MacMillan’s Agon was premiered at Covent Garden eight months after New York City Ballet first danced George Balanchine’s definitive version for which the score had been commissioned. It was one of four settings of Agon performed in Europe that year – the others were by German choreographers – and was MacMillan’s second ballet to a Stravinsky score (the first was Danses Concertantes). In an article for the Royal Opera House’s then house magazine, Covent Garden Books, MacMillan characterised Agon as an off-shoot of Danses Concertantes and a reversion to that style.
Stravinsky’s markings indicated a cast of twelve dancers, who are introduced with a pas de quatre, double pas de quatre and triple pas de quatre. As the ballet unfolds the twelve dancers re-emerge in various permutations. However, MacMillan chose to add two ‘extra’ dancers both to introduce the twelve and to form links during the Preludes and Interludes. His version bore little relationship to the austere modernism of the original. But because Stravinsky had named the ballet’s central sections for sixteenth and seventeenth century dances, the sarabande, the gaillard and the bransle, Nicholas Georgiadis sought for inspiration in that period for his designs. The costumes, sprinkled with harlequin patches, have a flavour of the commedia dell’arte and suggest a troupe of strolling players. The set designs suggested the facade of a house, mysterious cut-out figures watching from a balcony (Peter Williams wondered if they were ‘eternal voyeuses prying on our private lives and passing private censure’). The colour palette was Mediterranean; orange, sunbaked white and contrasting black.
While there was no scenario, Clive Barnes, writing in Dance and Dancers, asserted that this Agon could be loosely defined as a story-ballet, the scene a bordello, the narrative one about “love in the Waste Land” and about the Fates and their blind indifference to humanity. MacMillan accepted that while the ballet had no narrative element, there “was a certain basis of truth” to the suggestion that the action took place in a brothel.
Nonetheless, the Diaghilev conductor Ernest Ansermet considered MacMillan’s Agon “the first truly abstract ballet he had ever seen”. The first night audience was enthusiastic (there were thirteen curtain calls). Clive Barnes, writing for Dance and Dancers, praised MacMillan for “catching the right weight of dance to support the orchestration”. In The Financial Times, Clement Crisp characterised MacMillan’s vocabulary as “extremely rich, by turns extravagant and declamatory”.
However The Times was unimpressed with the score’s ‘bankruptcy of melodic invention’ and characterised MacMillan as having ‘somehow made bricks without straw, a silk purse out of a sow’s bristles’. Alexander Bland of The Observer wrote of a missed opportunity which nonetheless had ‘some fascinating side-products’. “The choreography is, in fact, full of invention and aptly set to the music. But the economy and simplicity of the score is not reflected on the stage. Instead MacMillan has spread over it a veneer of rather facile coffee-bar mannerism which gives a fatal twist to the proceedings – a twist towards the kind of gimmick mannerism which dates with this year’s waist-line. This attitude is reflected even more strongly in the costumes. I should like to see this interesting work in practice dress.”
MacMillan’s Agon was performed for one season and was danced nineteen times. No Benesh score exists. Although the system had by then been accepted by the Royal Ballet, the company’s first notator did not start work until 1960.