Famous for choreographing Oklahoma!, Carousel and Brigadoon, Agnes de Mille forever changed the face of Broadway dance. She was the first to create movement that added to the story’s emotional impact, rather than simply inserting standard chorus-girl routines between each scene, as was the convention at the time. De Mille’s movement actually helped move the plot along.
But none of de Mille’s success came easily, despite her show-biz lineage: Her father, William de Mille, was a famous playwright, and her uncle was none other than big-shot Hollywood producer Cecil B. de Mille. When de Mille moved with her family from New York to Hollywood as a young teenager, she began taking ballet classes with former Ballet Russes dancer Theodore Kosloff. After witnessing performances by Anna Pavlova and Ruth St. Denis, de Mille knew she wanted to be a dancer.
Repeatedly told that her body type was all wrong for dance—de Mille was short and voluptuous—she instead earned her English degree at the University of California at Los Angeles, while choreographing solos for student productions on the side. From 1928 to 1936, de Mille toured the U.S. and Europe as a soloist, portraying characters like a tomboyish cowgirl (who would later appear in her most well-known piece, Rodeo). Though she did well with the critics, de Mille struggled to find an audience. Once back in the U.S., she created two ballets for the newly formed American Ballet Theatre but didn’t find real success until she got the opportunity to choreograph a work for Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. De Mille’s Rodeo—based on her earlier tomboy cowgirl solo—premiered in 1942 in New York City. De Mille danced the female lead at age 37 and took 22 curtain calls. ABT added Rodeo to its repertory in 1950, and it has remained a crowd-pleaser ever since.
Impressed with her Rodeo success, Broadway songwriting team Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers asked de Mille to choreograph their newest musical, Oklahoma!, which was also about Western country life. Her work on the musical revolutionized Broadway dance: Instead of having pretty chorus girls strut around onstage, de Mille weaved her choreography into the plot. Her “dream ballet” for the musical’s heroine gave the audience a glimpse inside her difficult decision to choose between two suitors. Oklahoma! ran for five seasons on Broadway and paved the way for de Mille’s future Broadway hits, including Carousel and Brigadoon.
Her Broadway successes didn’t translate to the concert dance scene, however. When she founded the Agnes de Mille Dance Theatre in the 1950s to tour her works nationally, her company received poor reviews and lost money. She refocused her efforts and published multiple autobiographies (like Dance to the Piper, 1952), gave lecture-demonstrations on television and wrote a biography of Martha Graham (Martha, 1991). Soon after forming a new dance group in the 1970s—Heritage Dance Theater, composed of University of North Carolina School of the Arts students—de Mille suffered a debilitating stroke. Ever determined, she continued directing from a wheelchair until her death at age 88. DT
A young Leonard Bernstein was fired from de Mille’s ballet classes as accompanist for not being able to keep time. Bernstein would go on to become one of the world’s greatest composers and conductors.When hired to choreograph Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, de Mille demanded—and was granted—absolute control over the hiring of the dancers, a previously unheard-of request.
Rodeo (1942) Dancing the lead female role of the Cowgirl who chooses between the arrogant Head Wrangler of her dreams and a lovable cowboy, de Mille received 22 curtain calls.
Oklahoma! (1943) “Laurey Makes Up Her Mind” is a dream ballet that managed to both forward the plot and reveal the heroine’s inner thoughts and emotions. After Oklahoma!, the standard Broadway kickline all but disappeared.
Brigadoon (1947) When choreographing this musical about two young American men who discover a magical, ancient Scottish city, de Mille studied Scottish folk dances for authenticity. Her movement included a lively Highland Fling and a ceremonial sword dance.
The Legacy Lives On
De Mille’s work in musical theater elevated dance from mere showy entertainment to an integral part of the story that helped further the plot. She brought American themes and folk dance styles to classical ballet, and her Rodeo remains a popular piece in American Ballet Theatre’s repertory.
“Agnes de Mille: A dancer, choreographer and writer who helped shape American dance,” by Betty Rowen, Dance Teacher, October 2005.
Agnes de Mille: Choreographer, by Margaret Speaker-Yuan, Chelsea House Publishers, 1990.
Dance Heritage Coalition: “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures”: danceheritage.org
Photo (top) by Maurice Seymour, courtesy of ABT; by Gene Schiavone, courtesy of ABT