Agnes de Mille, 88, Dance Visionary, Is Dead

Credit...The New York Times Archives
See the article in its original context from
October 8, 1993, Section A, Page 1Buy Reprints
TimesMachine is an exclusive benefit for home delivery and digital subscribers.
About the Archive
This is a digitized version of an article from The Times’s print archive, before the start of online publication in 1996. To preserve these articles as they originally appeared, The Times does not alter, edit or update them.
Occasionally the digitization process introduces transcription errors or other problems; we are continuing to work to improve these archived versions.

Agnes de Mille, who helped change American dance with her ballet "Rodeo" in 1942 and musical comedy with her choreography for "Oklahoma!" a year later, died yesterday in her Greenwich Village apartment. She was 88.

The cause was a stroke, said Dr. Fred Plum, the head of neurology at New York Hospital and a close friend.

In her long career, Miss de Mille proved equally at home on Broadway and on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House. But she was epecially celebrated for her use of American subject matter and for her ability to combine elements of folk dancing with classical ballet. From Old West to Fall River

In addition to "Oklahoma!," Miss de Mille choreographed such musicals as "Carousel," "Brigadoon" and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." Her ballets ranged from "Rodeo," a comic and sentimental evocation of the Old West, to "Fall River Legend," a psychological study of Lizzie Borden.

A witty and vivid writer and speaker, Miss de Mille became an articulate champion of Federal support for the arts.

She remained unquenchable in spirit even after being disabled by a cerebral hemorrhage in 1975. With the aid of rehabilitative therapy and her own enormous willpower, she recovered sufficiently to continue her career, learning to write with her left hand in the process. In 1981, she discussed her illness in "Reprieve," a memoir, written in collaboration with Dr. Plum. In it, she declared, "The patient must have a project, something definite to work to, to work toward." For Miss de Mille, dance was always the project to which she devoted herself. "There was never a sandpapering of the edge of her curiosity." Dr. Plum said yesterday.

Viewing dance as a theatrical and expressive art, Miss de Mille stressed motivated gestures rather than niceties of classical style in her choreography and in her coaching of dancers. For her, bodily movement was a form of communication akin to speech. An eclectic, she drew from ordinary gesture and everyday movement as well as from the technical vocabularies of classical ballet, modern dance and folk and social dance. The dramatic situation always determined the type of movement she employed.

Miss de Mille was proudly American in her tastes and artistic allegiances. Nevertheless, she did not like all aspects of American culture. She often scorned rock music in her lectures. She had little sympathy for the experimental abstract choreography of Merce Cunningham, and in "America Dances," a history published in 1981, she called Twyla Tharp's choreography "tiresomely neurotic."

But in that same volume, she said of such American choreographers as Jerome Robbins, Michael Kidd and herself: "To the classic base we have accordingly added colloquialism. We have come down to earth; we have put our feet on the ground."

Although Miss de Mille was generally praised for her use of American themes, she was sometimes accused of sentimentality, and it was pointed out that the past she celebrated was an idealized vision of history. Commenting on Miss de Mille's choreography, Anna Kisselgoff, the chief dance critic of The New York Times, observed that happiness in one of these Americana ballets tended to be symbolized by "a set of girls in party dresses being lifted by clean-cut young men.

"The unhappy de Mille heroines yearn for this bliss and the fortunate ones enjoy it."

Ms. Kisselgoff also noted, however, that Miss de Mille's works were not invariably optimistic in tone. The choreographer treated the darker side of American history in "The Four Marys," a poignant tale of miscegenation in the days of slavery, and in "Fall River Legend," which was based on the 19th-century murder trial of Lizzie Borden, the shy Massachusetts woman accused of murdering her father and stepmother. Unlike the real Lizzie Borden, who was acquitted, Miss de Mille's heroine, referred to in the program simply as the Accused, is sent to the gallows. She Felt Destined To Be an Artist

Agnes George de Mille was born into a theatrical family in 1905. Her parents were William C. de Mille, a Broadway playwright and screen writer, and Anna George de Mille, a daughter of Henry George, the social reformer, economist and single-tax advocate. Her father's younger brother was the film director and producer Cecil B. DeMille, who spelled his family name differently.

Miss de Mille's childhood was spent partly in New York City, where her father wrote plays for the Broadway producer David Belasco, and partly in a summer colony called Merriewold in Sullivan County, N.Y. Miss de Mille described life at this vacation site for writers and theater people in her memoir "Where the Wings Grow," in which she recalled how, as a girl, she danced by herself in the woods and felt that she was destined to be an artist.

