An American Identity
Agnes de Mille felt that the traditional Russian-style of ballet was stale and out of touch, especially with American audiences. In her view, dance needed to speak to people here and now. With that in mind, she choreographed Rodeo as the first ballet to feature American tap dancing and indigenous folk dance, along with classical ballet technique.
De Mille stated she intended to develop “new forms, new styles, new experiments. I’m contemporary, I’m American, I come from my own background. I have to speak from my own background, and that would be American vernacular.”
Never Give Up
It’s no exaggeration that Agnes de Mille (1905–1993) wasn’t given much encouragement to become a dancer. At first, her parents refused to give her lessons because dance was widely considered disreputable at the time. And when she was a college student, a professor told her she was too fat to pursue a dance career.
But de Mille was never discouraged. She talked her parents into letting her tag along with her sister who was taking dance lessons to correct flat arches in her feet. And despite being considered “a perfectly rotten dancer,” she kept at it, moving to New York City after graduating college, to dance professionally. There, she garnered occasional work performing and choreographing, but struggled to earn a living.
Eventually, de Mille moved to London where she trained for several years with Madame Marie Rambert at her Ballet Club. It was there that she befriended other students like Fredrick Ashton and Anthony Tudor, who would later become well-known choreographers.
While in London, de Mille had a hard time making a name for herself as a choreographer and had to travel back home to take occasional jobs. One of those jobs included working on films directed by her uncle, Cecil de Mille, a famous Hollywood director.
Fortunately, de Mille’s career began to take off in 1939 when she was invited by the American Ballet Theatre in New York to choreograph a work for their opening season. In 1940, she debuted Black Ritual, the first ballet ever to feature African American dancers.
Two years later, de Mille was asked to choreograph a dance for a touring European troupe called the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The dance was called Rodeo, a love story set on a ranch in the American Southwest. De Mille danced the lead role of the Cowgirl. At its world premiere in New York, she received 22 curtain calls and a standing ovation! Rodeo marked the beginning of de Mille’s real success as a choreographer.
After Rodeo, de Mille was asked to choreograph the stage production of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s musical Oklahoma!. With this production, de Mille revolutionized musical theater when she integrated choreography into the story in a way that hadn’t been seen before. (You’ll read how in Tab 2, “The Work.”)
De Mille went on to choreograph more than a dozen other Broadway musicals in the 1950s and 60s. She also authored several books and started her own dance troupe. Despite suffering a debilitating stroke in 1975, she recovered and continued working, most importantly as an outspoken advocate for federal funding for the arts. In 1980, de Mille received a Kennedy Center Honor.
Agnes de Mille loved acting, which comes as no surprise since her immediate and extended family were involved in movies and theater. Her father was a Hollywood director, (as was her uncle Cecil de Mille who directed such movie blockbusters as The Ten Commandments and Cleopatra), and young Agnes visited his sets and watched famous film stars at work.
Her love of acting translated to her choreography, which became one of her greatest contributions to musical theater. Before de Mille, dances were a break in the action of the story and were included as an interlude for entertainment purposes only.
De Mille changed musical theater by:
- creating choreography that conveyed the emotional depth of the characters while, at the same time, advancing the plot of the story.
- reflecting the thoughts and troubles of her characters through her choreography, rather than focusing on the technical tricks or physical abilities in her dancers.
- individualizing each character’s motivation through step and gestures.
In Rodeo, de Mille takes us through the yearning, hurt, shame, and joy felt by the main character, the Cowgirl, without a single word being spoken!
Music by Aaron Copland
Rodeo is subtitled “The Courting at Burnt Ranch,” which immediately sets up the idea that the ballet’s story involves young people finding each other and falling in love. And even though Rodeo was choreographed some 70 years ago, we still enjoy it today because it portrays universal human emotions: the desire to find love and the hurt of rejection.
In Scene One, we are introduced to a young woman—the Cowgirl—a feisty tomboy who acts like “one of the boys” in order to be liked by them. But she has her eyes set on the Head Wrangler and does her best to get his attention. Sometimes, she sidles up to him. At other times, she tags along after him and the other men, even when she is clearly unwanted.
