at Covent Garden on August 20th 1958 - less than a year after Balanchine's, which had not yet been seen in London. Linden and Blair led the first performance (Park/Doyle were the second cast); among the rest of the cast were John Stevens, who eventually changed his name to Ben Stevenson, and - in the corps de ballet - Antoinette Sibley.

The ballet was not considered a success and had only 10 performances in London. Clive Barnes in Dance & Dancers liked it, though, and the press notices ran all the way from one star to six. I never saw it, and had wondered if it might go down better today than it did then, but I once asked someone who remembered it, and he was fairly scathing about it.


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Richard J

10-02-01, 10:08 PM (GMT)
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2. "RE: MacMillan's 'Agon'"
In response to message #1
 
   Apparently MacMillan wasn't the only choreographer to produce a version of Agon within a year or so of Balanchine's; different productions are listed for 1958 in Dusseldorf, Vienna, and Berlin. It's interesting to notice this Germanic interest in the score; Stravinsky's new direction in his compositional technique, owing much to Webern, must have intrigued them.

However, the piece is so much a summation of the collaboration between Stravinsky and Balanchine, that I'm always surprised that other choreographers were able to muscle in so quickly.

Ann, it's worth reading Stravinsky's letters from this period if you've not done so, to trace the genesis of the work as a completion of the trio of Greek ballets, starting with Apollo. Such a work was on the cards for some years, with Kirstein and Craft inevitably involved as well. By the 1950's Stravinsky and Balanchine were so used to each other's ways of working, and shared the same aesthetic; they seemed to have an almost clinical detachment from what they were creating (as Balanchine said of his work: "all done on union time"). Accounts of their collaboration are fascinating.


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Ann Williams

10-02-01, 11:33 PM (GMT)
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3. "RE: MacMillan's 'Agon'"
In response to message #2
 
   Jane, Richard - thank you for these typically knowledgeable responses.

I am now even more curious to see this ballet. At the recent 'Triad' Insight day at Covent Garden Deborah MacMillan hinted that as next year marked the tenth anniversary of his death, there might be some sort of retrospective of his works, so perhaps there is some hope of a revival. I have always admired MacMillan for the courage and ambition of his work, even his unsuccessful work, so this is a tantalising prospect for me.

Richard, thank you for mentioning Stravinsky's letters - I'll have a look in Dance Books before they finally close their doors.


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Richard J

11-02-01, 10:20 AM (GMT)
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4. "RE: MacMillan's 'Agon'"
In response to message #3
 
   Ann - you might need to make a trip to the library for Stravinsky's letters, etc; Robert Craft edited 6 vols. of Stravinsky's conversations and memoirs. I seem to remember that they are not small books either! However, anything Dance Books has on the Stravinsky/Balanchine partnership is bound to be worth a look.

The genesis of Agon is worth reading about, especially as Stravinsky's style was developing in new directions at the time(partly prompted by Craft). Also, Stravinsky interrupted its composition (e.g. to write 'In Memoriam Dylan Thomas'), so there are discernable developments in Agon; by the time you get to the pas de deux, it's all very lean and spare (as is B's choreography), but the recap. of the opening reminds us of the 17th cent Fr dance manual that helped inspire the piece. I have had the reaction from pupils that it sounds like ancient courtly music which suddenly goes wrong (quite apt); it has also been described as like hearing ancient dance music on a cracked 78 rpm record!

In the score, the number of dancers for the various sections is indicated .

Regarding partnerships between composers and choreographers, and MacMillan's response to music, I often wonder what might have become of a partnership between him and Britten. They both had a way with looking at the individual caught up in a series of uncontrollable events (MacMillan's Juliet: Britten's Billy Budd, etc). What might have been!


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Richard J

11-02-01, 01:04 PM (GMT)
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5. "RE: MacMillan's 'Agon'"
In response to message #4
 
   Further thoughts on Agon; there is a substantial chunk on the relationship between Balanchine's choreography and Stravinsky's music in Stephanie Jordan's "Moving Music", which is in Dance Books (it's published by them). With Agon on the RB schedule later this year, anything on this ballet surely has to be a 'must read'; it's all so concentrated that detail is easily missed. (It always seems to me to be like a very finely distilled, but astringent, liqueur - challenging you to try to identify its constituents!).

Regarding my Britten/MacMillan thesis, it fascinates me that they were brought up in the same part of the world; although MacMillan was born in Dunfermline, his family moved to Great Yarmouth (from where he went to Sadler's Wells). Britten was born a few miles to the south, in Lowestoft. I was also born (and brought up) in the same area, and know the flinty independence of mind typical of the people in that part of East Anglia (living with the East wind and the North Sea must have its effect for a start!). I'm not surprised that both MacMillan and Britten could somehow be part of the established scene while at the same time challenging its presumptions.


