20 APRIL 1991, Page 43


The Royal Ballet (Covent Garden)

High tension

Deirdre McMahon

Agon, created in 1957 for the New York City Ballet, was the apogee of the cel- ebrated Stravinsky-Balanchine collabora- tion, a collaboration which lasted for over 40 years. The dodecaphonic score was only 20 minutes long because Balanchine feared that Stravinsky's concentrated, atonal music might be 'hard on the ear' for the audience. It is a remarkably dense work and Stravinsky observed that it contained three times as much music for the same clock length as other works of his. It was a daunting challenge even for a choreogra- pher of Balanchine's musical gifts. But from the very first performance Agon was a triumph and it marked the beginning of Balanchine's serial phase which included such masterpieces as the Webern Episodes and Stravinsky's Movements for Piano and Orchestra.

Balanchine once described Agon as an `IBM ballet', but this is misleading. It has the intricacy of construction and finely honed mechanism of a good computer but it is charged with a kind of nervous tension, split-second timing and deprecating wit that audiences always respond to. It is a ballet about New York, bustling, high- octane New York. The opening notes of the music sound like honking car horns and at one moment in the final section the dancers converge like crowds rushing for the subway. The high point of the ballet is the pas de deux. Arthur Mitchell, who cre- ated the male role, says of the pas de deux that it is 'like seeing live sculpture. Before your eyes, the dancers move from one fan- tastic pose to another, but you don't know how they got there . . . it's not so much the difficulty of the steps or how flexible you are, it's the precariousness'.

These qualities make Agon one of the most difficult Balanchine works for foreign companies. In London over the past decade there have been memorable perfor- mances from the New York City Ballet and the Dance Theatre of Harlem. It has been in the repertory of the Royal Ballet, some- what fitfully, since 1973 but the dancers have rarely looked comfortable, exhibiting tenseness rather than tension. The current revival at Covent Garden is an improve- ment, perhaps because the company is dancing more Balanchine and is becoming more acclimatised to the style. But the dancers still have to learn that the wit and humour of Agon comes from the move- ment, not from ingratiating smiles which try to programme the reaction of the audi- ence. The partnering in the pas de deux was rather uncertain but Darcey Bussell gave a more interesting and intelligent debut than in the Stravinsky Violin Concerto last November. It is a role with a lot of poten- tial for her, given sufficient performances and an adequate partner.

In the course of a discussion with Balanchine's biographer, Bernard Taper, Frederick Ashton expressed his concern for the future of Balanchine's pure-dance bal- lets. They seemed to Ashton to be much harder to maintain than ballets with a nar- rative structure and he thought they would be bound to deteriorate once Balanchine was not there to supervise them. It is a debatable point. In Ashton's case the pure- dance works have, fared rather better than many of his narrative ballets, especially those over which the shadows of Fonteyn, Sibley and Seymour lie so heavily.

On the same bill as Agon was a revival of A Month in the Country, supervised by Anthony Dowell and Lynn Seymour who created the roles of Beliaev and Natalia Petrovna in 1976. For me Seymour is indelibly associated with that role and the memories of her seem to grow stronger rather than weaker as the years pass, but this revival looks rejuvenated, thanks in large measure to three new performances In the leading roles: Genesia Rosato and Altynai Assylmuratova as Natalia and Bruce Sansom as Beliaev. Rosato is not a virtuoso, but it has been rewarding to watch the care and attention she devotes to such minor roles as Bathilde in Giselle. It is good that her dramatic talents have been given more scope and she gives a richly tex- tured performance, bringing out all the complexity and frustration of Natalia. She was followed two nights later by Assyl- muratova in what was the Kirov dancer's first Ashton role. Russian dancers do not find Ashton's choreography an easy assign- ment and Assylmuratova was no exception. They are used to big, powerful movement phrases and Ashton's intricate knit one, purl one enchainements present challenges of timing and scale. Still, there were some meltingly lovely moments, particularly in the pas de deux. Ashton's choreography is just the kind of challenge that Assylmurat- ova needs at this stage. I would love to see her in Daphnis and Chloe.