On Broadway and at the ballet, Agnes de Mille was a pioneer who introduced distinctly American themes and movements into the world of dance. Born in New York City on September 18, 1905, she was raised in one of the most prominent U.S. show business families. Her father, William, was a playwright and theater director, and her uncle Cecil was perhaps the country’s best-known film director.
When Agnes was nine, her family moved to Los Angeles so that her father could find work in the growing movie industry. Agnes soon knew her way around a movie set and frequently took jobs as an extra. However, she was far more impressed by the dance performances she attended. Admiring the work of RUTH ST. DENIS, ISADORA DUNCAN, and Anna Pavlova, she grew determined to become a dancer herself, despite her parents’ disapproval of her plans. She finally convinced them to pay for ballet lessons when she was 13, far older than most professional dancers begin their formal training. Bowing to family pressure, she gave up her dream in 1921 and entered college at the University of California, Los Angeles. Four years later, she graduated cum laude with a degree in English.
Now 20 years old, de Mille moved back to New York and renewed her commitment to a dance career. She soon found her body ill-suited for work as either a ballerina or a Broadway chorus girl. She later wrote, “I was built like a mustang, stocky, mettlesome and sturdy”—a distinct contrast from the lithe and leggy bodies of most professional dancers. With characteristic pluck, de Mille decided that if no one would hire her to perform their dances, she would create her own with her body type in mind. In 1928, she began a decadelong period of staging concerts of her own dance compositions in the United States and Europe. Highly dramatic, they were unique in telling the stories of frontierswomen and other ordinary Americans and in integrating movements de Mille borrowed from folk dances. Already seen as an innovator in modern dance, de Mille in 1931 staged some of her works at the Dance Repertory Theater, which also showcased early dances by MARTHA GRAHAM and DORIS HUMPHREY.
The next year, de Mille set off for England, where she studied ballet with Anthony Tudor. While living in London, she made a substantial impact on English dance by introducing her associates to new currents in American modern dance, particularly the technical innovations of Graham. As World War II broke out in Europe, de Mille returned home and took a post as a choreographer for the Ballet Theater (later renamed the American Ballet Theater). There, she created her first major work, the controversial Black Ritual (1939), which featured an all-black cast. She found greater popular success with Three Virgins and a Devil (1941), a comic dance piece that Graham called “a little masterpiece.”
Based on the strength of her work with the Ballet Theater, the director of Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo hired de Mille to choreograph an “all-American” ballet. The result was her most famous ballet, Rodeo (1941). Danced to the music of Aaron Copland, Rodeo told the story of a cowgirl looking for a man. De Mille found hiring dancers for the work taxing since classical ballet instruction did little to prepare them for the vigorous movements her dance demanded. Of her cowboy dancers, she later wrote, “Alas, though big boys, they had been trained to move like wind-blown petals. ‘Raise your arms,’ I begged them. ‘You have men’s arms, . . . they can control a heavy, moving rope, or the brute furies of an eight-hundred-pound animal.’”Despite the challenges of bringing Rodeo to the stage, its premiere was an enormous success. With de Mille dancing the role of the cowgirl, the ballet’s performers received 22 curtain calls.
The success of Rodeo made de Mille the natural choice to choreograph Oklahoma! (1943), a musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein about cowboys and ranchers at the beginning of the 20th century. Oklahoma! is now seen as a hallmark in American theater because it was the first musical to fully integrate music and dance into the dramatic action. In addition, de Mille’s choreography changed Broadway dance by blending ballet and modern dance. It also introduced the device of the “dream dance.” At the end of the first act, the lead female character, Laurie, has a dream that reveals her subconscious fears and desires, which are acted out by dancers in an extended ballet sequence. The “dream dance” immediately became a staple in American musical theater. Soon after Oklahoma! ’s premiere, de Mille married Walter Foy Prude. The couple remained together until Prude’s death in 1988. They had one son, who was born in 1946.
Oklahoma! ’s phenomenal five-year run made de Mille Broadway’s most sought-after choreographer. She created dances for many classic musicals including Carousel (1945), Brigadoon (1947), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949), and Paint Your Wagon (1951). With the production of Allegro (1947), De Mille also became the first woman to direct and choreograph a Broadway show. While working on Broadway, de Mille continued her association with the Ballet Theater. Her most important ballet of this period was Fall River Legend (1948), which was based on the Lizzie Borden ax-murder case.
In the 1950s, de Mille became one of the foremost promoters of modern dance. On tours in 1953 and 1954, she managed the Agnes de Mille Dance Theater, which helped popularize her choreography by staging excerpts from her Broadway works and selections from her early concerts. In two television documentaries, The Art of Ballet and The Art of Choreography (both 1956), she sought to explain two of her greatest loves to a mass audience. Also to interest the public in dance, de Mille launched side careers as a writer and a lecturer. The author of many books, some autobiographical, de Mille is among the most eloquent writers on American modern dance.
To preserve her works for future generations, de Mille helped establish the Agnes de Mille Heritage Dance Theater at the North Carolina School of the Arts in 1973. The venture floundered, however, when de Mille suffered a stroke two years later. In spite of her deteriorating health, she was determined to fight her limitations so she could continue to work. She even taught herself to write with her left hand in order to record her recovery in her book Reprieve (1976). Examples of her late choreography include Texas Fourth (1976), The Informer (1988), and The Other (1992), a dance dealing with the theme of death that was to be her final work. De Mille died on October 6, 1993, leaving an incomparable legacy as a dancer, choreographer, writer, and champion of American dance.
De Mille, Agnes. Dance to the Piper and And Promenade Home: A Two-Part Autobiography. New York: Da Capo Press, 1979.
Easton, Carol. No Intermissions: The Life of Agnes de Mille. Boston: Little Brown, 1996.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Brigadoon (1954). Warner Home Video, DVD/VHS, 2000.
Oklahoma! (1955). Twentieth Century-Fox, DVD/VHS, 1999.