Agnes de Mille: Doyenne of Dance, Scintillating Scion

If you keep at it, you will find your niche. That is the lesson of the life of choreographer Agnes de Mille (1905-1993), whose birthday it is today. She was born into a theatrical (later, cinematic) dynasty founded by her grandparents Henry C. and Bebe de Mille, and carried on by her father William de Mille and uncle Cecil B. Demille (he changed the spelling). Agnes initially wanted to pursue a career in the theatre as well but was told she hadn’t the looks (ironic — she looks perfectly lovely in any photo I’ve ever seen her in). So she went into dance, but she was a bit older when she made that leap (ha! I said “leap”) and was told she didn’t have a dancer’s body, so she became a choreographer. And while she was associated with ballet companies and devised straight-up dance works such as Three Virgins and a Devil (1934), Rodeo (1942), and her Lizzie Borden ballet Fall River Legend (1948), de Mille was a bit of an oddball in the dance world as well. She was thus most successful as a choreographer of Broadway musicals: Oklahoma! (1943), Bloomer Girl (1944), Carousel (1945), Allegro (1947) Brigadoon (1947), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949), Paint Your Wagon (1951), The Girl in Pink Tights (1954), Goldilocks (1957), and 110 in the Shade (1961).

Her choreography for Oklahoma!, including the famous dream ballet, was used in the 1955 film version, and because of that, it was she is best known for today. Though she had danced with Marie Rambert, been affiliated with the American Ballet Theatre, and started her own dance company in 1973, it is her award-winning work for the musical theatre that gained her widest recognition.

All that said…now: we’ve heretofore neglected an extremely important part of de Mille’s background. Nearly every one does. On her mother’s side, Agnes was the granddaughter of Henry George, author of Progress and Poverty (1879), one of the most influential economists, political activists and social scientists of all time. (I used to have an old edition of this book — I got rid of it when I moved. I must have been crackers!) Anyway, George’s daughter (Agnes’ mother) Anna George de Mille was one of the foremost promoters of his work and his philosophy, known as Georgism, co-founding the Henry George School of Social Science in 1932, and penning a biography of her father in 1950. If Agnes had been more bookishly inclined, she could have pursued a vastly different career path, with just as many doors open to her. Or, she might have gone a third way, choreographing socialist works for the theatre! A Shaw of dance, perhaps! But she didn’t. She didn’t. As we all must, she took her own path, and the world is grateful.