A discussion with Anderson Ferrell, Diana Gonzales, Dirk Lumbard and Elena Zahlmann
February 7, 2021
Agnes de Mille was one of several women, including Ida Rubenstein and Marie Rambert, who were on the fringes of Russian ballet in exile with a knowledge of classical ballet but without the strong technique that characterised the main dancers. Women of course, perhaps even now, have far more competition than men who could perhaps get away with less innate ability. “No one ever chased her around the casting couch so she had to do it the hard way”, according to Anderson Ferrell, Executive Director of The De Mille Working Group, which oversees the licensing and production of the choreographer’s works.
In an interesting discussion hosted by New York Theatre Ballet Artistic Director Diana Byers, the panel highlighted the eclectic sources, including folk, that de Mille was perhaps pushed into using as compensation. Considered not good enough to dance in ballet and not pretty enough to act, she was nevertheless able to use her not inconsiderable family connections to choreograph for her uncle Cecil B. de Mille’s 1934 epic film, Cleopatra, although the dance director clashed with her and forced her to retire from the production. Not surprisingly, she was steeped in the early days of Hollywood and had been taken out of school to see Gloria Swanson work.
In 1940, de Mille became the first female to choreograph for a major ballet company when she created Black Ritual for Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre). Ferrell makes the point that she always tried to be diverse in her casting, and here included African-American dancers, another first for a serious ballet company. Interestingly, he added the Working Group has never tried to revive the work. The following year, de Mille created Three Virgins and a Devil (music by Ottorino Respighi), again for Ballet Theatre, which was a tremendous hit and is still performed today to great acclaim.
Although de Mille is principally known for her folk ballets such as Rodeo (1942) and Fall River Legend (1948) and her choreography for musicals including Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945). The De Mille Working Group and New York Theatre Ballet have done much to keep the rest of her oeuvre in production, considering that she invented a unique choreographic vocabulary and used American cultural myths to expose the reality that informed them.
Turning to her choreographic style, an important consideration raised by the panel is that whereas today’s dancer training focuses much more on what might be termed ‘acrobatic technique’, de Mille was of the generation that benefitted directly from the Cecchetti Method, the great Margaret Craske being cited as a notable influence. Like Cecchetti, Craske stressed attention to detail in her teaching, encouraging her students to pay attention to the quality of movement. Perhaps influenced by Cecchetti’s The Manual, de Mille similarly codified her gestures.
This undoubtedly led to her emphasis on gesture and characterisation which was discussed by New York Theatre Ballet Associate Artistic Director and dancer Elena Zahlmann who has danced many of de Mille’s leading roles and taught them to other dancers.
Diana Gonzales, former rehearsal assistant to Agnes de Mille, presently Associate Director and repetiteur for The De Mille Working Group, noted how de Mille always placed a female at the heart of her ballets, who invariably fell into one of two archetypes: the romantic, idealistic beauty; and an autobiographical, earthy, strong woman. The list is extensive: Louise in Carousel; Jean (more romantic) and Maggie (earthier) in Brigadoon (1947);Lizzie Borden in Fall River Legend (1948); through to The Girl, who rejects The Wounded Veteran in The Informer (1988), that results in him turning informer and betraying a comrade; and the allegorical figure of The Maiden in her final ballet, The Other (1992).
Zahlmann observed that while they may be different ages, in different situations, they are all complex, human and vulnerable; strong women who make their own decisions. “They are not swans or sylphs, they are human beings… It’s been such a joy to explore that.”
Not all dancers appreciate de Mille but while conceding that the technique is not difficult, Zahlmann said that the gestures and characterisation require effort and that it can be hard to teach. “It not about the muscle but the feeling or emotion making the movement.” That doesn’t mean, “If you can walk, you can dance Rodeo,” stressed Ferrell. “I’d like to see you try!”
The stories flowed of dancers who struggled initially to master roles; dancers who may have been working on that sort of dramatic technique that de Mille’s work called for. Gonzales remarked that ABT dancers had to audition for her ballets with mime, which was not taught at the School of American Ballet. Farrell said that the “tragedy is Agnes’ case is that she hated to teach.”
Meyer commented that, while de Mille is often thought of in terms of Oklahoma and Carousel!, she was so much more than that, both in and out of the studio. Away from the stage, she played a pivotal role in unionising dancers and choreographers, and served on many boards. She spoke at a Congressional hearing in the early 1960s and served on the National Advisory Committee on the Arts and was a founder board member of its successor, the National Endowment for the Arts. One of her greatest victories was winning the concession that enabled dancers and choreographers to claim tax deductions on expenses, although that was later rescinded by subsequent administrations.
Agnes de Mille was a choreographer, but she was really about emotion, storytelling and theatre. Like many of her generation, she was a tough woman and continued to work even after suffering a stroke, dictating events from her wheelchair. “She looked at everything an unflinching way”, said Broadway performer Dirk Lumbard, who amongst others, strives to keep her works alive for new generations.
To listen to the conversation about Agnes de Mille in full, visit NYTB on Vimeo.
For more about Agnes de Mille and her work, visit The De Mille Working Group’s excellent website at agnesdemille.com.
New York Theatre Ballet’s next Between the Acts conversation is with Richard Alston, on Sunday February 14 at 4pm UK (11am New York). For details and how to obtain the Zoom link, visit nytb.org.