By KATHARINE RAMSDEN
In April 1989, at a star-studded 100th anniversary benefit, The Players admitted 30 distinguished women to the previously all-male club – among them the celebrated choreographer Agnes de Mille. One of the preeminent American choreographers of the 20th century, de Mille entered a field dominated by men, created a distinctively American style of dance, and choreographed some of the most beloved American ballets and musicals. She remains an inspiration to dancers and choreographers to this day.
She was born in New York City into a well-connected family of theatre professionals; her father, William de Mille, and uncle, Cecil B. De Mille, were both Hollywood directors. After graduating from U.C.L.A. with a degree in English, she moved to London in 1933 to study with Ballet Rambert and the London Ballet. Returning to New York in 1938, she began her association with the fledgling American Ballet Theater (then called the Ballet Theatre) in 1939.
One of Agnes de Mille’s most overlooked but important early pieces was Black Ritual or Obeah, which she choreographed for the Ballet Theatre’s first season. Lasting 25 minutes, it was the first representation of black dancers in a New York ballet performance of a predominantly white company. Although performed only three times, Black Ritual played a significant role in the history of ballet in America.
Her first widely-recognized work was Rodeo (1942), with a score by Aaron Copland, which she staged for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. After this success, de Mille was hired to choreograph the musical Oklahoma (1943), in which she integrated dance into musical theatre as a way of enhancing the original musical. Later widely known for this innovative idea, Oklahoma is also credited with starting de Mille’s fame as a choreographer, both for Broadway and the dance industry. She would go on to choreograph more than a dozen other musicals, including Carousel (1945); Brigadoon (1947), for which she was co-recipient of the inaugural Tony Award for Best Choreography; and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949).
John F. Kennedy appointed de Mille as a member of the National Advisory Committee on the Arts, the predecessor of the National Endowment for the Arts, to which she was later appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. De Mille's many other awards include a Tony for Best Choreography (1947, for Brigadoon); induction into the American Theater Hall of Fame (1973); the Handel Medallion for achievement in the arts (1976); Kennedy Center Honors (1980); an Emmy for her work in The Indomitable de Mille (1980); a Drama Desk Special Award (1986), and the National Medal of Arts, also in 1986. De Mille received a score of honorary degrees and was featured on a U.S. postage stamp in 2004.
After a near-fatal stroke in 1975, she went on to write five books: Reprieve (which outlined the experience); Who Was Henry George?; Where the Wings Grow; America Dances; Portrait Gallery; and Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham. She also wrote And Promenade Home; To a Young Dancer; The Book of Dance; Lizzie Borden: Dance of Death; Dance in America; Russian Journals; and Speak to Me, Dance with Me.
Through Martha Graham, she met Walter Prude, then Graham’s manager, in 1939. They were married in 1943 and had one son, Jonathan.
Katharine Ramsden is a (semi-retired) former journalist and corporate communications executive. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she is a recently new Player, avid reader and one time a cappella singer.