de Mille, Agnes (1905–1993)
de Mille, Agnes (1905–1993)
Dancer, choreographer, author, lecturer, and pioneer in the inclusion of American themes, gesture, and body language into classical ballet and the incorporation of classical ballet into musical comedy, whose dances for the Broadway show Oklahoma! revolutionized the American musical. Name variations: de Mille, De Mille, DeMille. Born Agnes George de Mille in New York City on September 18, 1905 (and not in 1908 or 1909, as occasionally found); died of a stroke in her Greenwich Village, New York, apartment on October 7, 1993; daughter of William Churchill de Mille and Anna Angela (George) de Mille; educated in Hollywood, California, and at University of Californiaat Los Angeles (UCLA); studied ballet under Theodore Kosloff, a former member of the Moscow Imperial Theater, and later, in London, under Marie Rambert and Tamara Karsavina; made her debut in 1916; married Lieutenant Walter Prude of the Army Air Corps, on June 14, 1943; children: one son, Jonathan.
graduated with honors from the University of California cum laude; New York Critics Prize (1942–46); Donaldson Award (1943–47); Mademoiselle Merit Award (1944); named American Woman of the Year by the American Newspaper Woman's Guild (1946); Lord and Taylor Award (1947); Antoinette Perry ("Tony") award (1947, 1962); Dancing Masters Award of Merit (1950); Dance Magazine Award (1957); Capezio Award (1966); first president of the Society for Stage Directors and Choreographers (1965–66); elected to the Theater Hall of Fame (1973); Agnes de Mille Theater at the North Carolina School of the Arts at Winston-Salem named in her honor (1975); Handel Medallion (1976); Commonwealth Award in Dramatic Arts (1980); Kennedy Center Career Achievement Award (1980); National Medal of the Arts (1986). Honorary Doctorates in Letters from Mills College (1952), Smith College, (1954) Western College (1955), Hood College (1957), Northwestern University (1960), Goucher College and Nasson College (1961), Clark University (1962), UCLA (1964), Franklin and Marshall College (1965), Western Michigan University (1967); L.H.D., Dartmouth College (1974), Duke University (1975), the University of North Carolina (1980), and New York University (1981).
Made first appearance in her father's production The Ragamuffin (1916), first New York appearance in Mozart's La Finta Giardiniera (1927); concert debut at the Guild Theater (1928); appeared with the Grand Street Follies (1928); choreographed her first ballet, Black Ritual (1940); toured with the Agnes de Mille Dance Theater (1953–54); appeared at Covent Garden, London, in Three Virgins and the Devil and Rodeo (1955); Omnibus lectures and ballets (1956–57); appeared in Conversations about the Dance at the Hunter College Playhouse (Nov. 3, 1974 and 1975); performed with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in her own ballet The Rehearsal (Hunter College, N.Y., Oct., 1965) and choreographed The Bitter Weird for the same company.
the revival of the 1864 musical The Black Crook (1929); (film) Romeo and Juliet (1935); (musical) Hooray for What (1937); (musical) Swingin' the Dream (1939); (ballet) Black Ritual (1940); (musical) Drums Sound in Hackensack (1941); (ballet) Three Virgins and a Devil (1941); (ballet) Rodeo (1942); (musical) Oklahoma! and One Touch of Venus (both 1943); (ballet) Tally Ho; (musical) Bloomer Girl (1944); (musical) Carousel (1945); (musical) Brigadoon (1947); (musical) Allegro (also directed, 1947); (ballet) Fall River Legend (1948); (and directed ballet) Rape of Lucrecia (1949); (musical) Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949); (directed only) Out of This World (1950); (musical) Paint Your Wagon (1951); (ballet) The Harvest According (1952); (musical) The Girl in Pink Tights (1954); (ballet) Rib of Eve (1956); (ballet) Sebastian (1957); (musical) Goldilocks (1958); (musical) Juno (1959); (ballet) Bitter Weird and (musical) Kwamina (both 1961); (musical) 110 in the Shade (1963); (ballet) The Wind in the Mountains and The Four Shades (both 1965); (touring company only) Where's Charley? (1966); (also directed) Come Summer (1969); (ballet) A Rose for Miss Emily (1971); (ballet) Texas Fourth (1971); (ballet) The Informer (1988); (ballet) The Other (1992).
