Agnes de Mille: divine dance on stage, en pointe RETROSPECTIVE

October 08, 1993|By Jack Anderson | Jack Anderson,New York Times The Los Angeles Times contributed to this article.

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

Miss de Mille, who suffered a disabling stroke in 1975, died of a stroke at New York Hosptial, said her close friend Dr. Fred Plum.

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 especially celebrated for her use of American subject matter and for her ability to combine elements of folk dancing with classical ballet.

Besides "Oklahoma!" Miss de Mille choreographed such musicalsas "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 a murderess. A witty and vivid writer and speaker, Miss de Mille became an articulate champion of federal support for the arts.

Her phenomenal Broadway successes, led to two Tonys, the Kennedy Center Career Achievement Award in 1980 and the White House National Medal of Arts in 1986.

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 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 that "To the classic base we have accordingly added colloquialism. We have come down to earth; we have put our feet on the ground."

Agnes George de Mille was born into a theatrical family in 1905. Her father, William C. de Mille, was a Broadway playwright and screen writer; her mother Anna George de Mille, was the daughter of Henry George, a social reformer, economist and single-tax advocate. Her father's younger brother was Cecil B. DeMille (he chose a variation in the family name), the movie director and producer.

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.

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 recitals of her own solo choreography.

She occasionally returned to America to stage works, including the dances for Leslie Howard's 1936 Broadway production of "Hamlet" and the 1937 MGM film version of "Romeo and Juliet."

In 1941, at age 36, she had gloomily assessed her life:

"Youth gone. No husband. No child. No achievement in working. . . . Time was passing. . . . Prospects ceased to be bright."

But virtually overnight, her prospects became fiery bright. On Oct. 16, 1942, she premiered her innovative ballet "Rodeo," personally dancing the role of the cowgirl heroine. In one of her many ingenious innovations, she taught her cowboy dancers to use tennis strokes to simulate riding imaginary horses on stage.

Critics called the production, scored by Aaron Copland, the first great American ballet.

"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 who asked Miss de Mille to choreograph their new work. The result was one of the greatest hits in the history of American musical comedy: "Oklahoma!" which opened on Broadway in 1943.

What made Miss de Mille's contributions to "Oklahoma!" seem distinctive to audiences of the '40s was the way that dancing, instead of a mere diversion or spectacle, was integrated into the show's dramatic action.

Miss de Mille followed "Oklahoma!" with "One Touch of Venus" in 1943 and "Bloomer Girl" in 1944. Having become an established figure in the musical theater, she proceeded to choreograph such shows as "Carousel" (1945), "Allegro," which she directed as well as choreographed (1947), "Brigadoon" (1947), "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1949), and "Paint Your Wagon" (1951).

She continued to create works for American Ballet Theater. In 1973 she established the Heritage Dance Theater, a folk-oriented company that toured widely until 1975.

An hour-long PBS special in 1987, "Agnes, the Indomitable de Mille" preserved her self-chosen epitaph: "I would like one word on my tombstone," she said. "Dancer."

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 Prude, and two grandsons, of Atlanta, and a

niece, Judith de Mille Donelan, of Easton, Md.

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