Agnes de Mille

views updated Jun 11 2018

Agnes de Mille

An American dancer and author, Agnes de Mille's (1905-1993) creative contribution to 20th-century ballet was as remarkable as her choreography for Broadway musical theater. She inspired awe for her personal courage and determination in the face of declining health in later years.

Agnes de Mille was born on September 18, 1905, in New York City into a theatrical family. Her father, William Churchill de Mille, wrote plays for David Belasco on Broadway and later became a Hollywood film producer. His brother, Cecil Blount de Mille, was a famous Hollywood film director. De Mille's maternal grandfather was Henry George, a social reformer and political economist who was famous for proposing the single tax.

When she was a child the family moved to Hollywood. The family's values were shaped by prevailing emphases on success and glamour as well as respect for intellectual life. During her teens her parents divorced and de Mille was torn between becoming a dancer and actress or pleasing her father, who was unsympathetic to a stage career. Having seen performances of Anna Pavlova and the Ballets Russes with Vaslav Nijinsky, as well as American dance pioneers Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, de Mille enrolled in ballet classes in Hollywood with Theodore Kosloff. While continuing ballet lessons, she agreed to attend college at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and graduated as an English major, cum laude. Later her mother gave support to her dance career, taking her to live in New York while her younger sister, Margaret, attended Barnard College and later helping to finance her trips abroad.

In New York she performed with the Grand Street Follies, choreographed a solo program (1928), and studied modern dance with Martha Graham, who opened her New York studio in 1927. In 1931 she appeared with Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Helen Tamiris in Dance Repertory Theater, a short-lived attempt at collaboration among the early pioneers of American modern dance.

De Mille left for Europe in 1932, performing recitals of her work in London, Paris, and Copenhagen. In London she staged dances for Cole Porter's Nymph Errant starring Gertrude Lawrence. Marie Rambert, with whom she studied ballet, invited her to join the Ballet Club where she worked with Frederic Ashton and Anthony Tudor, then young and emerging choreographers associated with Rambert. She created a role in the premiere of Tudor's Dark Elegies (1937).

On occasional return visits to the United States she appeared in Leslie Howard's Broadway production of Hamlet (1936) and the MGM film of Romeo and Juliet (1937). With the outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939 she returned to New York permanently.

For the first season of Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre) in 1940 de Mille choreographed Black Ritual to Darius Milhaud's Creation du Monde with an African American cast. She earned the credit for convincing the company's managing director, Richard Pleasant, to invite Tudor to leave England and join Ballet Theatre, an important turn for American ballet history.

De Mille's big breakthrough as a choreographer came in 1942 with her ballet Rodeo for Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo. The original score was by Aaron Copland; the set design by Oliver Smith. She originally danced the Cowgirl, the female lead. This ballet remains in the repertories of many companies and is among her best known ballets, along with Fall River Legend (1948), a psychological study of Lizzie Borden based on her murder trial. Rodeo, a down-home story about cowboys and ranch life out West, provided de Mille with the invitation to choreograph Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical Oklahoma in 1943. This collaboration led to a life-long career with the Broadway musical, perhaps most significant of her choreographic achievements. Oklahoma was a landmark in that de Mille introduced the dream ballet to further the story through dance. This changed the course of the Broadway musical, making dance an integral part of the theatrical experience.

De Mille always saw dance as theatrical, expressive. She used body movement and motivated gesture as a kind of speech and drew from the technical vocabularies of classical ballet, modern dance, and folk and social dance. Although inspired by many subjects, her ballets were essentially American and favored themes dealing with its social history.

Known also as the author of many books, which she claimed she wrote in her "spare time," de Mille was a tireless and outspoken advocate for dance and for federal support for the arts. Drawing from her own experience as a choreographer, she was concerned that dances be copyrighted and that choreographers receive royalties. She served as first chairman of the dance panel of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965. She was also first president of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers in 1965.

De Mille founded two dance companies during her career: the Agnes de Mille Dance Theater (1953-1954) and the Heritage Dance Theater, a folk-oriented company formed in 1973, which used a lecture-demonstration format to present audiences with American dance history. The company toured widely until 1975, when de Mille suffered a cerebral hemorrhage just prior to a benefit performance at the Hunter College Playhouse in New York.

