Agnes de Mille 

(18 September 1905 – 7 October 1993)

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Agnes de Mille was an American dancer and choreographer. After graduating from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) she returned to New York to begin her career as a dancer. Unable to find employment in the theatre, she composed dances for herself and gave a series of solo dance recitals. De Mille was hailed by critics but lost considerable money, so she departed with her mother to London.

In 1940, the Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre) was formed and 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 16 October 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.

De Mille by now had 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.

Returning from the Coast to New York she continued to mount ballets and musicals every year. 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 haemorrhage 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.

In 1976 she was awarded New York City’s Handel Medallion, which is the most distinguished honour the city can bestow on its citizens. In December, 1980 she was given the nationally prestigious Kennedy Centre Honour 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 America.

Rodeo – Scene 1