If you ask people if they know the name ‘de Mille’, some will say they’ve heard of Hollywood producer Cecil de Mille, some might even know his brother William de Mille, but not many will have heard of William’s daughter. Which is a shame, because Agnes De Mille was a fascinating woman.
She loved acting, but was told she was ‘not pretty enough’, and then when she was 13 years old, her mother took her to see Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. She decided that this was what she wanted to do. Her father wasn’t impressed, and tried to discourage her, but she eventually persuaded him when she was 14 years old. She continued to dance throughout her youth, continuing to train even while she studied English at the University of California.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]‘I like the pure classic ballets. I like abstract ballets. I would very much like to do ballets like George Balanchine. I can’t. That’s a fact.’[/perfectpullquote] Agnes loved dancing but soon realised that she couldn’t become a classical ballet dancer – she ‘lacked flexibility and technique’, and didn’t have the body of a ballet dancer . She would watch the film stars on her uncle and her father’s film sets, and copied their strong acting performances.
She finished college in USA, then performed in a series of small roles before heading to Europe, where she danced in Paris, Copenhagen and London. On her return back home in 1940, she choreographed several ballets for Ballet Theatre, including Black Ritual, with an all black cast – the first time this had been done by a serious ballet company.
In 1942 she created a ballet called Rodeo for Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her choreography was a huge success. She danced the lead herself at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1943 and received twenty-two curtain calls and standing ovations. Watch to the end of this show, to see interviews with Agnes.
The success of Rodeo led to her being hired to work on the musical show Oklahoma! by Rogers and Hammerstein, an incredibly important show in American dance history. At this time, Agnes married Walter Foy Prude, and two years later gave birth to her son Jonathan de Mille Prude.
[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful. This is power, it is glory on earth and it is yours for the taking.[/perfectpullquote] Agnes went on to become one of the leading choreographers of dance in America, working on other musicals including Carousel and Brigadoon. Her love of acting played an important role in the history of musical theatre. Agnes’ choreography included a lot of character acting, which was new to ballet in America at this time. She showed real people and emotions in her dance, and a lot of humour.
Agnes received a Tony Award (the Oscar of the stage!) and was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame. In 1986 she was awarded the National Medal of the Arts.
Agnes was also a very talented writer and went on to write five books, including the story of her own life, and the story of the great American dancer Martha Graham. She died in 1993 at the age of 88 years, in New York City.
Read about other women of the stage in our new book 12 Awesome Women of the Stage.