Agnes George de Mille (September 18, 1905 – October 7, 1993) was an American dancer and choreographer.
De Mille was born in Harlem
into a well-connected family of theater professionals. Her father William C. DeMille
and her uncle Cecil B. DeMille
were Hollywood directors. She was also the granddaughter of economist Henry George
. She originally wanted to be an actress and had always had a love for acting, but had been told that she was 'not pretty enough', so she turned her attention to dance. As a child, she had longed to dance, but dance at this time was considered more of an activity, rather than a viable career option, and so her parents refused to allow her to dance. When de Mille ’s younger sister was prescribed ballet classes to cure her flat feet, De Mille joined her. De Mille lacked flexibility and technique, though, and did not have a dancer's body. Classical ballet was the most widely known dance form at this time, and De Mille apparent lack of ability limited her opportunities. She taught herself from watching movie stars on the set with her father in Hollywood; these were more interesting for her to watch than perfectly turned out legs, and she developed strong character work and compelling performances. One of De Mille’s earliest jobs, thanks to her father’s connections, was choreographing the movie Cleopatra
in 1934, though the dances were later cut from the movie. She appeared in The Ragamuffin
in 1916, which was her first job.
De Mille graduated from UCLA where she was a member of Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, and in 1933 moved to London to study at Marie Rambert's Ballet Club.
De Mille began her association with the fledgling American Ballet Theatre
(then called Ballet Theatre) in 1939, but her first significant work, Rodeo
(1942) was staged for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo
. Although de Mille continued to choreograph nearly up to the time of her death--her final ballet, The Informer
, was completed in 1992--most of her later works have dropped out of the ballet repertoire. Besides Rodeo
, two other de Mille ballets are performed on a regular basis: Three Virgins and a Devil
(1934), adapted from a tale by Giovanni Boccaccio
, and Fall River Legend
(1948), based on the life of Lizzie Borden
On the strength of Rodeo, de Mille was hired to choreograph Oklahoma! (1943). The dream ballet, in which dancers (Marc Platt, Katherine Sergava, and George Church) doubled for the leading actors, successfully integrated dance into the musical's plot. Instead of functioning as an interlude or divertissement, the ballet provided key insights into the heroine's emotional troubles. De Mille went on to choreograph over a dozen other musicals, most notably Bloomer Girl (1944), Carousel (1945), Brigadoon (1947), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949), Paint Your Wagon (1951), Goldilocks (1957), and 110 in the Shade (1963).
De Mille's success on Broadway did not translate into success in Hollywood. Her only significant film credit is Oklahoma! (1955). She was not invited to recreate her choreography for either Brigadoon or Carousel. Nevertheless, her two specials for the TV series Omnibus, "The Art of Ballet" and "The Art of Choreography" (both televised in 1956), were immediately recognized as landmark attempts to bring serious dance to the attention of a broad public.
Her love for acting played a very important role in her choreography. De Mille revolutionized musical theatre by creating choreography which not only conveyed the emotional dimensions of the characters but also enhanced the plot. Her choreography, as a reflection of her awareness of acting, reflected the angst and turmoil of the characters instead of simply focusing on a dancer's physical technique.
De Mille regularly worked with a recognizable core group of dancers, including Virginia Bosler, Gemze de Lappe, Lidija Franklin, Jean Houloose, Dania Krupska, Bambi Linn, Joan McCracken, James Mitchell, Mavis Ray, and, at American Ballet Theatre, Sallie Wilson. Krupska, Mitchell, and Ray also served as de Mille's assistant choreographers, while de Lappe has taken an active role in preserving de Mille's work.
In 1953, de Mille founded the Agnes de Mille Dance Theatre, which she later revived as Heritage Dance Theatre.
De Mille married Walter Prude 1943. De Mille suffered a stroke on stage in 1975, but recovered. She died in 1993 of second stroke in her Greenwich Village
De Mille's many awards include a Tony Award
, the Handel Medallion for achievement in the arts (1976), and an honor from the Kennedy Center (1980).
De Mille was a lifelong friend of modern dance legend Martha Graham. The publisher of many books about dance, de Mille, in 1992, published Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham (ISBN 0-679-74176-3), a 509-page biography of Graham. De Mille had been working on the Graham manuscript for over 30 years.
At present, the only commercially available examples of de Mille's choreography are Fall River Legend (filmed in 1989 by the Dance Theatre of Harlem) and Oklahoma!