At the Ballet
Sparks fly in September as we open the season with two fantastic works, both with dramatic scores composed by Igor Stravinsky. The production begins with The Firebird, in all its vivid glory. Adapted from a Russian folk-tale, the Firebird gives her life for love, but ultimately rises from the ashes like a phoenix. Artistic Director Stephen Mills pairs this piece with George Balanchine's Agon.
Created in 1957, Agon has been acknowledged as one of Balanchine's great masterworks. One of a series in his "leotard ballets," Balanchine strips away all costumes and scenery to allow the audience to "see the music, hear the dance."
Choreography by Stephen Mills
Music by Igor Stravinsky
Choreography by George Balanchine
Music by Igor Stravinsky
The Long Center
8pm | Sep 26, 27
3pm | Sep 28
In the enchanted garden of Kastcheï the Immortal, the Firebird appears, chased by Prince Ivan. The Firebird tries to pluck golden apples from the magic tree, but Ivan seizes her and will not release her until she gives him one of her feathers as a pledge of help should he ever need it. She flies off.
The darkness dissolves, and Ivan finds himself at the gate of an old castle. Eight maidens come out, led by the beautiful Tsarevna, who tells him that this is the castle of Kastcheï, a magician who attacks passing travelers by casting spells on them. The couple dance. As dawn arrives, the maidens must return to the castle.
In spite of Tsarevna's warning, Ivan decides to follow them. As soon as he opens the gates, bells ring out and a crowd of strange figures rush from the castle, followed by Kastcheï.
Kastchei advances on Ivan and tries to turn him to stone. But Ivan shows him the Firebird's feather. She reappears and forces the crowd to dance until they fall exhausted to the ground. Suddenly, Kastcheï appears and mortally wounds the Firebird. As she lies dead, Ivan steals the great egg that contains Kastcheï's soul. He throws it to the ground. Kastcheï dies, and his spell is broken. The captives are restored to human form and the Firebird is reborn.
Tsarevna and Ivan are married, and everyone rejoices.
“Agon is the Greek word for contest; the movements of the ballet are named after French court dances. The score was commissioned by New York City Ballet with funds from the Rockefeller Foundation and dedicated to Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine by the composer, Igor Stravinsky. Together, Balanchine and Stravinsky designed the structure of the ballet during the creation of the music. The outline for the score specifies in detail, with exact timings, the basic movements for twelve dancers clad in simple black and white costumes.” (Balanchine Trust)
“The design of Agon has a satisfying mathematical neatness. The ballet calls for twelve dancers: four men and eight women. Dressed in practice clothes, and working on a bare stage, they perform in various combinations, distilling centuries of dance tradition in barely 24 minutes of concentrated virtuosity. The structure of the ballet can readily be seen from the score.” (Jones, 2004, Agon
in Context, ballet.co.uk)
Pas-de-Quatre: four men
Double Pas-de-Quatre: eight women
Triple Pas-de-Quatre: the ensemble
Prelude: one man and two women
First Pas-de-Trois: one man and two women
Saraband-Step: one man
Gailliarde: two women
Coda: one man and two women
Interlude: two men and one woman
Second Pas-de-Trois: two men and one woman
Bransle simple: two men
Bransle gay: one woman
Bransle double: two men and one woman
Interlude: one man and one woman
Pas-de-Deux: one man and one woman
Four duos: four men and four women
Four trios: the ensemble
Coda: the ensemble
The world premiere of The Firebird
, choreographed by Michel Fokine with a musical score by Igor Stravinsky, premiered in 1910 in Paris, France. It was produced by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.
Fokine had planned to cast Anna Pavlova as the original Firebird, but she disliked the score was replaced in the title role by Russian prima ballerina Tamara Karsavina. Fokine himself danced the role of Prince Ivan, and Enrico Cechetti danced the role of Kastchei.