After her family moved to Hollywood in 1914, Miss de Mille was taken to see performances by Anna Pavlova, the great Russian ballerina, and Ruth St. Denis, one of the founders of American modern dance. She thereupon decided she wanted to become a dancer, and with her sister, Margaret, studied at local ballet schools. But her father was not sympathetic to her desire to make dancing her professional career,and she became an English major at the University of California at Los Angeles, graduating cum laude. But she never gave up her desire to dance.

Her mother, who was more supportive of her artistic aspirations, took Miss de Mille and her sister to New York. While her sister attended college, Miss de Mille tried to find theatrical work. In 1928 she made her choreographic debut in a solo program that included "Stage Fright," a character sketch inspired by a Degas statue depicting a shy young dancer.

Critical reception was favorable, and John Martin, the dance critic of The Times, wrote that like Charlie Chaplin, Miss de Mille "sees tragedy through a lens of comedy." Although she was balletically trained, her fondness for dramatic choreography often led critics to associate her with some of the modern dancers of the period, and her accompanist was Louis Horst, who also composed and played for Martha Graham. In 1931, she appeared with such prominent modern dancers as Miss Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Helen Tamiris in programs sponsored by the Dance Repertory Theater, a short-lived attempt to bring several independent soloists and companies together. Staged Porter Show In London in the 30's

After appearing with various minor stock companies and variety shows, Miss de Mille went to Europe in 1932, performing in Paris, Copenhagen and London. While in London, she staged the dances for Cole Porter's "Nymph Errant," which starred Gertrude Lawrence, and gave solo recitals of her own choreography. Arnold Haskell, the leading British critic of the day, called her "the first real idiomatic American dancer" he had seen.

She also became acquainted with Marie Rambert, the director of the experimental Ballet Club (later known as Ballet Rambert) and Rambert's protege Antony Tudor, who developed into the most influential dramatic choreographer of 20th-century ballet. In 1937 Miss de Mille danced in the premiere of Mr. Tudor's "Dark Elegies," an eloquent ballet about grief and mourning.

She occasionally returned to America to choreograph, including the dances for Leslie Howard's 1936 Broadway production of "Hamlet" and the 1937 M-G-M film version of "Romeo and Juliet." She was invited to choreograph for Ballet Theater -- a company now known as American Ballet Theater -- for the group's first season in 1940. The result was "Black Ritual (Obeah)," a choreographic version of Darius Milhaud's "Creation du Monde" for an all-black cast, at that time a rarity in ballet. The next year, she staged "Three Virgins and a Devil," a lusty comedy set in the Middle Ages that was based on a sketch she had created for a London revue in 1934; the piece has often been revived by Ballet Theater.

Also in 1941, Miss de Mille choreographed "Drums Sound in Hackensack" for the Ballets Jooss, a modern-dance company. She thereby became one of the first choreographers to work for both classical and modern groups. Danced the Lead In Her Own 'Rodeo'

Her first great popular success, however, came in 1942 when she choreographed "Rodeo" for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Because of World War II, that itinerant cosmopolitan troupe had made America its headquarters. American dancers increasingly filled its ranks and it wished to demonstrate that it had become a part of American cultural life. With an original score by Aaron Copland and scenery by Oliver Smith, "Rodeo" told a story about Western ranch life. Miss de Mille originally danced the female lead role herself. But other dancers soon took over the part and the ballet has been revived by many companies, including American Ballet Theater and the Joffrey Ballet.

"Rodeo" told a cheerful story in vigorous terms. But it was an important work for more than its good humor. As produced by the Ballet Russe, "Rodeo" constituted an affirmation that American subject matter could be treated in balletic terms and that it could be successfully interpreted by dancers of many nationalities. "Rodeo," like such other Americana ballets of the period as "Billy the Kid" and "Filling Station," therefore countered the arguments of those fanatical modern dancers who maintained that ballet was an art of the courts of Europe that could never flourish in democratic America.

"Rodeo" led to Miss de Mille's next triumph. Among those excited by the work were Theresa Helburn and Lawrence Langner of the Theater Guild, the composer Richard Rodgers and the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein 2d. These theatrical figures were planning a new musical based on Lynn Riggs's play "Green Grow the Lilacs," and they asked Miss de Mille to choreograph it. The result was one of the greatest hits in the history of American musical comedy: "Oklahoma!" opened on Broadway in 1943 and ran for more than five years.