Dance to the Piper (1951); And Promenade Home (1957); To a Young Dancer (1962); Book of the Dance (1963); Lizzie Borden: A Dance of Death (1968); Dance in America (1970); Russian Journals (1970); Speak to Me, Dance with Me (1974); Conversations about the Dance (1974); Where the Wings Grow (1978); America Dances (1980); Reprieve (1981); Portrait Gallery (1990); Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham (1991). Also wrote numerous magazine articles for Atlantic, Esquire, Vogue, McCall's, Good Housekeeping, Horizon, and The New York Times Magazine.
Born in New York City on September 18, 1905, Agnes de Mille came from a distinguished middle-class background. Her maternal grandfather was the economist and social reformer Henry George, by her own account "probably the best known American [at that time], excepting Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain." According to Kenneth Galbraith, George remains one of the two 19th-century American writers still read in that field. Her paternal grandfather Henry C. de Mille and her father William C. de Mille (whose mother Beatrice Samuel , an Englishwoman of Jewish origin, was a prominent playwright's agent), were both successful playwrights, her father later working as a writer and director in Hollywood. The famed pioneer film director Cecil B. De Mille (as he spelled the family name) was her uncle. Raised first in New York but taken when young to Hollywood, California, where she attended local schools, de Mille, by her own account, had a happy childhood, spending her summers at Merriewood in Sullivan
County, New York, a retreat for writers and theatrical people, an annual experience that she later described in her biographical work See Where the Wings Grow. There, she often danced alone in the woods and felt, even then, that her destiny was to be a great artist. Inspired by seeing a performance of the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1910, she staged her own dance concert in her back yard with a group of her friends. Later, she saw Nijinsky, Isadora Duncan , and Ruth St. Denis , but, as far as she was concerned, none of them cast the spell upon her that had been cast by the great Pavlova. By 1914, de Mille had decided to become a ballet dancer and began attending local ballet schools.
Her father was not sympathetic to his daughter going into the theater, a profession that he knew well as a playwright, and, under his influence, she attended the University of California at Los Angeles, graduating cum laude with a B.A. in English. Her mother Anna de Mille was much more sensitive to her daughter's ambitions and, after Agnes graduated in 1927, Anna took her and her younger sister Margaret to New York. There, while Margaret attended college, Agnes began seeking work in the theater. In 1928, she made her debut as a soloist doing a character sketch entitled "Stage Fright" based on a statue of a shy young dancer by the French impressionist artist, Dégas. The critics liked what they saw. "Like Chaplin, she sees tragedy through the lens of comedy," wrote John Martin in The New York Times. In these performances, which were really humorous choreographed character sketches, de Mille was accompanied by Louis Horst, a pianist who also worked for Ruth St. Denis and who accompanied Martha Graham . This brought her in contact with the world of modern dance that was about to enter its golden age.
This is the story of someone who got not what she wanted, but better than she deserved.
—Agnes de Mille
Agnes de Mille's reputation as a choreographer began in 1929, when she staged the dances for the Hoboken revival of The Black Crook, an Anglo-American collaboration first produced in New York in 1866 and widely considered to have been the first true musical comedy; she then appeared with stock companies and variety shows. In 1931, she danced with Martha Graham, Helen Tamiris , Charles Weidman, and Doris Humphrey in programs sponsored by Dance Repertory, a group that briefly attempted to bring soloists and small dance groups together for joint performances. Although unsuccessful, Dance Repertory brought the classically trained de Mille into contact with the foremost modern dancers of her generation, and this led to her frequently being thought of as a modern dancer herself.
