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When Agnes de Mille was born on West 118th Street in Manhattan, close to Morningside Park, it was a pleasant middle class residential neighborhood. Later it became the heart of the most dangerous section of Harlem. That change is somewhat symbolic of Agnes’ life. Lovingly safeguarded in comparative luxury — her father, William Churchill de Mille, was a famous and successful playwright — Agnes later plunged into turbulent and dangerous currents when she embarked, alone and unaided, on her long journey through the world of theatre and ballet.
When Agnes was very young, her father followed his brother, Cecil B. de Mille, to California, to try for work in the new gold field of motion pictures. He went for a year’s stay and remained for the rest of his life.
Agnes’ early schooling in California was at the small private Hollywood School for Girls. Later she attended the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where she graduated at nineteen cum laude.
About this time her mother and father divorced, and her mother came back to New York to start a new life with Agnes and her sister, Margaret. Margaret went to Barnard College and Agnes started her long search for success as a dancer. Unable to find employment in the theatre, she composed dances for herself — also arranging the music and designing the costumes — and gave a series of solo dance recitals. She was hailed by the critics but lost considerable money, so she departed, with her mother, to London. There she gave her recitals, again with critical praise but no financial gain. However, Marie Rambert and Arnold Haskell were sufficiently enthusiastic about her progress to persuade her to return to London the following year to study and continue her recitals.
At that time, at the Ballet Club at the Mercury Theatre, which was Rambert’s creation and where she taught, there were as pupils Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor, Hugh Laing and later Margot Fonteyn, as well as a dozen others of high excellence. So, although she did not make money and gained little fame, her ambience was of the very best and she learned a great deal of creative theatre.
During one of her returns to the United States, Miss de Mille was engaged to choreograph the dances for the film, Romeo and Juliet, starring Norma Shearer and LeslieHoward. The dances were very lovely and brought Agnes some attention, but she says the custom at that time of cutting dances to pieces assured short lives for them.
Then in 1940, Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre) was formed and Miss de Mille was a charter member, creating for the company her first ballet, Black Ritual, with black dancers, the first time this had been done by a serious ballet company. Black Ritual (Creation du Monde — Milhaud) was not a success, but in the following year Miss de Mille created Three Virgins and a Devil for the Company, which was a tremendous hit and is still given today to greatly appreciative audiences and critical acclaim.
In 1942 she was asked by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo to create a ballet for that company and her world-famous Rodeo was the altogether sensational result. She herself danced the leading role at the Metropolitan Opera House on October 16, 1943, and received twenty-two curtain calls and standing ovations. This triumph, with its Americana setting, led Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein to select her to create the dances for their musical, Oklahoma!. The tremendous success of these two works made American dance history.
On June 14, 1943, Miss de Mille was married in Beverly Hills to Walter Foy Prude, a Texan. Mr. Prude at that time was an officer in the Army (Aviation Ordinance) and was stationed in Hobbs, New Mexico. He was shortly sent overseas for the duration.
The wedding and Oklahoma! were followed in rapid succession by choreography for the musicals One Touch of Venus, Bloomer Girl and Carousel. Also the ballet, Tally-Ho.
In the Fall of 1945 Miss de Mille went to London for work on the film London Town, but actually she had arranged the trip so that she could meet her husband, who was stationed in Germany, and they had the good fortune to be together for two-and-a half weeks. Then in August of that year the war was over, her husband was sent back to the United States and she was pregnant. Eventually she, too, returned to this country and in April their son, Jonathan de Mille Prude, was born.
Brigadoon, with especially lovely dances and another great success, was her next achievement, and in that same year she began rehearsals of Allegro, acting as stage director as well as choreographer. This was the first time any dancer had attempted such a feat. She had to keep people busy at the same time in three theatres, one for the actors, one for the dancers and one for the singers. It was a gigantic undertaking, with a cast of nearly one hundred. But the score, by Richard Rodgers, was weak, and the book, by Oscar Hammerstein, was unfinished, with a poor second act. No amount of hard work could make it the kind of success they were used to and in spite of the show having a respectable run of over a year, it was a bitter disappointment to them.
After Allegro her work was continual: The Rape of Lucretia, of-which she was the stage director, in 1948; also in 1948 the great ballet Fall River Legend; Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1949; Out of This World, as stage director in 1950; Paint Your Wagon in 1951; and a lovely ballet, The Harvest According in, 1952. Then in 1953 came the filming of Oklahoma! of which she was the choreographer and which was the first film to cost over a million dollars. But Miss de Mille says that in spite of its cost, she never considered it first rate and did not like it anywhere nearly as much as she did the original stage version.
Her reputation as a speaker also grew through the years as she spoke across the entire nation on the part of government subsidy for the arts, resulting in her appointment by President Kennedy to be a member of the National Advisory Committee on the Arts, the forerunner of the National Endowment for the Arts, to which she was appointed as a member of its National Council by President Johnson when it was activated during his administration.
In 1974 she inaugurated the Agnes de Mille Heritage Dance Theatre, founded at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. The company made several cross-country tours with great success, but this project, which was so close to her heart, was cut short by the cerebral hemorrhage which struck her, on May 15, 1975, as she was about to go on stage for her famous lecture, Converstions About the Dance.
Her return from near death to an altered but extraordinarily active life is outlined in her book Reprieve, one of the three books she wrote after her stroke, the other two being Where the Wings Grow and America Dances. She also is the author of Dance to the Piper, Promenade Home, To a Young Dancer, The Book of Dance, Lizzie Borden: Dance of Death, Dance in America, Russian Journals, and Speak to Me, Dance with Me.
Her awards include New York City’s Handel Medallion, which is the most distinguished honor the city can bestow on its citizens, the nationally prestigious Kennedy Center Honor, seventeen honorary degrees from colleges and universities coast to coast, two American Theatre Wing “Tony” Awards, as well as many other awards, including an “Emmy” in 1987 for Agnes, The Indomitable de Mille.
The Other was Miss de Mille’s last ballet for American Ballet Theatre. She died in New York City on October 7, 1993.