September 19, 1905 – Agnes de Mille
“The truest expression of a people is in its dance and in its music. Bodies never lie.”
Agnes de Mille 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.
I am a fan of the ephemeral art of dance, and because of my long friendships with noted dancer/choreographer and professor Walter Kennedy and dance director and dance historian Laurel Victoria Gray, along with celebrated dance critic Martha Ullman West, I know a bit more about the subject than most civilians. But, mostly my interest in de Mille comes from my passion for musical theatre.
De Mille’s first popular success was Rodeo (1942) for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. With WW 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 musical Oklahoma! (1943), brought her great acclaim and established a ”de Mille style”. Rodeo and her next ballet Fall River Legend (1948) are true masterpieces and have become part of the world’s ballet repertoire, while de Mille’s 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, The Dream Ballet) instead. With its dark undertones and fight to the death, and 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), about a statue that comes to life in modern-day Manhattan, gave her the chance to do two imaginative ballet sequences, while Bloomer Girl (1944) included a controversial and starkly symbolic Civil War ballet.
“I’m really like a playwright. That is my real value as a choreographer. I tell a story, and I tell it well.”
When Bloomer Girl opened, it gave de Mille three hits running on Broadway at the same time and established her as the leading choreographer for the theatre. She had another Rodgers and Hammerstein triumph with Carousel (1945), designing robust New England dances and an intensely moving ballet in the second act.
She directed and choreographed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first failure, 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 actor/dancer James Mitchell, contributed to the whimsical musical’s success. She was quite versatile; providing lively 1920s dances for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949) and choreographed new works for the American Ballet Theatre. She directed Cole Porter‘s Out Of This World (1950), giving the choreography gig to modern dancer Hanya Holm. 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).
”During the 1940s and 1950s we were all creating the musical as a specific art form. I don’t know why especially. Why did operetta burst forth in Vienna in the middle of the last century, except that all the right people were there at the right time?”
She was eclectic as a director and choreographer, drawing from ordinary gestures and everyday movement as well as from the vocabularies of Classical Ballet, Modern Dance, Folk Dance and Popular Social dance. Her choices were especially effective for theatre because the dramatic situation always determined the type of movement she used in her choreography.
She was very American in her tastes and artistic allegiances. She did not like everything about modern American culture. She hated Rock Music. She thought little of the experimental choreography of Merce Cunningham, and she wrote that Twyla Tharp‘s choreography was “tiresomely neurotic”.
She wrote of American choreographers such as Jerome Robbins and Michael Kidd and, of course, herself:
“To the classic base we have accordingly added colloquialism. We have come down to earth; we have put our feet on the ground.”
She was born into a theatrical family. Her father was a Broadway playwright and screenwriter. Her uncle was film director/producer Cecil B. DeMille, who spelled the family name slightly differently.
Her family moved to Hollywood in 1914. De Mille attended performances by Anna Pavlova, a great Russian ballerina, and Ruth St. Denis, a pioneer of American Modern Dance. She decided on a career as a dancer and studied at local ballet schools. But, her father did not approve, and she became an English major at UCLA where she graduated cum laude. Yet, she never gave up her desire to dance.
She returned to Manhattan and looked for theatrical work. In 1928 she made her choreographic debut in a solo program that included Stage Fright, a character sketch inspired by a Degas statue depicting a shy young dancer.
Although she trained in Ballet, her choreography led dance critics to place her with the modern dancers and choreographers of the period. Plus, her accompanist was Louis Horst, who also composed and played for Martha Graham.
After appearing with stock companies and in variety shows, de Mille went to Europe in 1932, performing in Paris, Copenhagen and London. While in London, she staged the dances for Cole Porter’s musical Nymph Errant starring Gertrude Lawrence and gave solo recitals of her own choreography.
She occasionally returned to the USA to choreograph, including the dances for Leslie Howard‘s Broadway production of Hamlet (1936) and the MGM film version of Romeo And Juliet (1937). She was invited to choreograph for Ballet Theatre (now known as American Ballet Theatre) for the group’s first season in 1940. Her first work for the company was Black Ritual (Obeah), with an all-black cast, a rarity in Ballet.
In 1973, she founded Heritage Dance Theater, an American Folk Dance company that toured the world for three years.
She really is an engaging writer. She published five volumes of memoirs, eight books of Dance History and Theory, plus a biography of Martha Graham.
She was strongly ant-fascist in the 1930s and 1940s, and vehemently anti-Joe McCarthy during the blacklisting period of the 1950s. In 1959, she took part in an historic television encounter when, on Edward R. Morrow‘s Small World program, she battled with Hedda Hopper and demolished the right-wing columnist’s arguments with her wit and finely tuned words.
De Mille was selected for the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1973. She received The Kennedy Center Honor in 1980, and the National Medal Of The Arts in 1986. She was an original member of the National Council On The Arts and the first president of the Society Of Stage Directors And Choreographers. She won a Tony Award for Brigadoon, the Dance Magazine Award, and the Capezio Dance Award. 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 suffered a stroke in 1975 that left her partially paralyzed, and her husband of 45 years, musical artists’ agent Walter Prude, died in 1988. Yet she continued to work. Her ballet The Informer (1988) used Marc Blitztein‘s music from the 1959 musical Juno, which she had choreographed. It is about Irish-British conflicts between 1917 and 1921 with only the Irish seen on stage, their opponents being suggested only through the gestures of the dancers.
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 by another stroke at 88-years-old.