Only 28 years old at the time Stravinsky, had been commissioned to compose the music for the ballet after composer Anatol Liadov delayed starting his work on the project. Stravinsky’s score for The Firebird
is considered his breakthrough work and was the first of his many famous compositions for ballet. Diaghilev also commissioned Stravinksy to compose the music for Petrushka
(1911) and The Rite of Spring
According to George Balanchine, who greatly admired Stravinsky and collaborated with the composer several times over the course of decades, “Stravinsky once said that Russian legends have as their heroes men who are ‘simple, naïve, sometimes even stupid, devoid of all malice, and it is they who are always victorious over characters that are clever, artful, complex, cruel and powerful.’ Prince Ivan in this ballet is such a hero: he is a simple hunter who stumbles into the eerie garden of an evil monster, there falls in love with a beautiful princess held captive by the ogre, and rescues her with a supernatural power granted him by a magical bird of fire.” (Balanchine and Mason, 101 Stories of the Great Ballets
In October 2009, Ballet Austin presented the World Premiere of Artistic Director Stephen Mills’ The Firebird
. This was Mr. Mills’ third ballet set to Stravinsky’s music. The first two were Duo Concertante
(1992) and The Rite of Spring
Balanchine stated that “While the New York City Ballet has in its repertory many works by Igor Stravinsky, Agon
is the third Stravinsky ballet composed especially for our company. Lincoln Kirstein and I had always wanted a new Stravinsky work to follow Orpheus
, and at first it seemed possible that this might be based on another Greek myth … It was Stravinsky who hit upon the idea of a suite of dances based on a seventeenth-century manual of French court dances – sarabandes, gaillards, branles
– he had recently come across. We all liked the idea, especially as Kirstein and I recalled Stravinsky’s other masterful treatment of polka and other dance forms, including ragtime rhythms. The title of the ballet, Agon
, the Greek word for contest, protagonist
, as well as agony
or struggle, was a happy inspiration of Stravinsky’s. It was to be the only Greek thing about the ballet. …
Stravinsky and I met to discuss details of the ballet. In addition to the court dances, we decided to include the traditional classic ballet centerpiece, the pas de deux, and other more familiar forms. …
We discussed timing and decided that the whole ballet should last about twenty minutes … We talked about how many minutes the first part should last, what to allow for the pas de deux
and the other dances. We narrowed the plan as specifically as possible. To have all the time in the world means nothing to Stravinsky. “When I know how long a piece must take, then it excites me.” His house in California is filled with beautiful clocks and watches, friends to his wish for precision, delicacy, refinement. We also discussed in general terms the character each dance might have and possible tempos.
When we received the score I was excited and pleased and set to work at once. Sounds like this had not been heard before. In his seventy-fifth year Stravinsky had given us another masterpiece. For me, it was another enviable chance to respond to the impulse his music gives so precisely and openly to dance.
Music like Stravinsky’s cannot be illustrated; one must try to find a visual equivalent that is a complement rather than an illustration. And while the score of Agon
was invented for dancing, it was not simple to devise dances of comparable density, quality, metrical insistence, variety, formal mastery, or symmetrical asymmetry. Just as a cabinetmaker must select his woods for the particular job in hand … so a ballet carpenter must find dominant quality of gesture, a strain or palette of consistent movement, an active scale of flowing patterns which reveals to the eye what Stravinsky tells the sensitized ear.
I was fascinated by the music, just as I had been fascinated and taught by Stravinsky’s Apollo
in the 1920s. As always in his ballet scores, the dance element of most force was the pulse. Here again his pulse built up a powerful motor drive so that when the end is reached we know, as with Mozart, that subject has been completely sated. Stravinsky’s strict beat is authority over time, and I have always felt that a choreographer should place unlimited confidence in this control. For me at any rate, Stravinsky’s rhythmic invention gives the greatest stimulus. A choreographer cannot invent rhythms, he can only reflect them in movement. The body is his medium and, unaided, the body will improvise for a little while. But the organizing of rhythm on a large scale is a sustained process, a function of the musical mind. To speak of carpentry again, planning a rhythm is like planning a house; it needs a structural operation. …
was written during the time of Stravinsky’s growing interest in the music of Anton Webern and in twelve-tone music. He has said: ‘Portions of Agon
contain three times as much music for the same clock length as some other pieces of mine.’ The score begins in an earlier style and then develops. The piece contains twelve pieces of music. It is a ballet for twelve dancers. It is all precise, like a machine, but a machine that thinks.” (Balanchine and Mason, 101 Stories of the Great Ballets
Balanchine rose to the musical language of the "Pas de deux" with a dance for Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell that became one of the defining moments of midcentury ballet (American Treasures of the Library of Congress website). According to an interview with Mitchell, the ballet was very far ahead of its time. Balanchine cast a white woman and a black man in the duet, he used the contrast between the dancers’ skin tones to inform the choreography, and he also used the masculinity of Mitchell’s dancing to play off of Diana’s femininity. It was an intricate pas de deux involving serious partnering, the secret of which was that the woman had to be completely controlled and manipulated by the man. Thus, people interpret it as being a very sensual pas de deux. (visionaryproject.org)
The ballet is the artistic and spiritual triumph of two artists who fled their homeland following the turbulence of revolution to seek artistic freedom of expression and who went on to transplant the musical and dance heritage of Imperial Russia onto American soil with spectacular results that forever changed dance. (American Treasures of the Library of Congress, loc.gov)
Cast & Credits
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, George Balanchine (1904-1983) is regarded as the foremost contemporary choreographer in the world of ballet. He came to the United States in late 1933, at the age of 29, accepting the invitation of the young American arts patron Lincoln Kirstein (1907-96), whose great passions included the dream of creating a ballet company in America. At Balanchine's behest, Kirstein was also prepared to support the formation of an American academy of ballet that would eventually rival the long-established schools of Europe.
This was the School of American Ballet, founded in 1934, the first product of the Balanchine-Kirstein collaboration. Several ballet companies directed by the two were created and dissolved in the years that followed, while Balanchine found other outlets for his choreography. Eventually, with a performance on October 11, 1948, the New York City Ballet was born. Balanchine served as its ballet master and principal choreographer from 1948 until his death in 1983.