Ballet choreographers had previously worked on Broadway. Albertina Rasch did so in the 1920's; George Balanchine choreographed successful musicals in the 30's. What made Miss de Mille's contributions to "Oklahoma!" seem distinctive to audiences of the 40's was the way that dancing, far from being a mere diversion or spectacle, was integrated into the show's dramatic action. This was especially true of the principal choreographic sequence, "Laurey Makes Up Her Mind," in which the work's heroine was shown torn between two suitors. Created 'People And Not Automata'

Writing of "Oklahoma!," Mr. Martin commented in The Times: "Miss de Mille has turned her back entirely on the established procedure of making 'routines.' She has selected some delightful young people to dance for her, and she has built her dances directly and most unorthodoxly upon them. As a result, they emerge as people and not as automata -- warm and believable people made larger than life and more endearing by the formalized movement through which they project themselves."

Miss de Mille followed "Oklahoma!" with "One Touch of Venus" in 1943 and "Bloomer Girl" in 1944. In the latter, according to Mr. Martin, her choreography again "translated the inner workings of the heroine's mind at a moment of crisis."

Having become an established figure in the musical theater, she proceeded to choreograph such shows as "Carousel" (1945); "Allegro" (1947), which she directed as well as choreographed; "Brigadoon" (1947); "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1949); "Paint Your Wagon" (1951); "The Girl in Pink Tights" (1954); "Goldilocks" (1958); "Juno" (1959); "Kwamina" (1961), and "110 in the Shade" (1963). In 1950 she directed "Out of This World," but the choreography was by the modern dancer Hanya Holm.

Miss de Mille continued to create works for American Ballet Theater, including "Tally-Ho" (1944), "Fall River Legend" (1948), "The Harvest According" (1952), "Rib of Eve" (1956), "Sebastian" (1957), "The Wind in the Mountains" and "The Four Marys" (both 1965), "A Rose for Miss Emily" (1971) and "Texas Fourth" (1976). In 1973 she established the Heritage Dance Theater, a folk-oriented company that toured widely until 1975.

Miss de Mille often recycled theatrical material. Just as a revue sketch turned into "Three Virgins and a Devil," so bits of solos she had created in the 30's on Western themes were incorporated into "Rodeo." A Civil War ballet in "Bloomer Girl" served as the basis for "The Harvest According," a serious work that was also inspired by a Walt Whitman poem. "The Bitter Weird," choreographed for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in 1961, used ballet music from "Brigadoon." Her Final Work Dealt With Death

In 1988 Miss de Mille used some of Marc Blitzstein's music from "Juno" for American Ballet Theater's production of "The Informer," which dealt with the struggles between the English and the Irish from 1917 to 1921. One of her most striking creations of recent years, "The Informer" was unusual because, although the Irish rebels were visible on stage, their English opponents were not. The presence of the English was indicated only through the postures and gestures of the other dancers. Miss de Mille's final ballet was "The Other," a symbolic depiction of the encounter between a young woman and death that American Ballet Theater presented in 1992.

Miss de Mille's books included several volumes of memoirs: "Dance to the Piper," "And Promenade Home," "Speak to Me, Dance With Me" and "Where the Wings Grow," in addition to "Reprieve." Her other books were "To a Young Dancer," "The Book of the Dance," "Lizzie Borden: A Dance of Death," "Russian Journals," "Dance in America" and "America Dances." Her most recent book, "Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham," published in 1991, was a lively and highly opinionated commentary on the great modern dancer.

Miss de Mille was much in demand as a speaker, both on cultural programs on television and on the lecture circuit. She gave lecture-demonstrations based on dance history and often appeared before government bodies to argue for increased State and Federal support for the arts.

Speaking at the 50th-anniversary gala of American Ballet Theater, in January 1990 at the Metropolitan Opera House, Miss de Mille tried to distill the essence of American dance in these words: "Ours is an up beat, a hurried, hasty beat. It keeps pressing us to go farther, to include everything so that we can savor everything, so that we can know everything, so that we will miss nothing. Partly it's greed, but mainly it's curiosity. We just want to experience it. And we do."

Miss de Mille received more than 15 honorary degrees and was elected to the Theater Hall of Fame in 1973. She received the Handel Medallion, New York's highest award for achievement in the arts, in 1976; the Kennedy Center Career Achievement Award in 1980, and the National Medal of the Arts in 1986. She was an original member of the National Council on the Arts and the first chairman of its Dance Panel in 1965. That year, she also became the first president of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers. Among her other awards were the Donaldson Award, the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award, the Elizabeth Blackwell Award, the Dance Magazine Award, the Capezio Dance Award and the De la Torre Bueno Award for writings on dance.

Miss de Mille was married to Walter Prude, a concert-artists' manager, from 1943 until his death in 1988. She is survived by a son, Jonathan, and two grandsons, David Robert and Michael James, all of Atlanta, and a niece, Judith de Mille Donelan of Easton, Md.