Agnes De Mille

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An important and influential choreographer, director, and dancer who helped transform the American musical theatre.
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b. 18 September 1905, New York City, New York, USA, d. 6 October 1993, Greenwich Village, New York, USA. An important and influential choreographer, director, and dancer, who ‘helped transform the American musical theatre of the 40s and 50s’. After graduating with honours from the University of California, De Mille gave her first solo dance recital in 1928 at the Republic Theatre in New York. A year later she arranged the choreography for a revival of The Black Crook in Hoboken, New Jersey, and subsequently spent several years in London studying the ballet. In 1933 she arranged and staged the dances for Charles B. Cochran’s production of Nymph Errant at the Adelphi Theatre in London, and later returned to America to work on shows such as Hooray For What! and Swinging The Dream, and the film, Romeo And Juliet. In 1939 she joined the Ballet Theatre in New York and choreographed productions such as Black Ritual, Three Virgins And A Devil, and Aaron Copland’s Rodeo. Her work for the last-named, in which she herself danced the leading role, was highly acclaimed and led to her being hired for Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s first musical, Oklahoma! (1943). Her skilful blending of classical and modern dance which enhanced and developed the show’s story, was highlighted by the ‘Dream Ballet’ sequence, a feature that became the benchmark for many a future musical. The list of her subsequent Broadway assignments, mainly as a choreographer, but occasionally as a director, included One Touch Of Venus (1943), Bloomer Girl, Carousel, Brigadoon, Allegro, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Out Of This World (1950), Paint Your Wagon, The Girl In Pink Tights, Goldilocks, Juno, Kwamina, 110 In The Shade, and Come Summer (1969).

Throughout her long and distinguished career De Mille received many awards, including two Tony Awards (for Brigadoon and Kwamina), and numerous other honours and citations. In her best work, her ‘gift for narrative dance not only told stories, but each step and gesture came out of an individualized concept of each character’s motivation. Her treatment of dancers as individual characters enabled the chorus dancers to become actors in the play’. As well as the Broadway shows, she maintained a full and satisfying career in ballet, performing directing and choreographing, and continued to work even after suffering a stroke in 1975, which left her partially paralysed. Her two final ballets were The Informer (1988) and The Other (1992).