Performing George Balanchine’s Agon: A Conversation with Kay Mazzo and Savannah Durham

In 1957, George Balanchine premiered what he called the “quintessential contemporary ballet”. After commissioning the score in 1953 from composer Igor Stravinsky, the two began a four-year collaboration that resulted in what became Agon. We spoke with Kay Mazzo, SAB’s Chairman of Faculty who performed the work while dancing with New York City Ballet, and Savannah Durham, a current apprentice with New York City Ballet who performed the Agon pas de deux at SAB’s 2019 Workshop, about what it was like to dance this iconic ballet.

Agon (pas de deux)
School of American Ballet Workshop 2019, Choreography George Balanchine
© The George Balanchine Trust
Photo: ©Paul Kolnik

When learning Agon, who taught you the role/who did you learn it from?

Kay Mazzo: I learned the role from George Balanchine and Arthur Mitchell. When I was asked to perform it, I only had a couple of days to learn it. Arthur, who was in the original cast, ended up teaching it to me with Balanchine there.

Savannah Durham: Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle taught my partner and me the pas de deux. Kay Mazzo also worked with us closer to the performance.

How did it feel to debut the role on stage?

KM: I don’t remember! I’m sure the first performance I was a nervous wreck. But in the end, Balanchine was pleased with it, so I felt it was okay. I also remember Arthur saying very calmly to me before the performance, “Don’t worry, all will be well”. Since Agon was originally choreographed on him, he would show me certain ways to move and encouraged me to try new things. Over time, the role became something I was comfortable with but always found challenging.

SD: I was nervous but at the same time not. It’s very silent and intimidating when you first walk out, then it’s as though you’re shot out of a cannon. By the day of the performance, we’d been rehearsing for months and had two dress rehearsals that week, so I felt like I’d already performed it. It was still nerve-racking of course because we only had one show and wanted it to go well. Before the performance, I made sure to relax and remember to be proud of the outcome no matter what. For me, it was one of the most difficult things I’d ever learned, let alone performed, so I knew I’d be proud of myself and my partner regardless. It made the positive feedback and support all the more special.

AGON pas de deux - 2019 Workshop Performance
Agon (pas de deux)
School of American Ballet Workshop 2019, Choreography George Balanchine
© The George Balanchine Trust
Photo: ©Paul Kolnik

What did you find most challenging about learning the role?

KM: What was most challenging was that I had very little time to learn the role. I learned it and I danced it in just a couple of days. But what was wonderful about dancing new roles during those days was that once you danced a ballet, you usually were the only person dancing it for many years. When Arthur taught me the role, we wouldn’t go through counts in the music. Instead he would say to me, “Listen for this, when you hear this you have to be at a certain point”. It wasn’t until I performed the ballet consistently, that I felt like it belonged in my body.

SD: For me, it was finding myself in the role. It’s such a strong, powerful ballet with commanding energy and at the time that was difficult for me to bring out. I wanted to be this “fierce” persona but still feel like myself. It’s such an iconic piece, and I was worried about butchering it or not doing it justice. The support I got from Tyler and Maria, my teachers, and my friends gave me confidence. I also watched videos of multiple dancers performing Agon. Every dancer’s different approach inspired me and helped me figure out what I wanted to do.

What particular section or step was the most challenging? Are there any sections you had to practice over and over to get it right?

KM: In the opening of the ballet, everybody does the same steps but on different counts, until it all comes together. That was such a challenge, but when it all came together we were all very thrilled. It made the beginning of the ballet very exciting and fun. The pas de deux was challenging in its own way because it’s very different than the first and last movements. You have to move at a much slower pace. Agon as a whole is such a challenge because it has every aspect of how you want to dance: fast and furious, slow and deliberate.

SD: Some of the partnering steps came naturally while others were very difficult. One step we had to practice a lot was the moment where he lifts me up while I’m in a middle split and carries me across the floor above his head.

What particular section or step was your favorite to dance? Did you have a favorite part of performing the role?

KM: Agon is so special because like so many of Balanchine’s ballets, there’s so much meat to it. There’s so much to do in it, there’s so much to challenge you, and there’s so much that makes it exciting to dance. I don’t think there’s one part that was my favorite. I loved performing Agon so much, it was always so exciting. When I was in the corps, I would see principals performing certain roles like that one and I would think to myself, ‘that is what I want to dance!’ Getting to perform Agon was so special and when the opportunity arose I immediately said, “yes I’ll do it!”

SD: I loved the excitement at the beginning when we come out separately. I spin into a penché and it’s like he’s caught me. The music slows down and we come together for the beginning of the pas de deux. Another favorite section was the “circus” step where I lift my leg up while on pointe over my head and let go into a penché with one hand. The audience goes completely silent and there’s a moment leading up where I look out into the audience and it’s completely black.

Thanks to Kay Mazzo and Savannah Durham for sharing their memories of performing Agon with us!