With extraordinary determination and courage, de Mille underwent extensive rehabilitation and learned to write with her left hand. She recovered sufficiently to resume her activities as a writer and choreographer, as well as spokesperson for dance.

De Mille was married to Walter Prude, a manager of concert artists, from 1943 until his death in 1988. (Her courtship and marriage are described in her autobiographical work, And Promenade Home, and in Martha. ) She died of a stroke on October 7, 1993, in New York City at the age of 88. She was survived by a son, Jonathan Prude, and grandsons David Robert Prude and Michael James Prude.

De Mille received more than a dozen honorary degrees. She was elected to the Theater Hall of Fame in 1973. She received the Handel Medallion, New York City's highest achievement in the arts, in 1976; the Kennedy Center Award in 1980; and the National Medal of the Arts in 1986. Other awards include: Donaldson Award, Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award, Dance Magazine Award, Capezio Award, and De la Torre Bueno Award for writings on dance.

Further Reading

The following are de Mille's ballets (listed chronologically): Black Ritual (1940); Three Virgins and a Devil (1941); Rodeo (1942); Tally-Ho (1944); Fall River Legend (1948), based on the Lizzie Borden murder trial; The Harvest According (1952), inspired by a Walt Whitman poem with material from the Civil War ballet in Bloomer Girl; Rib of Eve (1956); The Bitter Weird (1961); The Four Marys (1965), about Civil War slaves; The Wind in the Mountains (1965); A Rose for Miss Emily (1971), based on the William Faulkner story; Texas Fourth (1976); The Informer (1988), about the struggles between the English and Irish in 1917 and 1921; and The Other (1992), a symbolic depiction of the encounter between a young woman and death.

She choreographed the following Broadway musicals: Oklahoma (1943); Bloomer Girl (1944), a Civil War ballet; Carousel (1945); Brigadoon (1947); Allegro (1947), which she also directed; Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949); Paint Your Wagon (1951); Goldilocks (1958); Kwamina (1961); and 110 in the Shade (1963).

De Mille's major article on Martha Graham, first published in Atlantic Monthly (1950), was later a chapter in Dance to the Piper (1952). Her last book, Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham (1991), a lively biography of the famous American dance pioneer, also contains much about the author and her long friendship with Graham. Other personal memoirs include: And Promenade Home (1958); Speak to Me, Dance with Me (1973) about the years spent in London with Marie Rambert and the Ballet Club; Where the Wings Grow (1978), a recollection of her girlhood at the family's summer colony in Sullivan County, New York; and Reprieve (1981), written in collaboration with her doctor, dealing with her first stroke in 1975 and her courageous recovery. Other works by de Mille include To a Young Dancer (1962), an advice book; The Book of the Dance (1963), an illustrated history of dance; Lizzie Borden: A Dance of Death (1968), about her choreography for Fall River Legend; Portrait Gallery (1990); "Russian Journals" in Dance Perspectives (1970); The Dance in America (1971); and America Dances (1980). □

De Mille, Agnes George

views updated Jun 08 2018

De Mille, Agnes George

(b. 18 September 1905 in New York City; d. 7 October 1993 in New York City), dancer, choreographer of ballets and musicals, stage director, author, labor union leader, and a major influence on the arts in twentieth-century America.

De Mille’s father, William de Mille, was a playwright and the brother of the movie director Cecil B. DeMille; her mother, Anna George, was the daughter of the political economist Henry George. The family moved to Hollywood, California, when de Mille was very young. Growing up in the company of the leading literary, theatrical, and political figures of the day, she watched her father and uncle shape a new art form: the movies. The art form that most fascinated her, however, was dance.

As a teenager de Mille saw the legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova dance; from then on, although already too old for serious training, she was obsessed with becoming a dancer. Her father, however, considered dancers not quite respectable and allowed only perfunctory dance instruction for Agnes and her younger sister, Margaret.

De Mille graduated in 1925 from the University of California at Los Angeles (with a cum laude degree in English) and promptly moved to New York City, where she devised and performed unconventional solo recital pieces that emphasized character over traditional ballet movement. As a choreographer, de Mille cleverly exploited her own limitations as a dancer, as in “Ballet Class,” in which a little dancer—a hapless pupil with more dedication than talent—performs endless repetitive exercises to the beat of her offstage teacher’s stick and dreams of the dancer she hopes to become.

