Monday, September 30, 2019

When You're Obsessed With a Ballet...

Francia Russell, seated, in a 1957 "Agon" rehearsal with George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky at New York City Ballet
photo courtesy Russell and PNB

I could watch George Balanchine’s 1957 masterpiece “Agon” 100 times and still find something new and magical with each viewing. Lucky for me, “Agon” was half the season-opening bill at Pacific Northwest Ballet this past weekend.

I first saw “Agon” in 1993, when PNB gave its Seattle premiere. A quarter century later, Balanchine’s choreography looks both of its era and eternally fresh.

“Agon” is Balanchine’s disciplined and imaginative embodiment of Igor Stravinsky’s commissioned score--wild, challenging, influenced by Schoenberg’s 12-tone music. One of Balanchine’s acclaimed “black and whites,” “Agon” was paired by Kent Stowell’s 1993 voluptuous crowd-pleaser, “Carmina Burana.” The bill was both a study in contrasts, and a salute to Stowell and his wife and partner Francia Russell, PNB’s founding co-artistic directors.

Russell, an internationally-known stager of Balanchine’s ballets, performed in the original “Agon.” She brought the ballet, and many other Balanchine works, to PNB. I’ve had the great fortune to watch Russell at work in the PNB studios, to see both her reverence for the choreography and her meticulous attention to detail. Both were on full display in this new production.

PNB Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch in the 2013 production of "Agon."
photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

When I first saw “Agon” onstage, I didn’t know Russell’s history, or really anything about the ballet. But I was enthralled by the central pas de deux (I suspect Patricia Barker was one of the dancers). I remember the couple facing the audience, the woman’s backside up against the front of her partner. She bent at the waist, wrapped her leg around his back, her foot extended, then flung her arms back as if to challenge the audience: ‘ha, just wait until you see what else I have in store for you.’
Here's Rausch in 2013 with retired Principal Dancer Karel Cruz, photo @ Angela Sterling.
See what I mean?

On opening night this time around, I happened to be seated next to retired PNB principal dancer Olivier Wevers, who has performed that pas. He told me the two dancers are meant to egg each other on, the ballet version of "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better." On opening night, PNB principals Lesley Rausch and Seth Orza delivered. Rausch, who is always clean and precise, offered some mind-boggling moments. When Orza lifts her up at one point, she throws open her legs into a wide split, then holds the position as Orza slowly rotates, then finally lowers her carefully to the stage. At another point, Orza is supine while Rausch flits above him. He scoots his body beneath her, his pointed toes fluttering like a hummingbird.

PNB's Seth Orza lies supine beneath fellow Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch in the 2019 "Agon"
photo @ Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

I can’t recount every choreographic detail for you, but Balanchine has packed this 28 minute dance with dozens of these captivating moments. Principal Benjamin Griffiths, in a polished solo, whips off a series of leaps. Nothing unusual, except for the fact that only one leg is extended; the other remains vertical, slightly above the stage floor.

I particularly loved a pas de trois featuring beloved (at least to me) principal dancer Noelani Pantastico with two of the company’s rising stars: soloist Dylan Wald and corps de ballet member Christopher D’Ariano. This trio was fierce and unrelentingly daring. I gasped out loud when Wald lifted Pantastico off the floor, her body perpendicular, then tossed her, still vertical, over to D’Ariano, who caught her neatly then lowered her to the stage. Yikes!

PNB rising stars Dylan Wald, left, with Christopher D'Ariano in "Agon," 2019
photo @ Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

“Agon” contains dozens of these moments, and they (cor)respond wonderfully to the Stravinsky score. (Interesting side note—PNB recently streamed a rehearsal on Facebook, and one viewer commented that she liked the dance but thought PNB should swap out the music. That would be like a PB&J sandwich without the jelly!)

George Balanchine made so many, and such varied, ballets over the course of his career. I love many of them, but “Agon” is among my favorites. This coming weekend you have four more opportunities to watch PNB’s most excellent dancers perform this masterwork, lovingly passed on to them by the woman who learned it from Balanchine himself. All praise to Francia Russell!

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