September 18, 1905 – Agnes de Mille:
“The truest expression of a people is in its Dance and in its Music. Bodies never lie.”
She changed the worlds of American Dance and Musical Theatre, plus she was as gifted a writer as she was a choreographer and dancer. In her long career, de Mille was equally at home on Broadway as on the concert stage. But, she was especially celebrated for her marriage of American folk dance with classical ballet.
De Mille’s first popular success was Rodeo (1942) for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. With World War II, that famed dance company had made the USA its temporary home. She hired additional American dancers and de Mille danced the female lead role herself. Rodeo led the Theater Guild‘s directors and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II to hire her to choreograph their new musical.
Rodeo had its dancers imitating the movements of bucking cattle and galloping horses, and her revolutionary dances for the landmark Oklahoma! (1943), brought her great acclaim and established a “de Mille style”. Rodeo is a true masterpiece and has become part of the world’s ballet repertoire, while de Mille’s inventive work on Oklahoma! made her Broadway’s leading choreographer. It ran for more than five years. The 1955 film version is the only film musical de Mille choreographed.
De Mille’s dances for Oklahoma! were acclaimed not only for their novelty but the way they delineated character and were integrated into the show. Hammerstein, the show’s lyricist and book writer, wanted a circus dream to end the first half of the show, leaving the audience smiling at intermission. De Mille begged him to let her stage the dramatic Laurey Makes Up Her Mind ballet (or as we call it in showbiz, The Dream Ballet) instead. With its dark undertones and fight to the death, it caused such a sensation that over half the musicals produced during the following year ended Act One with ballet sequences. De Mille also insisted on all her shows that she be allowed to choose the chorus for their dance talent; it was still the practice for many chorus members to be “special friends” of the backers and producers.
Ballet choreographers had worked on Broadway before; George Balanchine choreographed musicals in the 1930s. But, de Mille’s contributions to Oklahoma! were unlike anything audiences had experienced.
Her next show One Touch Of Venus (1943), with two imaginative ballet sequences, and then Bloomer Girl (1944), which included a controversial and starkly symbolic Civil War ballet.
When Bloomer Girl opened, it gave de Mille three hits running on Broadway at the same time. She had another Rodgers and Hammerstein triumph with Carousel (1945), with an intensely moving ballet in the second act.
She directed and choreographed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first flop, Allegro (1947), but her dances for Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe‘s Brigadoon (1947), with its funeral sequence accompanied only by bagpipes and a stunning sword dance devised for de Mille’s favorite dancer James Mitchell, contributed to the whimsical musical’s success.
De Mille was quite versatile; providing lively 1920s dances for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949) and choreographing new works for the American Ballet Theatre. The Broadway musicals she choreographed after that were only modest successes: Paint Your Wagon (1951), The Girl In Pink Tights (1954) Goldilocks (1958), 110 In The Shade (1963).
Along with all those accomplishments, de Mille was one of the planet’s experts on the history of costumes and the history of clothing.
She lived in Greenwich Village and I saw her walking and shopping on a few occasions when I was studying at HB Studios in her neighborhood. I didn’t dare approach her.
De Mille’s final ballet was The Other about an encounter between a young woman and death. It was presented by American Ballet Theater in 1992 and she took her final bow in October 1993, taken after a series of strokes at 88 years old.
Oklahoma! is a frequently produced classic, a favorite of high schools (I was in it in HS), universities and regional theatres. In was revived on Broadway in 1951 and 1953 with de Mille recreating her dances, and again in 1979 with Gemze de Lappe, a dancer who worked very closely with de Mille recreating de Mille’s choreography, and in 1980 on the West End with de Lappe recreating the original dances.
A dark-themed production was presented by the National Theatre in London in 1998, starring Hugh Jackman with new choreography by Susan Stroman featuring extended dance sequences. This production was the most successful Oklahoma!, running for years before transferring to Broadway with an American cast in 2002.
After a run at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, an intimate 75th anniversary staging of Oklahoma! transferred to Broadway in the 2018 season. It throws out the de Mille elements entirely and features choreography by John Heginbotham and new music arrangements performed by a seven-piece bluegrass band. The production was nominated for eight Tony Awards and won Best Revival of a Musical and for Ali Stroker as Ado Annie, making her the first wheelchair user to win a Tony.