From 1932 to 1939 de Mille studied and worked in London with Antony Tudor, Marie Rambert, and other ballet revolutionaries. When World War II threatened Europe, she returned to the United States and formed a touring company that performed her own work. Within a few months, it folded. Undaunted, she danced in nightclubs, taught “acting for dancers,” and struggled to find the right outlet for her unconventional blend of theater and dance.

In 1941 the newly formed Ballet Theatre commissioned her to create works for its first two seasons but rejected her third offering. The following year her break finally came: the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo asked her to choreograph an “American” ballet. She expanded a recital piece she had created in London and the result, with music (at de Mille’s insistence) by Aaron Copland, was the landmark Rodeo— an intimate, gentle, and funny romance about an awkward cowgirl with a crush on the unattainable champion wrangler. As in all de Mille’s work, her choreography synthesized classical ballet, modern dance movement, folk dancing (Americana was a specialty), and natural, everyday gestures to tell a story based on timeless emotions.

The composer Richard Rodgers and the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein saw Rodeo and signed de Mille to choreograph their upcoming musical, Oklahoma!—a turning point for de Mille and for the Broadway musical. In place of the traditional interchangeable members of the chorus, de Mille used trained dancers and gave each a specific character, revealed in their individual movements.

A lot of the movement was balletic, but instead of the tutus and tights that most theatergoers had equated with “serious” dancing, the dancers wore jeans and gingham dresses. The choreography was not only entertaining, it propelled the story—notably in the dream sequence in which Laurey, the heroine, expresses her sexual conflicts. When Oklahoma! opened on Broadway in April 1943, theatrical history and de Mille’s reputation were made. From then on it would be taken for granted that show dancing would include ballet and modern dance. Singers would dance and act, dancers would act and sing, and actors would be capable of performing at least a rudimentary song and dance.

With Oklahoma! a record-breaking hit, de Mille, who fervently believed that no woman was complete without a husband and child, took a brief break on 14 June 1943 to marry Walter Prude, a concert artists’ manager to whom she had been introduced by their mutual friend Martha Graham.

For the rest of the decade Agnes de Mille was the most powerful woman on Broadway. Always torn between the demands of a husband, a chronically ill child (Jonathan, born in 1946), and a career, she nevertheless choreographed eleven more musicals, including One Touch of Venus (1943), Bloomer Girl (1944), Carousel (1945), Brigadoon (1947), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949), and, less successfully, Allegro (1947), which she also directed. Alan Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon, choreographed by de Mille in 1951, was her last Broadway success.

As her subsequent Broadway projects floundered, de Mille continued to create ballets. Her characters had always represented parts of herself—from Rodeo’s cowgirl, who wears her heart on her riding breeches and is “always trying something a little beyond her, and whether she succeeds or fails, she is cocky as hell,” to the jubilant pioneers in Oklahoma! and the audacious whores in Paint Your Wagon. Years of psychoanalysis had left her feeling a kinship with the infamous Lizzie Borden, who had been accused of hacking her parents to death with an ax. Out of her empathy with Lizzie’s alienation, repressed sexuality, and longing for approval from a weak and rejecting father, Agnes created Fall River Legend—a chilling, memorable version of the tragedy first presented by Ballet Theatre in 1948.

Shows failed; ballets failed; a repertory dance company of her own failed—but in de Mille’s life, there were no intermissions. In 1952, Dance to the Piper, a memoir of her early years, was published and became an instant classic. The ten books that followed are witty, opinionated, enlightening, and generally acknowledged to be among the best books ever written about dance.

In 1956 de Mille presented two award-winning hour-long television shows—“The Art of Ballet” and “The Art of Choreography“—that introduced millions of people to ballet. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson appointed her to the advisory panel of the first National Council on the Arts and Humanities, which would become the National Endowment for the Arts. For the rest of her life she was a passionate and eloquent spokesperson for public support of the arts.

In 1975, at age sixty-nine, de Mille suffered a massive stroke that left the right side of her body useless. Undaunted, she learned to write with her left hand, and to dictate. The four books she completed in the next eighteen years include some of her best: Where the Wings Grow, about her childhood; Reprieve, about the stroke and its effect on her; and Martha, an insightful and comprehensively researched biography of her longtime friend Martha Graham.

