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George Balanchine Foundation's Interpreters Archive Project  Reports

Notes on Arthur Mitchell coaching the pas de deux in Agon

by Leigh Witchel
DanceView, Spring 2002
copyright © 2002 by Leigh Witchel

On a January morning a bit after New Year's, Arthur Mitchell walks down the staircase to the rehearsal studios in the Rose Building late, a personality timing an entrance. He is happy, animated, seemingly oblivious to the camera crew nervously awaiting his arrival and comes bearing a surprise – two extra couples to rehearse the pas de deux from Agon rather than the single one announced and expected. The crew adapts to this multiplication with only a minimum of confusion, keeping the videotaping focused on the main couple. In a morning of surprises, there is another substitution here from the original announced cast; Tai Jimenez has returned to the company and is being coached in the pas de deux.

Jimenez trained at the School of American Ballet and with Gabriella Darvash before joining DTH in 1988. She left the company because of injury about a decade later but returned a few weeks before this taping. Donald Williams, one of the senior principals of the company, is her partner. The other couples (Ramon Thielen and Caroline Rocher; Amy Johnson and Eric Underwood) are requested to stay to the sides for most of the filming to avoid problems in editing footage and they only dance minimally, when Jimenez and Williams are not dancing, to remain out the camera range.

Mitchell begins with the entry of the dancers, who come out to pose as the music begins. He walks with Jimenez to show her how the man presents the woman as his arms take hers overhead in a large circular sweep and says to her almost immediately, “You’re resisting. Let me pass you over.” In the first correction we came to the crux of the entire session, the contest between an active interpretation of the pas de deux and a passive one.

The Agon pas de deux was choreographed in 1957 on Mitchell and Diana Adams. The creation of the work is documented both in photos and interviews including one made with Mitchell himself in 1974 for the book Repertory in Review. “The one thing Balanchine kept saying was, ‘The girl is like a doll, and you’re manipulating her.’ He said, ‘You must lead her.’ He didn’t want her to do anything for herself in the sense that she would take the initiative. I would take her and place her.”

Continuing to coach the entrée, Mitchell shows the first few steps and emphasizes details; that the first turns are swivels, not pirouettes. When Jimenez turns with a bent leg, he makes sure her leg goes first to the side, rather than to her knee. They run the entrée once. Mitchell turns to the pianist, Nancy McDill, and says “Could we get a little more juice in it?” His explanation? “Agon means ‘competition’”. He speeds up the tempo and cues her to begin the music as soon as they pose.

The dancers run along a diagonal making large sweeping circles on the floor with their legs, and Mitchell corrects them to stop swinging their arms so much, so the emphasis is returned to the legs. He is pushing Jimenez hard, cajoling and correcting at the top of his lungs (“BAM!”). Moving on in the entrée, he corrects her when she steps forward to make it much more of a chassé; not to place her foot, but to slice with it. Williams asks about the beats of the foot before the chassé, should they stop in a pose on the ankle or continue on in a single movement? Mitchell answers that they are a single movement. Mitchell watches and encourages them to emphasize the plié.

At the end of the entrée, the man presents the woman to the audience, and Mitchell stops Jimenez immediately. “Walk away from me.” He says and then demonstrates with Williams. What he wants is for the man to back the woman up and then around in a great circle like a Lipizzaner horse in dressage and for the man to initiate this movement. They try again, but Jimenez still initiates the walk. Jimenez’ process as a dancer has always been thoughtful, and even a bit hermetic; like Natalia Makarova, she knows how she appears from the audience and gauges her effects. Spontaneity is not for the rehearsal hall. Talking to a partner, she knows how she wants something to look, and what she needs from him to achieve this. She has a patrician elegance onstage (other than Makarova, she reminds me in effect most of Grace Kelly) and she’s always been headstrong.

Mitchell gives the two dancers a short break and works with the other casts on the same circular promenade. None of them do it as he demonstrated; the women all initiate the promenade and walk towards the man forwards, rather than backing up. It doesn’t get corrected again during the session. Even with that detail, Mitchell is an exceptional coach on partnering, especially for men. His corrections are the sorts that make men better partners. He holds a woman in arabesque penchée and instructs the man, “My fingers are telling her what to do.” To the other man, he corrects the proper position of the hands from the waist, where he cannot sense her weight properly, to her hips, where he can both sense and manipulate her position. In contrast to Suzanne Farrell in her coaching session of Monumentum/Movements, Mitchell knows partnering from a uniquely masculine perspective. Farrell knew intimately what the woman needed to feel; Mitchell knows exactly what the woman needs to let the man do.

Williams and Jimenez return from break to run the pas de deux and get quite far without interruption; until the moment where the woman’s leg in back attitude is cradled by the man’s shoulder and she moves her head towards her raised pointe. This tricky maneuver collapses. Mitchell’s corrections continue to be about passivity. “Lay on his back.” Mitchell bellows a series of syllables in rhythm. “UH, UH DEE DAH!” “I feel that you are trying to control it.” He’s needling and pushing Jimenez. The dancers do the lift where the legs rise up and split open and Mitchell senses lethargy in the movement. Williams asks for Jimenez to lift her legs up rather than out.

