Agnes de Mille's career was a long, successful, but also turbulent journey through the world of 20th century American theater and ballet. Born in 1905 in New York City, she was the daughter of William Churchill de Mille, a famous playwright, and Anna George, the daughter of the distinquished economist and "single tax" advocate, Henry George. Agnes' paternal grandfather, Henry de Mille, was a onetime North Carolina minister who left the pulpit to write plays with a message. He took as his partner David Belasco, one of the most successful producer-director-playwrights of the early days of this century.
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.
| Photo by Maurice Seymour
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 critics but lost considerable money, so she departed, with her mother, to London. There, with Warren Leonard, she gave 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, and for the following five years, with brief sojourns back to the United States, she continued her work and her studies in London, strengthening her technique and improving her repertory.
At the time, Rambert's Ballet Club, where de Mille studied, also had as pupils such furture dance luminaries as Frederick Ashton, Anthony Tudor, Hugh Laing, Diana Gould (the future Mrs. Yehudi Menuhin) and later Margot Fonteyn. So although Agnes did not make much money or earn great fame during her sojourn at the Ballet Club, the ambience was of the very best, and she did learn a great deal about creative theater.
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 Leslie Howard. The dances were very lovely and brought Agnes some attention, but she later commented that the custom at that time of cutting dances to pieces assured short lives for them.
In November, 1938, Miss de Mille returned to take up her performing career in the United States, and she toured the country with Joseph Anthony, later a well-known stage director, and with Sybil Shearer on of the most creative dancers in the country.
Then in 1940, Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre) was formed and Miss de Mille was a charter member, creating for the company her inaugural 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 (with its stunning score by Aaron Copland) 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.
| Photo courtesy of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization
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 at Hobbes, New Mexico. He was shortly sent overseas for the duration of the war.
The wedding and Oklahoma! were followed in rapid succession by choreography for the musicals One Touch of Venus, Bloomer Girl, and Carousel. The ballet, Talley-Ho was also created at this time.
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 theaters, 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 all of them.
After Allegro her time was filled with a steady schedule of assignments: The Rape of Lucretia, of which she was the stage director, in 1948; also in 1948 the great ballet Fall River Legend; Gentlemen Prefer Blonds 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 said 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.
Returning from the Coast to New York she continued to mount ballets and musicals every year, including Goldilocks, Juno, Kwamina, 110 in the Shade and Come Summer, of which she also was the stage director. There were also many lovely works for the ballet companies, including The Bitter Weird, The Four Marys, A Rose for Miss Emily, Summer, Texas Fourth, and A Bridegroom Called Death.
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, Conversations About the Dance, illustrated by members of her company.
Her return from near death to an altered but extraordinarily active life is outlined in her book Reprieve, one of the five books she wrote since her stroke, the other four being Where the Wings Grow, America Dances, Portrait Gallery, and Martha The Life and Work of Martha Graham. She is also the author of Dance to the Piper, (translated into five languages), And 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 activities included her favorite hobby of collecting fine porcelain and her research on the history of clothes, in which she was an expert. She remained a member of the Board of Directors of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, an organization she helped create, and of which she was president for several years. She was during her time as president of the organization the only woman head of a labor union in the United States.
Miss de Mille no longer worked on Broadway musicals, except for revivals using her original choreography. Her public appearances and speaking engagements were carefully chosen, but it was after her stroke that five of her dance works were composed: Texas Fourth, A Bridegroom Called Death, Conversations About the Dance, The Informer, and The Other.
She spoke three times in Congress: once in the Senate, once in the House of Representatives, and once in Congress for the Committee for Medical Research.
| Photo by Beryl Towbin
In 1976 she was awarded New York City's Handel Medallion, which is the most distinguished honor the city can bestow on its citizens. In December, 1980 she was given the nationally prestigious Kennedy Center Honor by President Carter. Her seventeen honorary degrees are from colleges and universities from coast to coast, and she was also the recipient of two American Theatre Wing "Tony" Awards, for Brigadoon and Kwamina, as well as many other awards, including an "Emmy" in 1987 for Agnes, The Indomitable de Mille.
At the time of her death in October, 1993 at the age of 88, Agnes de Mille was still an influential and productive leader in the cultural life of our country.