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Agnes de Mille - More Resources

Agnes de Mille (1905-1993)

By Barbara Palfy

Agnes de Mille was an American choreographer and writer who opened ballet to American themes and movement, while remaining rooted in the classical lexicon. Her work in musical theater raised the choreography to an integral component of the show, rather than an isolated chorus-line set-piece. An advocate for dance as necessary to a healthy society, she founded organizations, published carefully researched books, lectured, and generally demystified the art of dance for the public.

The daughter of playwright William de Mille and Anna George, whose father was the social reformer and single-tax advocate Henry George, Agnes was born and spent her early childhood in and around New York, where her father’s work was produced. Not until the family moved to Hollywood in 1914 to join William’s younger brother, the pioneering filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, was Agnes exposed to the heady world of the arts and creativity. It was here that she saw the legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova and the modern dance progenitor Ruth St. Denis. The die was cast and she took the firm decision that she, young Agnes de Mille, would become a dancer, and along with her sister she began taking ballet lessons. William, an emotionally aloof man, withheld his approval, and Agnes found herself instead at UCLA for a degree in English, no doubt the foundation of her exceptional writing ability.

Unwilling to shun dance but unable to find performing outlets, she began to choreograph solos, the first of which, Stage Fright, she showed in New York in 1928 after she, her mother, and her sister had moved there. Critical reception was good and she continued to hone her skill at making dances, soon appearing on programs with other rising choreographers, most of them working in modern dance. (De Mille’s later participation in the Federal Dance Project, headed by Helen Tamiris, was short-lived.) The collaborative and sometimes agitprop aspect of these concerts was not altogether foreign to de Mille, who had been made politically aware by her maternal grandfather. Still, working opportunities in dance were few at the height of the Depression, and even an offer by her uncle to do the dances for his film Cleopatra (1934) was aborted when she gave him “choreography,” while he wanted spectacle.

In the face of these setbacks, de Mille went to England for small tours with small companies, ultimately settling in London, where she presented her solo programs. She soon became associated with Marie Rambert and the Ballet Club, where she appeared in Antony Tudor’s ballets Dark Elegies, Gallant Assembly, and The Judgment of Paris. But, more and more, she was making dances for herself and for films and theater revues.

De Mille finally returned to the States when Ballet Theatre was formed in 1940, creating for its first season Black Ritual (Obeah), with an all-black cast, and for the next season Three Virgins and a Devil, a lusty medieval comedy. It was with what became her signature ballet, Rodeo in 1942, that her American roots fully blossomed, even though the ballet was created on the Russian dancers of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. This fresh, vigorous use of classical ballet encouraged the producers of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! to hire de Mille to create the show’s dances. Her work became a landmark for Broadway because the choreography was not just routines but, in the dream ballet “Laurey Makes Up Her Mind,” an encapsulation and forwarding of the plot. After Oklahoma!, the standard Broadway “kick-line” largely disappeared.

 

After this success, de Mille was much in demand as a Broadway choreographer. Between 1943 and 1970 she choreographed fifteen shows, among them the memorable Bloomer Girl, Carousel, Brigadoon (for which she won a Tony), and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She was tapped in addition to direct a couple of the shows, a task that represented her biggest and most ignominious failure: she simply was not equal to the pace and divided attention required. Along the way, she also ran afoul of the other major concert dance choreographer doing Broadway shows, the modern dancer Hanya Holm. But there is no argument against the contribution de Mille made to the Broadway musical.

Demanding and time-consuming as all this work was, de Mille continued to choreograph ballets until 1988, principally for Ballet Theatre (later American Ballet Theatre). The only work to enter the canon as a recognized masterpiece was the 1948 Fall River Legend, a stark psychological recounting of the Lizzie Borden story, which became and still is a vehicle for a succession of dramatic classical ballerinas. (It is interesting to note that de Mille, never a ranking technician but fine in character and comic roles such as the Cowgirl in Rodeo, the Prudish Virgin in Three Virgins and a Devil, or Juno in The Judgment of Paris, could create such bold and demanding female roles.) The fifteen ballets that followed (all for Ballet Theatre/American Ballet Theatre except as noted), among them The Harvest According, The Rib of Eve, The Bitter Weird and The Rehearsal (Royal Winnipeg Ballet), The Four Marys (another all black cast), and A Rose for Miss Emily, were not notable, but they manifested her continued reliance on plot and character if not technical intricacy. She herself said in private conversation (with George Dorris) that she was better at construction—the arc of a ballet, its flow and sequence—than at devising steps. Over the decades the works grew weaker, and the last two, The Informer and The Other, were generally panned.