Now a recognized dancer and director, in 1932 Agnes de Mille went to Europe with her mother and began to give solo recitals, managing seven concerts in Paris, Brussels, and London. She then moved to London, where for several years she gave recitals, staged dances for musical reviews—among them Cole Porter's great musical hit Nymph Errant, starring Gertrude Lawrence —and aided in the establishment of the London Ballet Company. In England, de Mille studied ballet with Marie Rambert , became friends with Lawrence, got to know the writer Rebecca West , was visited backstage by Tamara Karsavina , lunched with George Bernard Shaw, and otherwise hobnobbed with the theatrical, artistic, and cultural elite of prewar Britain. On May 9, 1933, she met Ramon Reed, a wealthy young man of 23, who suffered from a form of multiple sclerosis that had left him unable to walk since the age of 16. Although six years his senior, de Mille began dropping in on Reed at his London flat seeking refuge from the hurley-burley of her social life. Reed soon fell in love with de Mille, and she, while not requiting his feelings, developed a deep need for him on a level that she alone understood. He gave her love, a profound appreciation of her as an artist, and seemed, at least to her, to be the one person who appreciated the importance of her work. On her part, de Mille gave him intellectual stimulation, emotional comfort, a certain amount of affection, and, above all, a reason to live. With Reed paralyzed below the waist, their relationship was purely platonic, and this added to the pain for both of them. This friendship lasted for two years, during which Reed and de Mille vacationed together, and, when she returned to America, he joined her for a time in California. There, with still no offers even after a sold-out concert in Hollywood, she was badly in need of his emotional support. Upon her return to New York, Reed returned to England, where de Mille soon joined him. Soon after, however, Reed died, leaving a poignant and touching memory that de Mille carried with her the rest of her life, not revealing it until she told the story in her 1973 book Speak to Me, Dance with Me.
In England, Agnes de Mille's acquaintance with the Polish dancer and choreographer, Marie Rambert, director of the experimental Ballet Club, subsequently renamed the Ballet Rambert, led to an association with her protégé, Antony Tudor, later considered by many critics to have been the most important influence in ballet in the 20th century. In 1937, de Mille danced in the premier of his work Dark Elegies, a choreographical meditation on grief and mourning. During these London years, de Mille was often back in the U.S., where she choreographed the dances for Leslie Howard's Broadway appearance in Hamlet (1936), and the Leslie Howard–Norma Shearer film version of Romeo and Juliet (1937). Traveling to Hollywood, Agnes de Mille worked hard on the choreography for this film only to discover that hardly anyone at the studio took the dances seriously and that most of them were either not filmed at all or only in snippets. Bitterly disappointed, she at least found herself with $8,000 on hand and a renewed self-confidence in her ability to "produce really good professional work." In her own words, she felt "impregnable—not successful yet, but impregnable—I knew."
Despite her disappointment with Juliet, Agnes de Mille was undiscouraged. The example set by her father and her uncle, Cecil, had created a worldview for Agnes de Mille that did not permit the acceptance of failure. Returning to New York, she was immediately hired at a modest salary to stage the dances for a new musical comedy entitled Hooray for What, starring the popular comedian Ed Wynn, and, incidentally, the first directorial assignment for Vincente Minnelli, previously known only as a scenery and costume designer and later to be the husband of Judy Garland and father of Liza Minnelli . In 1939, de Mille choreographed her first ballet, Black Ritual, for the New York City Ballet. Set to the music of Darius Milhaud's La Création du Monde and attempting to recreate the atmosphere of some primitive ritual, this was an unusual production for that period in that it was performed by an all-black cast. It was followed by the comic and satirical Three Virgins and a Devil, a lusty work set in the Middle Ages (1941), and the now-legendary Rodeo (1942), a ballet set to the music of the American composer Aaron Copland.
Commissioned by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which, cut off from Europe by World War II, was forced to "Americanize" its repertoire by the encouragement of American choreographers creating ballets on American themes, Rodeo brought something new to classical ballet that, once assimilated, was to bring something new to musical comedy. In this work, de Mille devised a new balletic stance characterized by bent knees and widespread legs creating a distinctive bowlegged appearance, not only excellent as a depiction of cowboys but also successfully creating the impression of men on horseback. Opening night was a triumph with de Mille taking 20 curtain calls. Critic Burton Rascoe called Rodeo "the most original and most interesting innovation in the ballet in modern times," while John Martin wrote, "In nothing that she has previously done has de Mille exhibited so much pure choreographic skill and resourcefulness."