Balanchine's more than 400 dance works include Apollo
(1934), Concerto Barocco
(1941), Le Palais de Cristal
, later renamed Symphony in C
(1948), The Nutcracker
(1957), Symphony in Three Movements
(1972), Stravinsky Violin Concerto
(1972), Vienna Waltzes
(1977), Ballo della Regina
(1978), and Mozartiana
(1981). His final ballet, a new version of Stravinsky's Variations for Orchestra
, was created in 1982.
He also choreographed for films, operas, revues, and musicals. Among his best-known dances for the stage is “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” originally created for Broadway's On Your Toes
(1936). The musical was later made into a movie.
A major artistic figure of the twentieth century, Balanchine revolutionized the look of classical ballet. Taking classicism as his base, he heightened, quickened, expanded, streamlined, and even inverted the fundamentals of the 400-year-old language of academic dance. This had an inestimable influence on the growth of dance in America. Although at first his style seemed particularly suited to the energy and speed of American dancers, especially those he trained, his ballets are now performed by all the major classical ballet companies throughout the world. (Balanchine.org)
Known for his innovative and collaborative choreographic projects, Stephen Mills has works in the repertories of companies across the US and around the world. In his inaugural season as Artistic Director, he attracted attention from around the United States with his world-premiere production of Hamlet
, hailed in Dance Magazine as, “…sleek and sophisticated.” The Washington Post recognized Ballet Austin as, “one of the nation’s best kept ballet secrets” in 2004 after Ballet Austin performed The Taming of the Shrew
, commissioned by and performed at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Mr. Mills has created more than 40 works for companies in the United States and abroad. His ballets are in the repertories of such companies as the Hong Kong Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, The Atlanta Ballet, Washington Ballet, Cuballet in Havana, Cuba, BalletMet Columbus, The Dayton Ballet, The Sarasota Ballet of Florida, Ballet Pacifica, Dallas Black Dance Theater, The Louisville Ballet, The Nashville Ballet, Texas Ballet Theater and Kaleidoscope.
Igor Stravinsky was a Russian (and later French and American) composer, pianist, and conductor. He is acknowledged by many as one of the most important and influential composers of the 20th century.
Stravinsky's compositional career was notable for its stylistic diversity. He first achieved international fame with three ballets commissioned by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev and performed by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes: The Firebird
(1911/1947), and The Rite of Spring
(1913) (kennedy-center.org). The Firebird
was a huge triumph for Stravinsky and catapulted him into the company of significant composers such as Debussy and Ravel. The Rite of Spring
, which provoked a riot during its premiere, transformed the way in which subsequent composers thought about rhythmic structure and was largely responsible for Stravinsky's enduring reputation as a musical revolutionary who pushed the boundaries of musical design.
His so-called Russian phase was followed in the 1920s by a period in which he turned to neoclassical music. The works from this period tended to make use of traditional musical forms (concerto grosso, fugue, and symphony). They frequently concealed a vein of intense emotion beneath a surface appearance of detachment or austerity and often paid tribute to the music of earlier masters, for example J.S. Bach and Tchaikovsky. During this period of time, Stravinsky collaborated several times with George Balanchine, together creating Apollo
(1928) and Orpheus
In the 1950s, Stravinsky adopted serial procedures. His compositions of this period shared traits with examples of his earlier output: rhythmic energy, the construction of extended melodic ideas out of a few two- or three-note cells, and clarity of form, of instrumentation, and of utterance. Again, Stravinsky and Balanchine collaborated together, creating during this period of time the ballet Agon
Thurs Sept 18, 2014
12 – 12:45pm or 6 – 7pm
Ballet Austin’s AustinVentures StudioTheater
Watch a professional dance company in action during these performance previews! Up-close, personal, and informal, Studio Spotlight gives guests a preview of the choreography and elements from the upcoming production while it is still in the works accompanied by a brief lecture and Q & A with Artistic Director and the choreographer of The Firebird
Stephen Mills, a repetiteur from the Balanchine Trust, and company dancers. Free. Learn more or sign up
One hour prior to all performances Sept 26 – 28
The Long Center
Enhance your experience at the ballet with a pre-show lecture and Q&A for all ages. Ballet Austin’s Education staff gives a short, informal, interactive presentation on the historical, creative, and technical elements of the production. Free for ticket holders. Learn more
45 minutes prior to all performances Sept 26 – 28
The Long Center
Children ages 10-15 join us backstage for a tour just before the curtain rises as the crew prepares the stage for the performance. Click here
for more information or to join.
Footlights for Families
30 minutes prior to the Sept 28 performance
The Long Center
Bring your entire family to Footlights for Families! This fun-packed session blends information from our regular pre-show talk with activities and stories you won’t hear anywhere else. Audience members of all ages are welcome to attend, but the focus during this session is on families with children ages 3 - 12! Free for ticket holders. Learn More.
Immediately following all performances Sept 26 – 28
The Long Center
Immediately following all performances of The Firebird
Ballet Austin’s Artistic Director Stephen Mills invites audience members to a short post-performance discussion about the work just seen. Mr. Mills and company dancers answer questions about the artistic process. Free for ticket holders. Learn more