De Mille continued to write, to lecture, even to choreograph from her wheelchair. Unable to demonstrate movement, she had to depend entirely on her formidable command of language, and on assistants who at times seemed able to read her mind. The Informer (1988), a reworking of choreography originally devised for the failed 1959 Broadway show Juno, dealt with a subject unusual for a ballet— the Irish “troubles” in 1916. It was first presented by American Ballet Theater in 1988. Her final work, The Other, premiered in 1992; it was her fifth revision of dances created twenty years earlier for another Broadway failure, Come Summer. Set to Schubert songs, its subject was, fittingly, the cycles of life and the inevitability of death—to which Agnes succumbed, after another stroke, shortly after her eighty-eighth birthday.

By popularizing what had been elitist, Agnes de Mille became the first American-born choreographer to reach a mass audience and achieve international acclaim. She choreographed twenty-one ballets and fourteen Broadway shows over a career that spanned fifty years. She brought fresh air into ballet, permanently changed the look of the American musical, and influenced generations of choreographers who followed her. In a male-dominated business, she was the first woman to choreograph and direct a major Broadway musical and the first female president of a national labor union (Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers), which she helped found in 1959. A reviewer called her the best dancer ever to write, and the best writer ever to dance. De Mille said “One cannot be more than a dancer,” but no other dancer approached the breadth of her achievements.

A voluminous collection of Agnes de Mille’s manuscripts, papers, tapes, and filmed dances is archived at the New York Public Library; some of her letters are in the Smith College Archives. All of her books are to some extent autobiographical, but those technically in that category are: Dance to the Piper (1952), And Promenade Home (1958), Lizzie Borden: A Dance of Death (1968), Speak to Me, Dance with Me (1973), Where the Wings Grow (1978), and Reprieve (1981). She also wrote The Book of the Dance (1963), America Dances (1980), Portrait Gallery (1990), and Martha (1991). A biography, No Intermissions: The Life of Agnes De Mille, by Carol Easton, was published in 1996. An obituary is in the New York Times (8 Oct. 1993).

Carol Easton

De Mille, Agnes

views updated Jun 08 2018


Born 1905, New York, New York; died October 1993

Daughter of William C. and Anna George de Mille; married Walter Prude, 1943

Agnes de Mille's mother was the daughter of political economist Henry George. Her father was a successful playwright, but after an unexpected flop on Broadway he went West to join his younger brother, Cecil B. de Mille, and became a movie director.

De Mille's first book, Dance to the Piper (1951), begins with her family's move from New York City to Hollywood in 1914, covers her difficult years of struggle to become a dancer and to launch a career, and culminates with her first two solid choreographic successes, Rodeo (1942) and Oklahoma! (1943). The book ranges from child's-eye sketches of personalities who frequented the de Mille household, such as Geraldine Farrar, Ruth St. Denis, Elinor Glyn, and Charlie Chaplin, to more detailed portraits of those who affected de Mille's dance career—Martha Graham, Argentina, Marie Rambert, Antony Tudor, Lucia Chase.

Enthusiasm and honesty are the keynotes of de Mille's literary style. Her greatest enthusiasm is for other accomplished artists, and her most brutal honesty concerns her own limitations. At fifteen, she says, "I considered my body a shame, a trap and a betrayal. But I could break it. I was a dancer." She is absolutely forthright in her advice on careers in dance, with constructive suggestions for dance teachers and critics, in To A Young Dancer (1962). In several of her books, she discusses how the development of professional dance, like the development of female consciousness, has been retarded by social, religious, and economic restraints.

The balancing of de Mille's own emotional and professional life in an especially turbulent period, 1942-45, is the basis of her second book, And Promenade Home (1956). She describes her whirlwind courtship, marriage to Lt. Walter F. Prude, and their subsequent two-year wartime separation, in counterpoint to her choreographic work on Oklahoma!, One Touch of Venus, Tally-Ho, Bloomer Girl, and Carousel. The nightmarish process of getting a Broadway show opened is reported by means of humorous anecdotes, fond portraits of collaborators, and some unabashed diatribes. Lizzie Borden: A Dance of Death (1968) is a book-length study of the creation of her 1948 folk ballet, Fall River Legend. De Mille's historical research was meticulous, as it was for her earlier, illustrated Book of the Dance (1963). After a careful exploration of the scene of Lizzie Borden's crime, de Mille conducts the reader through her own transformation of historical fact into dance-drama. Accidents, personality clashes, and economic obstacles make of the creative process itself a taut, suspenseful narrative. In her Russian Journals (1970), de Mille recalls the stunned appreciation of Soviet audiences for this ballet when it was performed by American Ballet Theater on its USSR tour.

