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October 30, 2006

Todd Bolender (1914-2006) on Agon

In honor of Mr. Bolender's life I'm offering the transcript of the phone conversation we had regarding Agon. It was the only contact I ever had with him. The Library for the Performing Arts has Bolender on film in the 1960 taping of Agon discussed below, and I also recall a very interesting interview with him conducted by Billie Mahoney for Dance On.

Leigh Witchel Interview notes with Todd Bolender (by telephone) on Balanchine's Agon 4/9/97 8:30 p.m. (EDT)

Do you have any idea why you were cast to do Agon?
I haven't the faintest idea.

Do you remember how Balanchine taught the ballet? Counts, Rhythms, Metaphors?
He taught the opening quartet first. The solo parts came later, though he worked very fast.

Were the rehearsals usually full-cast or only specific parts?
Done totally in piecemeal - worked a lot at night, because they were on Broadway and classes were held in the studio during the day. They would work on different sections and in different studios. He recalls many rehearsals being on stage.

Were there specific corrections he gave repeatedly? (i.e. sharper, jazzier - et al?)
He was always after clarity of movement and dynamics, he didn't push with words, just asked you to try again, and he would demonstrate how he wanted it.

Were there changes made in the first year?
"There were no changes I know of until I left. - upon reflection, there was one thing changed in the finale of the trio." It was a minor change, but doesn't remember specifically. [Bolender left NYCB in 1962 - returned in 1971 to dance The Concert] "No one else danced the role until I left, I didn't teach Villella the role. The only person I ever taught a role to was Arthur Mitchell, in The Four Temperaments." [Phlegmatic].

Was the ballet set to counts - were the counts of the ballet always the counts of the score, or did it have an independent rhythm? Were counts added later?
"I got to a point where I simply gave up counting. He taught it to counts, but they were always so peculiar" Milly [Melissa Hayden] and Diana [Adams] insisted on counting - and they were insistent about their correctness. They were counting on stage "to the bitter end." He remembers hearing them hiss their final count under their breath as they took the last pose with the arm across the chest in the opening. "I finally did it primarily by ear, sometimes it would be necessary to close your ears to their counts. I almost never counted anything ever." For the variation, he did it by listening, the relationship to the music was so specific.

How hard was the ballet for the original cast?
"It was 'breath taking'" - very taxing (he remembers always feeling like there was not enough time between his var and the coda in the pas de trois. The female duet is very brief.) "The intricacy of the movement made it exhausting and the precision necessary. I remember working endlessly [with Balanchine on the pas de trois] before performances, even after we opened, on the pas de trois, it was the heightening, to make it even better. And it was always somehow the last rehearsal in the afternoon before performances." Kept trying to refine it. No changes of steps, pushed dynamics.

About how long did it take to make the dance? (The order in which it was made?)
made VERY quickly

Were there changes that occurred in the ballet the first year? Simplifications?
No changes, but as he said, refinements, and Balanchine kept rehearsing it to get specific precise dynamics.

The 1960 filming:

Do you remember anything about the circumstances of the film? Was it a difficult shoot? Was any spacing or steps changed?
"I do indeed, because I lost my shoe at the beginning of the variation - during the drags on the heel at the beginning of the variation, I pulled the heel off." Bolender kicked his shoe off at the grands battement; it shot it into the wings. "John Taras used to say when re-setting 'Agon', 'Now this is is the place where Todd loses his shoe.' That was terrifying to Bolender. 'What do I do? Bend down and throw it off stage?' [The shoe comes off his right foot on the last heel drag. He battements it into the wings a few seconds later when he does a back curve.]

Seeing the ballet again after leaving the company (must have been late 60's, early 70's)
When he saw Agon again, he saw how difficult it was - and how wonderful Tony Blum was in his role. Very pleased to see it performed in such in such a manner. Not sure if he ever saw Eddie [Villella] do it. Might have seen Allegra in the lead, quite different from Diana (majestic, commanding) but quite wonderful (seeing something something so beautiful, but it's inconceivable that it could happen in just that way.) fragile, feminine. Balanchine would often cast a totally different body type as a successor to the role. Did not feel that the performance and quality of the lead affected the other dancers, though "It certainly would have never affected me." He would watch quite a bit (since his part was in the beginning) and loved to watch the work. Liked Watts and Tobias particularly. Was never asked to coach the role, and feels that he would refuse, simply a question of memory. "With Four T's it took me years to learn how to perform that, and it was by doing it over and over again, and with Agon I didn't have that time."

Posted by Leigh Witchel at October 30, 2006 8:54 PM

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