The success of Rodeo attracted the attention of Theresa Helburn and Lawrence Langner of the Theater Guild, who were planning to turn Lynn Riggs' successful play Green Grow the Lilacs into a musical to be called Oklahoma! They asked de Mille to do the choreography for the production. Until Oklahoma! came along in 1943, there was no such thing as serious dancing on the American musical stage. Such excellent shows as The Boys From Syracuse (1938) and even Pal Joey (1940), otherwise so ahead of their time, were characterized by choreography little removed from night-club jazz dancing of the type best remembered from such Busby Berkeley choreographed films as 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Gold Diggers of 1935. Tapdancing of the type purveyed by Ruby Keeler and later, in a more polished and sophisticated way, by Eleanor Powell held the stage until the Second World War; dances served as interludes between scenes and dialogue and frequently did little more than give the principals a chance to change their costumes. Oklahoma! changed all that. The choreography of Agnes de Mille was not only central to the production but integral, advancing the plot as much as the dialogue and songs, especially in the "dream" ballet in which the heroine, unable to choose between suitors, dances with both of them, at the end of which, she has determined her choice. In Oklahoma!, elements of ballet and modern dance were integrated with more traditional dance forms in an original and captivating way. The Broadway musical would never again be the same.
Justifying her fascination with Western themes, de Mille remarked, "American folk dances have always been my passion; they're a lot wilder and more exciting than the dancing we do today. That's why Oklahoma! was fun to do. People in Oklahoma in 1900 enjoyed dancing; they went lurching and careening around the floor, throwing themselves about with wonderful enthusiasm and abandon. Just watching them, you feel the same excitement." She was also fussy about casting. "Oklahoma! I believe, was the first musical show where every dancer was hired for just one reason—that he or she was the best available for the role," she wrote. "I stand on the record that this system, though prissy, worked."
The critics were unanimous in their praise of Oklahoma!, agreeing that in this work Agnes de Mille had surpassed her achievement in Rodeo both in depth and in sheer choreographic beauty. In the words of the New York music critic Olin Downes, "You watch with excitement and delight, and with a lump in your throat, for this is something more than admirably stylized choreography." She has made the ballet "not only acceptable to the average theatergoer who would be bored to death by classical ballet but something he can get excited and shout about." The dean of American dance critics, Walter Terry, wrote: "With Agnes de Mille's dance for Oklahoma!, in 1943, the whole concept of musical comedy dancing was forever changed. De Mille used ballet, modern dance, folk dance, dramatic gesture. She also used artist-dancers, but, more than all of these, she made dancing a living part—not just a 'turn'—of the musical itself. Her now-famous dream sequence from the show was proof enough that dancing could say things that no words could convey and say them in terms that a non-dance audience could understand. Her dances were not rhythmic exercises, not tricks, not mere diversions. They spoke for the hearts of lovers, they revealed terrifying and wonderful secrets, they identified the characteristics of a people." The year 1943 proved to be an especially rewarding one for Agnes de Mille, who not only reached the summit of her career but who, on June 14, married an officer in the Army Air Corps, Walter F. Prude, with whom she had her only child, a son Jonathan. The marriage proved successful, and after the war Prude became a concert artist's manager until his death in 1988.
The result of the stunning success of Oklahoma! was the opening of a golden age of American musical comedy that made the form a major contribution to world theater. De Mille then followed this triumph with the choreography for a series of Broadway musicals: One Touch of Venus (1944), Bloomer Girl (1944), Carousel (1945), Brigadoon (1946), and Allegro (which she also directed, 1947). Other choreographers soon followed her lead in such now legendary productions as Up in Central Park, South Pacific, Kiss Me Kate, The King and I, and West Side Story. Meanwhile, Oklahoma! opened in London in 1946 where it achieved the same success and made a star of Howard Keel.
The third pinnacle of her career, after Rodeo and Oklahoma!, was reached by de Mille in her ballet Fall River Legend, a psychological study that dealt with the story of Lizzie Borden , who, although acquitted of having brutally murdered both her parents with an axe in 1891, was widely considered to have gotten away with the crime. This ballet, perhaps her most ambitious work, probably represented the summit of her achievement, leading her to be called "the most famous choreographer in the world." The story of Lizzie Borden fascinated de Mille, who, several years later, published a well-researched book on the subject.
Despite her success with this ballet, Agnes de Mille returned to the musical-comedy form. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, starring Carol Channing (1949) and set in the 1920s, was a Broadway musical of the traditional type for which de Mille did not hesitate to design appropriate dances, and her choreography for the production was delightful. She then went on to create the dances for such later musicals as Paint Your Wagon (1952), The Girl in Pink Tights (1954), Goldilocks (1958), Juno (1959), Kwamina (1961), and 110 in the Shade (1963). Interspersed with these musical sorties, de Mille continued to create balletic works for the American Ballet Theater such as Tally Ho (1944), The Harvest According (1952), Rib of Eve (1956), Sebastian (1957), The Wind in the Mountains (1965), The Four Marys (1965), A Rose for Miss Emily (1969), Texas Fourth (1976), The Informer, based on the Irish rebellion against English rule from 1917 to 1921 (1988), and, her final work, The Other, a symbolic portrayal of a woman's encounter with death (1992). She also served as the narrator for the television broadcasts of the Bolshoi Ballet (1965).
