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Agnes De Mille: Telling Stories in Broadway Dance
By Kara Anne Gardner
Book Review by Stanford Friedman


Oxford University Press has published some nine volumes in their Broadway Legacies series, each a short treatise on an important show, like South Pacific, or creator, like Irving Berlin. Their latest offering explores the life and artistry of Agnes de Mille. It is a meticulously researched must-read for fans and students of dance, aspiring directors, playwrights, and weekend theatergoers alike; which is to say that de Mille's choreographic contributions to the American musical affected every aspect of the genre.

Author Kara Anne Gardner, an Associate Dean at the Minerva Schools, upholds the publisher's promise to provide "serious scholarly books that wear their erudition lightly." She draws her information from de Mille's own published works, as well as from rich archival collections at the New York Public Library and Smith College, and presents the material with rhetorical ease. Her prose is matter-of-fact and, yes, scholarly, even as it reflects her clear passion for the subject matter. This is a text book that sometimes reads as an intimate biography, or an intimate biography that just happens to include 30 pages of end notes.

The first 40 pages are packed with biographical background. Born in 1905 and raised in Hollywood, Agnes was not only the niece of Cecil B., she was the daughter of silent film director William C. de Mille. Thus, at an early age, she understood the power of delivering a story using only movement, physical expression, and music. By balletic standards, she was a late bloomer, with dance classes beginning in her early teens. But, well-connected and well-off, she studied and performed in New York, Paris, and London, developing a unique, at times comic,


Agnes de Mille, 1944, in the ballet Rodeo
Photo Courtesy of Photofest
technique that drew much attention, not all of it positive. As one of her trainers remarked, "With your shoulders and your neck and your great bum, you are a dancer only from the ankles down." Nonetheless, by the mid 1930s her ballet and stage choreography were in demand, and her cowboy masterwork, Rodeo, turned the heads of a couple of guys named Richard and Oscar.

The next six chapters deconstruct a half dozen of her most important Broadway efforts, in shows by Rodgers & Hammerstein and others, from the 1940s to the 1960s. Gardner comprehensively spells out the storyline of each musical, which might be a bore for some readers or, conversely, make one long to have been in attendance. She captures the history from three different perspectives that are near and dear to any academician's heart: 1. Collaboration—at what point does a choreographer work with, rather than for, the writers and director? 2. Character development—how far can a choreographer go in creating characters and scenarios not found in the written script? 3. Authorship—at what point does original choreography become plot and therefore worthy of earning royalties? Additionally, Gardner shows de Mille to be a feminist powerhouse, specializing in creating works about the plight of women, while fighting for proper pay and equal credit among the male directors, composers and lyricists of her day.

First up is Oklahoma! and Gardner makes the case that de Mille, who knew of Freudian analysis, should be credited for the show's dark side, providing counterpoint to Hammerstein's optimistic "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" with her stark and violent dream ballet. Her first written notes on the number describe it as a "funeral march of whores." The next chapter looks at the lesser known One Touch of Venus where she taught Mary Martin "divine posture," and achieved the kind of respect from Kurt Weill that she never got from Richard Rodgers. Gardner also posits that the show's comic storyline, involving a goddess who becomes a failed suburban housewife, resonated with and inspired the recently married de Mille.


One Touch of Venus (1943-1945)
Shown: Mary Martin

Photo Courtesy of Photofest
Bloomer Girl perhaps the most obscure of the shows that Gardner considers, a musical set during the Civil War that opened on Broadway at the height of World War II. As it happened, de Mille, deeply affected by the times with her husband off serving in England, was already busy creating a full-length ballet with the Civil War as its motif. How that dance, a serious piece on grief, became integrated into an otherwise lighthearted production, ultimately changing the nature of the work and altering the power structure of the creative team, makes for an intriguing behind-the-scenes tale.

Then it is on to the diverse trifecta of Carousel, Brigadoon and Allegro. The Carousel chapter highlights the complexities of the show's famous dream ballet while exploring the growing rift between de Mille and Rodgers & Hammerstein. In Lerner & Loewe's Brigadoon, de Mille riffed on the common threads between Scottish dance and ballet, while sharing in a creative effort so collaborative that critic Brooks Atkinson observed, "It is impossible to say where the music and dancing leave off and the story begins." Allegro, on the other hand, was a lesson for de Mille on the downside of getting what you want. With this 1947 production, she became the first woman to both direct and choreograph a Broadway musical, helping to pave the way for Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse (though it would be decades before another woman would hold that credit). The production proved to be a "disappointment for everyone involved," victimized by a book that never quite came together and de Mille's preference for working with dancers over actors. She may have been well versed in Freud's methodology, but she was lacking in Stanislavsky's.

The concluding chapter does not discuss de Mille's demise, rather it finds her falling out of favor as narrative ballets became less in demand. As Gardner observes, dances that blended in became more popular than dances that stood out. She hardly starved, though, going on to choreograph Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Paint Your Wagon. Meanwhile, her efforts to find equal footing with her collaborators led to successful unionization via the founding of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society. Gardner also recognizes the advent of video as a method of preserving de Mille's choreography for future productions. It's an ironic endnote for a woman whose first influence was silent movies, and whose best work was watered down or all together left out of the film versions of the Broadway musicals that made her a legend.

Agnes De Mille: Telling Stories in Broadway Dance
By Kara Anne Gardner
264 pages
Oxford University Press
Publishing date: August 10, 2016
List Price: $35.00
ISBN: 978-0-19-973368-2


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