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Ann Williams

11-02-01, 01:41 PM (GMT)
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6. "RE: MacMillan's 'Agon'"
In response to message #5
 
  
Richard - Thanks for these further thoughts. Re. Britten/MacMillan, of course we have their partnership in 'Prince of the Pagodas', and I personally don't think it worked (the ballet has not been revived in more than ten years). I would be fascinated to hear what you thought of it.


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Shirley

11-02-01, 03:20 PM (GMT)
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7. "RE: MacMillan's 'Agon'"
In response to message #6
 
   >
>Richard - Thanks for these further
>thoughts. Re. Britten/MacMillan, of
>course we have their partnership
>in 'Prince of the Pagodas',
>and I personally don't think
>it worked (the ballet has
>not been revived in more
>than ten years). I
>would be fascinated to hear
>what you thought of it.
>

I saw 'Pagodas' in the 96-97 season!



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Richard J

11-02-01, 07:58 PM (GMT)
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8. "RE: MacMillan's 'Agon'"
In response to message #6
 
   Prince of the Pagodas was the idea of Cranko; it was his first full length ballet. I think he was going to do something on this theme anyway, then looked for a composer. Apparently he said he didn't want to do some sort of classical pastiche, but he wanted the opportunity for creative choreography; odd therefore to have chosen a fairy story for the subject.

The music is noteworthy for the scene with the pagodas. The orchestration was inspired by the gamelan orchestras Britten had heard in Bali during his tour of the far east (1955/6). (These were the same sounds that had entranced Debussy when he heard a similar orchestra at the Paris Exhibition of 1889). Britten uses vibraphone, celesta, piano, xylophone, bells, tomtoms, and gongs in this section. He was later influenced by other oriental ideas (e.g. the Japanese Noh dramas).

It always seems to me that this commission was an opportunity lost. It should have been possible to have brought Britain's leading composer of the time, at the height of his powers and respected throughout the musical world, into a much needed development of new music for ballet. Instead, we had a pastiche throwback to the past. Perhaps British ballet was still being a bit timid about the future. Subject matter was 'safe'.

My comment about MacMillan and Britten was based on the fact that Britten showed a flair for the theatre in his operas, a medium which requires careful characterisation in the music. Prokofiev had shown how to link the various threads in a narrative ballet, and MacMillan responded when he launched into full length story ballets (as, for example, in the character of Juliet). However, various other story ballets that followed tended to be danced to patchworks of music, chosen from the minor works of this or that composer; alright as far as it goes, but not quite the same as the way in which a score such as Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet works. But by the time MacMillan was well into his full length works Britten was working on other projects, and he died in 1976. MacMillan did have a good working relationship with Brian Elias for the Judas Tree, and see the result! MacMillan's ability to deal with the emotional state of real people in his characterisation was something that could have benefitted by being matched with new music of substance.

Prince of the Pagodas seems to have an uneasy place in the repertoire, though it has been produced elsewhere with other choreographies (e.g. Munich and Basle). But at least MacMillan's version did propel Darcey Bussell to stardom!


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Ann Williams

12-02-01, 09:38 PM (GMT)
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9. "RE: MacMillan's 'Agon'"
In response to message #8
 
   Shirley, I must have been looking the other way when they did 'Pagodas' last time! Was it danced by anyone apart from Darcey & Jonathan? Can't imagine anyone else in it.

Robert, what a goldmine of musical knowledge you are! You mention students. Do you teach music?


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Richard J

12-02-01, 10:19 PM (GMT)
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10. "RE: MacMillan's 'Agon'"
In response to message #9
 
   Ann - Yes, I do teach music (I guess you mean me, not Robert!); as Director of Music in a school which has a theatre that is not only the school's theatre but also a public auditorium (with small contemporary dance groups visiting from time to time) I have also had a great deal of contact with theatre music of all kinds. It so happens that I have taught the music written for the Ballets Russes for a number of years for A level Music (with The Rite of Spring as a set work); however my interest in music for dance goes far beyond that, having watched ballet since my first visit to the ROH in 1965.

Thanks for your interest in various aspects of music written for ballet; I am only too happy to share information (in the spirit which makes ballet.co the friendly forum it is!).


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Shirley

13-02-01, 09:15 AM (GMT)
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11. "RE: MacMillan's 'Agon'"
In response to message #9
 
   >Shirley, I must have been looking
>the other way when they
>did 'Pagodas' last time!
>Was it danced by anyone
>apart from Darcey & Jonathan?
> Can't imagine anyone else
>in it.
>

If I remember Darcey danced it with three different partners - Adam Cooper, Stuart Cassidy and Jonathan Cope. Yoshida danced 'Rose' in the other cast but I can't remember who her partner was!(I'm sure someone will though.)


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