As it turned out, however, Agnes de Mille had accomplished her greatest work in the 1940s. Thereafter, though she continued to choreograph, direct, and even perform, her work never achieved the same level of distinction. Nevertheless, what she had achieved by mid-century had so changed the dance in America that she remained a revered and respected figure in the dance world for the rest of her life. This was fortunate, for as her career gradually slowed, she was able to earn a decent living as a lecturer and also as an author, whose books were sure to find a ready market. In 1973, de Mille founded the Heritage Dance Theater that toured for two years, offering dances that drew heavily on the folk tradition.
Slender in her youth, Agnes de Mille was rather short (5′2″) and as she grew older she became somewhat heavy so that it was a rather squat little woman who danced the lead in Rodeo at the Brussels World's Fair in 1958, in the special theater at the American pavilion that featured productions of American musical comedies.
A vigorous and determined woman and an indefatigable worker, de Mille extensively researched her dances and was remarkably eclectic in the sources upon which she drew for her choreography. She often recycled material, such as certain solo pieces on Western themes that were incorporated into Rodeo, and the Civil War ballet in Bloomer Girl that served as the inspiration for A Harvest According. She was also a gifted pianist, and an excellent and prolific writer, who found time to author 11 books, including Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham (1991) and her autobiographical works: Dance to the Piper (1951), And Promenade Home (1957). She wrote for magazines and maintained a voluminous correspondence, especially with her mother; her carefully preserved letters were published in Speak to Me, Dance with Me in 1973. A quintessential American, de Mille was anything but pompous or "arty," and her books, while well-written, are forthright, opinionated, witty, earthy, and laced with sly humor. Coy about her age, she managed to write more than one book of reminiscences without bothering to mention it.
A product of the Progressive era in American history and strongly influenced by her
grandfather, de Mille also became a social activist. She argued before government agencies for state and federal aid for the arts, was a founding member of the National Council on the Arts, and the first chair of its Dance Panel (1965), and, in the 1970s and '80s, often denounced "big business" in her curtain speeches. A "liberated woman" before her time, she could be arrogant and brutally candid, so much so that in the theater world she was known as the "virago." On the other hand, she was sensitive and ego-involved with her work. Easily hurt, she could become excessively defensive. A good speaker, she frequently appeared on television, and her public lectures were well-received.
In 1975, at age 70, Agnes de Mille was struck down by a cerebral hemorrhage that left her severely incapacitated. As determined as ever and unwilling to become an invalid, she immediately undertook a program of physical therapy during which she learned to write with her left hand. Her recovery proved to be a startling success that she described in her book Reprieve, written in collaboration with her doctor. She then returned to a life of lecturing and choreography until her death of a stroke in her Greenwich Village apartment on October 7, 1993. She was survived by her son Jonathan and two grandsons.
Taken as a whole, the choreography of Agnes de Mille, as well as her personal dancing style, were characterized by a lively and irreverent humor, but in Rodeo and in the Civil War ballet in Bloomer Girl they at times achieved considerable pathos while some of the dances designed for Fall River Legend successfully conveyed the elements of tragedy. Perhaps the greatest tribute to de Mille as an artist is that her works, Rodeo and Fall River Legend, so highly esteemed by George Balanchine, passed into the permanent repertory of his American Ballet Theater, where they have become enshrined as classics of choreography, a discipline that had been the least American of art forms until her time.
de Mille, Agnes. Dance to the Piper. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1951.
——. Speak to Me, Dance with Me. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1973.
——. Where the Wings Grow. Garden City, NY: 1950. Theater Collection, Philadelphia Free Library.
Easton, Carol. No Intermissions: The Life of Agnes de Mille. Boston, MA: Little Brown, 1996.
Terry, Walter. The Dance in America. NY: Harper & Row, 1956.
Robert H. Hewsen , Professor of History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey