Agon and The Firebird

Ballet Austin put the moves on Stravinsky with this double feature


Agon and The Firebird

Dell Hall at Long Center for the Performing Arts Sept. 27

The dance critic Edwin Denby wrote that after an early performance of George Balanchine's 1957 Agon, the audience that streamed into the lobby was wonderstruck, "their eyes bright as if the piece had been champagne." It was radical, this ballet for 12 dancers, wearing nothing but leotards and tights, fusing the angular and the liquid in their movement. Stravinksy's score, riffing on structures of French baroque dances and edging into 12-tone music, was a revelation. In order to fully experience the ballet in, say, in the middle of Texas in 2014, we should remember this. We should try to imagine the New York City Ballet of the midcentury, to become, in a way, those bright-eyed folks in the lobby. They weren't checking their phones or tweeting their preshow photos; they were smoking and wearing polyester and maybe going to use the pay phone.

The Ballet Austin dancers in the cast I saw (a different cast performed Friday and Sunday) relished Agon, but some didn't always know what to do with it. The ballet requires a unique tone, neither stern nor overtly joyful, and presence is complicated: The dance doesn't merely illustrate the music, but it doesn't overtake the music, either. Agon means "competition." Though there are no winner or losers, it's about sustaining that spirit. Aara Krumpe and Ashley Lynn Sherman each did that by developing individualized qualities: Krumpe's movement was warm and flowing and served with a cool attitude, especially in a solo for which castanets keep the beat. Sherman, in her duet with Christopher Swaim, pulled off the steely gymnastics, split after split, with elegance and clarity.

The music, played by the Austin Symphony Orchestra with Peter Bay on the stand, begs repeat listens, especially to Stravinsky's episodic groupings of instruments: violin, xylophone, trombones; mandolin, harp, flutes. The balance of the program rewound music history to 1910, when Stravinsky composed The Firebird. Ballet Austin's bright staging, however, was choreographed in 2009 by Artistic Director Stephen Mills. With clear mime and Mills' characteristic humor, and in vivid sets and costumes designed by Alun Jones (on loan from Louisville Ballet), the ballet is a living storybook of the curious Russian fairy tale — a magical bird, prince and several princesses, a villain, a giant egg. Jaime Lynn Witts, new to the role of the Firebird, brought an interesting wildness to the avian heroine, her hands fluttering just outside of classicism, evoking the depth of the magical forest from which she came. As with Agon, the ballet is both spectacle and portal, worthy as either and both. Personally, though, I like to follow the rabbit.

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Ballet Austin, Igor Stravinsky, George Balanchine, Stephen Mills

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