Frustrated by the ballet world as much as by Broadway in the early 1950’s, de Mille formed the Agnes de Mille Dance Theatre to tour nationally. Her own works constituted the repertory, which as a program the critics found to be an unsatisfying conflation of high and low culture. The company also lost a lot of money. Nothing daunted, de Mille looked down other avenues. Ever articulate and loquacious, she was snapped up early on by television. She was not the first dancer so chosen—Pauline Koner probably holds that distinction—but she was the first to deliver edifying lecture-demonstrations for the public at large on the cultural series Omnibus. Her topics were wide ranging—“The Art of Ballet,” “The Art of Choreography,” “Lizzie Borden”—and they were presented with enough pith, candor, and visual acuity to draw in the viewer.

De Mille was particularly skilled at finding accessible language to demystify complex topics. After her engaging autobiographies Dance to the Piper (1952) and And Promenade Home (1958), the history The Book of the Dance, which spanned the centuries and the many forms of dance, was published in 1963 in lavish coffee-table format. The size, glossy paper, and myriad illustrations did not obscure the fact that the research was for the most part impeccable. As personal as her writing could be—never more so than in her last book, Martha (1991), about her relationship to Graham—errors are few in her dozen books.

That de Mille did not gravitate to teaching or to establishing a studio in no way diminishes her legacy. She was instrumental in founding the North Carolina School of the Dance in Winston-Salem, and, given carte blanche by its board to use its facilities as she wished, she finally realized a dream for a small company that would show classics of Americana. Tapping the pool of students, she formed Heritage Dance Theater, which toured around the country for a few years in the mid 1970’s. At the same time, she organized the program for her many speaking engagements into a lecture with film clips, tapes, live demonstration, and music, which she called “Conversations About the Dance.”

Much like The Book of the Dance, it ran the gamut of forms and eras, and was hugely successful.

As a politically aware advocate for the art of dance, de Mille in 1965 was an organizer of the National Council on the Arts and chair of its Dance Panel, as well as co-founder and first president of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers. She simply was never idle. Even as her health failed and she grew incapacitated after a stroke, she could still be found, much mellowed, spreading wit and wisdom from her wheelchair.

Along with many honorary doctorates and other awards, de Mille received the Dance Magazine (1957) and Capezio (1966) Awards, New York’s Handel Medallion (1976), and the Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award (1980).

Throughout the ups and downs, the stress and anxiety attacks to which she was prone, de Mille had the full support (which she had never received from her family) of Walter Prude (1909–1988), a publicist and assistant to the impresario Sol Hurok, whom she married in 1943. (They had one son.) He could temper her behavior, which could be feisty, imperious, demanding, and inexorable when it was not witty, generous, and eager. Her biographer, Carol Easton, summed it up: “To her detractors she was an arrogant, stubborn, cantankerous, ruthless, self-dramatizing, full-of-herself virago. To her admirers she was a class act, in a class by herself—an exciting, courageous, warm, understanding, and endlessly entertaining friend” (4).


Barbara Palfy is a freelance copyeditor for dance books and the journals Dance Chronicle and Ballet Review, among others, after a career as a librarian in the Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. She has been an active member of the major dance history organizations, and has written for dance journals, contributed articles to reference sources, and co-edited with Claudia Gitelman the forthcoming volume On Stage Alone.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Bordman, Gerald. American Musical Theatre. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Cohen, Selma Jeanne and A. J. Pischl. “The American Ballet Theatre: 1940–1960.” Dance Perspectives 6, 1960.

De Mille, Agnes. The Book of the Dance. New York: Golden Press, 1963.

_____. Lizzie Bordon: A Dance of Death. Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1968.

_____. Speak to Me, Dance with Me. Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973.

_____. America Dances. New York: Obolensky/Macmillan, 1980.

_____. Reprieve. New York: Doubleday, 1981.

_____. Portrait Gallery. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.

_____. Martha. New York: Random House, 1991.

_____ and Mindy Aloff. Leaps in the Dark: Art and the World. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011.

Denby, Edwin. Dance Writings. New York: Knopf, 1986.

Easton, Carol. No Intermissions: The Life of Agnes de Mille. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996.

Edwards, Anne. The DeMilles. New York: Abrams, 1988.

Haskell, Arnold L. Balletomania. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1934.

Martin, John. America Dancing (1936). Brooklyn: Dance Horizons, 1968.

Mordden, Ethan. The History of the American Musical Theater. New York: Grossman/Viking, 1976.

Payne, Charles. American Ballet Theatre. New York: Knopf, 1978.

Terry, Walter. The Dance in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

Archives

Writings by and about de Mille as well as papers, scores, photographs, audiotapes, and videotapes are in the archive Agnes de Mille scores, 1865–1993, (S) *MGZMD 140, held in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.