Speak to Me, Dance With Me (1973) goes back in time to de Mille's 1933-34 stay in London, which had been telescoped into three chapters in Dance to the Piper. The text consists of lively letters she wrote to her mother, interspersed with a running commentary on affairs about which she could not write home.

In Where the Wings Grow (1978), de Mille covers the earliest period in her life, before she had any serious thought of becoming a dancer. In this childhood memoir of summers at Merriewold, in Sullivan County, New York, de Mille evokes a turn-of-the-century way of life innocent of indoor plumbing and refrigeration, with home remedies, Irish Catholic house servants, lemonade and embroidery on the verandah, and ladies—like her mother—who prided themselves on their sheltered, genteel public image, even though it masked a great deal of anguished drudgery. She also writes of Sho-Foo-Den, the exotic Japanese mansion at Merriewold, and the story of its inhabitants, the Takamine family, first glimpsed through the child's eyes, later understood on an adult level. This latest book is a landmark in de Mille's literary career, because its lyricism and passion and the interest it sustains depend not at all upon the author's reputation as a dancer/choreographer.

In 1973, de Mille, who was an authority on Anglo-American folklore, founded the Agnes de Mille Heritage Dance Theater for the purpose of giving theatrical life to American folk-dance forms. She also received numerous professional awards and honorary degrees. Long recognized for her energetic contributions to American dance theater, de Mille was respected as a serious and prolific writer as well. Nearly half of her books were autobiographical; the others, like most of her magazine articles and speaking engagements, deal more specifically with dance as an artistic and social form of expression. De Mille was much in demand as a speaker, known for her engaging zeal and wit, and remained active until her death in 1993.

Other Works:

American Ballet Theatre, 35th Anniversary Gala (with L. Chase, 1975). Dance to the Piper & Promenade Home: A Two-Part Autobiography (1980). Reprieve: A Memoir (1981). Scrapbook (clippings, 1987, 1993). Agnes de Mille [Speech on the Arts in America] (video, 1987). Agnes de Mille Talks About Martha Graham, Women and Fashion (audiocassette, 1987).


Brosnan, P. L., Agnes de Mille Interview (video, 1985). Cavett, D., Agnes de Mille Interview (video, 1980). Edwards, A., The de Milles: An American Family (1988). Felder, D. G., The 100 Most Influential Women of All Time: A Ranking Past andPresent (1996). Getz, L., Dancers and Choreographers: A Selected Bibliography (1995). Gherman, B., Agnes de Mille: Dancing Off the Earth (1994). Speaker-Yuan, M., Agnes de Mille (1990).

Reference Works:

CB (1943). International Dictionary of Ballet (1993). International Dictionary of Modern Dance (1998). Notable Names in the American Theatre (1976).

Other reference:

Ballet Review (Winter 1994). Dance Chronicle (1996, 1998). Dance Magazine (Oct. 1971, Sept. 1973, Nov. 1974, June 1974, Jan. 1998). NYTBR (13 Jan. 1952, 12 Oct. 1968). Agnes: The Indomitable de Mille (video, 1987). Agnes de Mille Rehearsing Rodeo and Fall River Legend (videocassette, 1991). City Edition: Agnes de Mille (video, 1979). The Creative Process: Agnes de Mille (video, 1988). The De Mille Dynasty: A Brief History of the Life and Times of Henry C. de Mille, William C. de Mille, Cecil B. de Mille, Agnes George de Mille (video, 1985). The Frail Quarry [excerpt] (video, 1990). Good Morning America: Agnes de Mille (video, 1991). Profile of Agnes de Mille (video, 1979).


De Mille, Agnes George

views updated May 18 2018

De Mille, Agnes George (1906–93) US dancer and choreographer. Her choreography for the Broadway musical Oklahoma (1943) rendered dance integral to the plot and turned them into a serious art form. Other musicals include Carousel (1945), Brigadoon (1947), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949), Paint Your Wagon (1951) and Come Summer (1969). She also created ballets that combined classical and modern elements, such as Rodeo (1942) and Fall River Legend (1948).

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