Obituary: Agnes de Mille
Monday 11 October 1993
ONE OF the most important and influential of American choreographers, Agnes de Mille brought a new kind of indigenously American style to both ballet and the Broadway musical.
Her ballet Rodeo (1942), which had its dancers imitating the movements of bucking cattle and galloping horses, and her revolutionary dances for Oklahoma] (1943), which merged classical ballet with American folk dance, brought her great acclaim and established a 'de Mille style'. Rodeo and the subsequent Fall River Legend (1948) have become part of the standard ballet repertoire, while de Mille's work on Oklahoma] contributed to that show's status as a landmark production and made her Broadway's leading choreographer for several years.
De Mille was born in 1905 in New York, where her father, William, was a successful playwright. In 1914 he decided to join his brother Cecil B. de Mille in Hollywood and Agnes made her film debut in her father's production The Ragamuffin (1915) at the age of 10. Of her childhood she later said, 'I was a spoiled, egocentric, wealthy girl.' Though she had wanted to be a dancer since an early visit to watch Pavlova, her father insisted she have a good education and she graduated with honours from the University of California. Determined to dance, and encouraged by her mother, she studied at local ballet schools, then moved to New York to gain experience ('often in third-rate night clubs') as a performer, specialising in dramatic self-choreographed character sketches to camouflage her limited classical abilities.
In 1928 she gave her first solo recital in New York, the New York Times calling her a bright star who 'sees tragedy through the lens of comedy'. The following year she choreographed a revival of The Black Crook, in Hoboken, but, aware of her limitations, she then went to Europe and for six years studied with Theodore Koslov, Marie Rambert and Anthony Tudor. In 1933 Charles Cochran asked her to choreograph Cole Porter's Nymph Errant, starring Gertrude Lawrence, and the following year she returned briefly to Hollywood when her uncle Cecil asked her to devise dances for his film Cleopatra. The producer Irving Thalberg later hired her to choreograph Cukor's Romeo And Juliet (1936).
De Mille had her first Broadway assignment with the revue Hooray For What? (1937), but though the director Vincente Minnelli championed her work, she was fired during the show's tryout. In London she danced a principal role in the premiere of Tudor's sombre but effective study of mourning, Dark Elegies (1937). She returned to the United States permanently in 1939 and the following year was invited to choreograph for the first season of the newly formed Ballet Theatre (later the American Ballet Theatre). Her work Black Ritual (Obeah), set to Milhaud's La Creation Du Monde, had an all-black cast, a rarity for its time, and she followed this with Three Virgins and a Devil (1941), a raunchy comic romp often revived.
De Mille had her first important success with Rodeo (1942), conceived for the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, which was based in New York during the war. With infectious music by Aaron Copland, and de Mille herself dancing the leading role of a girl who masquerades as a wrangler to win her cowboy boyfriend, its blend of balletic movements with those of the hoedown and square-dance received 22 curtain calls. The Theatre Guild, who were preparing a new musical called Away We Go, suggested de Mille to the composers Rodgers and Hammerstein who saw Rodeo and - despite qualms on the part of Rodgers - hired her for what was to become Oklahoma]
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 had wanted a circus dream to end the first half of the show, sending the audience out to the interval smiling - de Mille persuaded him to let her stage the dramatic 'Laurey Makes Up Her Mind' 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 had ballet sequences. De Mille also insisted on all her shows that she be allowed to choose the chorus for their dancing ability - it was still normal practice for many chorus members to be proteges of the backers and producers. Her next show One Touch Of Venus (1943), about a statue that comes to life in modern-day Manhattan, gave her scope for two imaginative ballet sequences, while Bloomer Girl (1944) incorporated a controversial and starkly symbolic Civil War ballet.
'I'm really like a playwright,' de Mille said, '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 simultaneously and established her as the leading choreographer for the theatre. She had another Rodgers and Hammerstein triumph with Carousel (1945), providing robust dances for the fisherfolk and an intensely moving ballet in the second act.
In 1946 de Mille returned to London, at the request of the director Wesley Ruggles, to choreograph what was intended to be the first big-screen British musical, London Town, but she was so dismayed at the script and Ruggles' direction and ideas that she requested that her name be removed from the credits.
She then directed as well as choreographed Rodgers and Hammerstein's first failure, Allegro (1947), but her dances for Lerner and Loewe's Brigadoon (1947), particularly a funeral sequence accompanied only by bagpipes and a stunning sword dance devised for James Mitchell, were important contributions to the whimsical show's success, and she changed pace with lively Twenties routines for Styne and Robin's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949). De Mille continued to choreograph new works for the American Ballet Theatre, including Tally-Ho (1944) and notably Fall River Legend, based on the story of Lizzie Borden and generally considered de Mille's masterpiece. She directed Cole Porter's Out of this World in 1950 but none of the Broadway shows she subsequently choreographed was a big hit - Paint Your Wagon (1951), The Girl in Pink Tights (1954) Goldilocks (1958), Juno (1959), Kwamina (1961), 110 in the Shade (1963) and Come September (1970). 'During the Forties and Fifties we were all creating the musical as a specific art form,' she later stated, adding, '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?'
In 1953 she formed the Agnes de Mille Dance Theater and toured as a dancer in her most popular ballets. She always enjoyed dancing more than creating, confessing to frequent moments of panic when inspiration failed her and describing the art of choreography as 'hell, sheer torture'. In contrast, she said of dancing: 'You are out of yourself, larger and more potent, more beautiful . . . This is power. This is glory on earth. And it is yours nightly.' She continued, though, to create new pieces: The Rib of Eve (1956), The Bitter Wierd (1961), The Four Marys (1965), Golden Age (1967), A Rose For Miss Emily (1970) and Texas Fourth (1976). She also won praise as a writer with her autobiographical books Dance To The Piper (1952), And Promenade Home (1959), Speak To Me, Dance With Me (1973) and Where The Wings Grow (1978), and several books on dance.
Lively and opinionated, de Mille was a popular lecturer and could be sharply critical of abstract choreographers (she called Twyla Tharp's work 'tiresomely neurotic'). She was vehemently anti-McCarthy during the blacklisting period, and later, in 1959, took part in an historic television encounter when, on Ed Morrow's Small World programme, she locked horns with Hedda Hopper and demolished the right-wing columnist's arguments with her wit and finely argued rhetoric.
In 1975 a stroke left Agnes de Mille partially paralysed, and her husband of 45 years, the artists' agent Walter Prude, died five years ago. But she continued to work. Her ballet The Informer (1988) used Marc Blitztein's music from Juno and dealt with Irish-British conflicts between 1917 and 1921 with only the Irish seen on stage, their opponents being suggested through the gestures of the dancers. Her final ballet, presented by the ABT last year, was The Other, in which a young woman is confronted by death.
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