Unlike many of the other people in the Interpreters Archive, Mitchell regards the people watching and reporting on the filming not just as observers, but as an audience. He addresses us directly and more than once he works the crowd, giving one of the writers a very elementary lesson in partnering, showing her how to place her hand in his. She is enthralled when he asks if she senses how this grip works. “Yes!" She enthuses. "That means you’re in charge.” Mitchell smiles.

Mitchell recollected the beginning of the rehearsal process in words similar to these from 1974: “He [Balanchine] started on the pas de deux first. He said, ‘This is the longest it’s ever taken me to choreograph anything.’ We started on the pas de deux - Diana and I - two weeks prior to anyone coming in. He said, ‘Because everything has to be exactly right.’ Unlike that interview, he also recalled here that Stravinsky was writing the music for Agon as the ballet was being choreographed. The score's completion is dated in April of 1957 and it was first performed in July of that year. The ballet premiered in December and Balanchine is quoted in Repertory in Review as saying of the score "only the actual sound was a surprise to me", so the story, as dramatic as it is, seems to be apocryphal. In any case Mitchell is enjoying being a raconteur, and is off on a riff. He mentions about the first matinee performance; saying that everyone was convinced the kids would hate it, but they loved it instantly and got it, because their minds were like computers. He talks about the pulse and the jazz of the score, but it’s even more fascinating to watch his body as he does it because that shows you exactly what he means. There’s a lightness in the feet and carriage, but a real weight in the hips. His body is firmly planted, but the steps spring up. It’s a sort of carriage that the dancers cannot duplicate, because those jazz and soft-shoe influences have vanished from their dance vernacular.

His last tale before he recommences work is the most telling, and one he’s told in earlier interviews. His opinion of Adams was that she was elegant, but not a strong technician, and that part of the success of the pas de deux was the “tension” (he then refines this word to “drama”) between them, and that drama or tension was not emotional, but physical. From his 1974 interview: "The whole pas de deux was built on Diana’s body. The nervous intensity that Diana had made the whole pas de deux work because it’s not so much the difficulty of the steps but the precariousness. . .” Watching Adams in a 1960 kinescope of Agon filmed for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, one does not feel a need to disparage her technique, but one can certainly sense the intensity Mitchell mentions. She does not simply not look at Mitchell during the pas de deux, she must not look at him, as if, like Eurydice, the consequences would be unspeakable.

Adams' body offered resistance. Mitchell meant to contrast Jimenez with Adams in that he considered her technique more advanced, but in a very interesting way, Jimenez loops back to the original interpreter of the role. After Adams, the dancer next in the role was Allegra Kent and then Suzanne Farrell also assumed the role after a time. Those dancers, plastic and malleable, became the model for future interpreters of Agon and Adams' patrician, almost Victorian, demeanor and more resistant facility got winnowed out. Jimenez has a fully stretched body and can do six o’clock penchées when asked for, but her stretch has a resistance to it. And there is a different tension, the tension for her between allowing the man to control her and wanting to control things herself that was not in the otherworldly performances of Kent or Darci Kistler and those of the young Farrell, who seemed unaware and innocent of the powerful effects she created. A tense elegance that was missing can again be sensed.

Mitchell pushes for passivity. The dancers do a step and he shouts, “AHH! TRUST!” He takes Jimenez and starts walking with her and talking to her to try and show Williams how to “handle” her. “This is why I always talked to my ballerinas. Talk ‘em through it!” And he starts murmuring “You’re beautiful. . .that was fine. . .” like Don Juan on the prowl.

Jimenez smiles a Gioconda smile. She isn't bridling at his direction. She's decisive and thoughtful, but she isn't resistant. For her, passivity is a voluntary and temporary thing. She knows what she wants and she will take what he says and figure out what works for her. Mitchell isn't working from chauvinism, he is reacting to his interpretation of the artistic universe in Agon, and in a very practical sense from his experience as a great partner knows that there are maneuvers that work better if the woman lets the man do them. In a promenade after the backbend, Mitchell again says, “Let him do that. That’s his job.” And then he quips, “He’s Unionized, now.” Jimenez acquiesces and is pleased with the result. “That’s so much easier!” and Williams responds, “For both of us.”

Williams and Jimenez go on break and Mitchell again works with the other casts. He chides Underwood, the youngest man on basic partnering principles. “You’re six foot something and you. . .” and he imitates Underwood hunching down to look at Rocher. Even when demanding that proud stance, he insists on the selflessness of the partner. “Show her! You’re showing yourself!” When looking at the difference in skin tone of Rocher and Underwood he remarks that there was a closer dynamic to the original that was part of the design, “My black skin against Diana’s white.” He mentions even a little regretfully that it is missing in the pairing of Jimenez and Williams, whose skin colors are about the same tone.

When they return from the break, Jimenez and Williams fix a spot where she places her right arm that she found awkward, but the split lift again gives her trouble and she knows it, apologizing to Williams even as she goes up. It is fascinating that in this rehearsal, counts and musicality are never mentioned. It’s not they are unimportant, it’s assumed that the dancers are musical. The dance has almost no counts after the entrée until the coda and is danced to “signposts”. Williams has been with the company 25 years, and knows the pas de deux so well musically that he can cue the pianist which specific plunk or boom they need. Still, there are some signs of wear and tear. He goes to his knees in a backbend to partner Jimenez, and Mitchell says “For the record, it’s supposed to be like a Graham hinge, and you’re doing one knee and one knee, but I understand.” Williams puts on kneepads shortly thereafter and they squeak hideously. He apologizes for them, but jokes that he’s wearing them “because there is life after Agon.”

Jimenez again does the backbend. Mitchell corrects: “You still anticipate, Tai. Look beautiful. Let him bend you.” He goes over and starts to do it with her. “Why are you grabbing me?” he asks. Even 45 years after the premiere, Mitchell is still an adept partner, but there’s something to be said for being in daily practice. A look of bemusement creeps over Jimenez’ face as she fights to retain her balance. Agon means competition. Indeed. Between the man and the woman, but just as much between Mitchell and Jimenez.  She and Williams figure out the torsion needed in a penchée. “That was perfect!” she exclaims. Mitchell turns towards them, having not seen them. “They always say that when you can’t see it.”

They move on to the series of slides to the floor. This is a step done with a different shading by every interpreter of the role. Some women look away from the partner as he maneuvers her, others don't. Kistler, whose interpretation was disorientingly and brilliantly passive, would look neither towards nor away from her partner, but straight upwards as if he were not even a frame of reference. Jimenez looks away; her focus isn’t really on Williams, but isn’t not on him. Mitchell objects to the noise she makes as her pointe shoe hits the floor. “How old are you?” he asks, imitating the clomping of a horse. She uses resistance on the way down to make the slides silent and like Adams (but unlike later interpreters like Heather Watts) takes the slides without making them travel.

In the coda, the counts return; one can see Jimenez silently mouth a quick six counts. She again has to do pirouettes in plié. “Bigger fourth [position].” Mitchell corrects. “It leaves you fewer options.” Meaning she can’t fuss with her feet once she has placed her position so wide. “It’s that dainty school of dancing," he grouses, though Jimenez is not being dainty. The return of counts makes it clear how musically precise Jimenez and Williams are. There is a bounce and crispness to their musicality. The two of them break into a smile when they get the rhythm of a little shimmy as Mitchell teaches it – toe-straight-toe-straight-bah-da-dum-bah-da-dum. In his small variation in the coda, Williams has a little step that bounces backwards, a copy of what Mitchell did by 1973. In the 1960 kinescope, Mitchell does some sort of indescribable soft-shoe step at that moment no one has done since.

Mitchell has been rehearsing continuously; giving the dancers breaks only to work with the other couples, yet he only becomes more energized as the session goes on. It's as if it was a performance for us, and performing is a drug. He tells us another piece of apocrypha: “Mr. B and I both had bad knees . . .” He starts to imitate Balanchine limping and explaining. “‘I was walking down the street.’ And that was the beginning of the men’s dance!”

Mitchell corrects Williams near the end and as he walks away says to us “The dynamic between them is so different” but unfortunately never elaborates on this statement. Williams takes Jimenez’ shoe in his hands towards the end of the coda and does it with a fetishistic element that is as erotic in its own way as the far more explicit moment in Billboards.

The final pose of the ballet has as many variations as there are women doing the role. Mitchell sets it that Jimenez does not collapse, just rests with his hand on her back. “Woman conquers man” as Mitchell says later, "though he’s done all the work." The link in this pose to the Siren in Prodigal Son is intriguing. Another member of the original cast, Barbara Walczak, has likened the male duet in the first pas de trois of Agon to the Servant’s Dance from Prodigal Son.

The dancers do a final run for the camera. Jimenez stops on the troublesome lift again, apologizing to Williams. They’re both exhausted; Williams sighs several times quite audibly during the run. Jimenez also puts her hand back on Williams' shoulder, rather than where Mitchell corrected it.

Talking to Jimenez after the rehearsal, the greatest shock is that Mitchell taught her the pas de deux only a few days before. Although she’s been on hiatus, she looked so self-possessed it seemed like she had performed it many times. In fact, at the time of the filming she knew only the pas de deux in isolation and no other part of the ballet. As impressive as her ability to assimilate the choreography in such a short time is Mitchell's ability to effectively impart it so quickly. Her performance and Mitchell's choice to cast her in the role is a fascinating compromise between active and passive. Agon means competition. Is the contest within Jimenez between controlling her effects and allowing for outside influence what makes her one of the few dancers in the role who recalls elements of the earliest interpretation of Adams before Kent and Farrell shaped the role irrevocably?





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