It becomes clear that the Head Wrangler sees the Cowgirl as an annoyance. He is far more interested in a group of girls who come in from the city to visit the Rancher’s Daughter. At the rodeo, he competes in front of them, showing off until the Cowgirl can stand it no longer. She rushes off stage in a jealous fit, only to re-enter to compete alongside the Head Wrangler, including riding a bucking bronco. The women all laugh when she falls to the ground. The Cowgirl has embarrassed herself. Even the Head Wrangler jerks his thumb at her, gesturing for her to go into the house. The Cowgirl leaves in tears.
The rodeo ends and couples pass by slowly. The Cowgirl re-enters, trying once again to gain the attention of the Head Wrangler. But he only has eyes for the Rancher’s Daughter, who he lifts and carries off stage. The Cowgirl dances alone, eventually falling to the floor, sad and rejected.
In Scene Two, the Cowgirl and the others are attending a dance. The Cowgirl is approached by the Lead Roper. They dance and have fun until she sees the Head Wrangler arrive with the Rancher’s Daughter. She quickly leaves only to return in a red dress. Suddenly, the Head Wrangler notices her and he and the Lead Roper vie for her attention. It will take only one kiss from the Lead Roper for her to realize that she has found her true love at last. The Head Wrangler returns to the Rancher’s Daughter, and all dance happily.
- the way the backdrop by set designer Oliver Smith creates the look and feel of the West. The high wooden fence gives the stage a sense of vast space; the orange color makes us feel we are experiencing the heat of a Southwestern sun.
- The inclusion of different American movement styles. At the beginning of Rodeo, we see the Cowgirl break into tap dance steps in her solo before she chases after the men. Later, at the end of Scene One, couples square dance. At the rancher’s house in Scene Two, the group performs other social dances.
- strong, showy dancing by the ranch hands in Scene One simulating horseback riding and cattle roping. They hold their arms up in the air and whip them around, as if twirling an imaginary rope.
Rodeo was the ballet that truly launched de Mille’s career. She went on to choreograph other Broadway musicals including Carousel and Brigadoon. She won two Tony® awards and authored 10 books, including her autobiography and American Dances, which chronicles the development of different dance styles in the United States. De Mille also choreographed several ballets and was nominated for an Emmy® for her television series on PBS entitled “Conversations About the Dance.”
If you’d like to know more about Agnes de Mille and her work, you may want to:
Watch Rodeo American Ballet Theatre 1973 on YouTube. This footage shows all of Scene One of the ballet, and includes Agnes de Mille speaking briefly about her work.
Watch the movie version of Oklahoma! featuring James Mitchell, Shirley Jones, and Bambi Lynn. After viewing it, take note of the following:
How de Mille’s “dream ballet” highlights the main conflict affecting the heroine of the story, a farm girl named Laurey.
Laurey is being wooed by two different men: Curly, an energetic if somewhat arrogant cowhand, and Jud, a sullen, brooding farmhand. Laurey agrees to go to a barn dance with Jud, despite having feelings for Curly.
The Dream Ballet (available on YouTube):
In the dream sequence choreographed by de Mille in Oklahoma!, we see Laurey’s subconscious in action. Her fears about Jud come to life through the dance sequence where he is portrayed as amoral, aggressive, and violent. The setting shifts and changes, like in a real dream, and at one point bar girls enter in revealing dresses and high heels. Jud dances with them, whirling them around, caught up in their allure. When he returns to Laurey, she is repulsed by him, but he forces her to come close, even picking her up and placing her over his shoulder when she collapses.
Her true feelings for Curly are portrayed as well: She runs to him when he appears, throwing herself in his arms. She is desperate to escape Jud, but Jud is stronger than Curly, and pushes him down, eventually choking him.
How de Mille blends classical and modern dance in the dream ballet to create an effective vehicle for advancing the plot of the story. This sequence in Oklahoma! is very effective, and became a benchmark for many future musicals.
How de Mille treats all of the dancers in the dream ballet as characters, which allows the chorus dancers to behave like actors in the play.
Find out what a hit song in 1943 sounded like. Listen to music from the show Oklahoma!. The music and lyrics were written by composer Richard Rogers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. Many songs from Oklahoma! became number one hits, like “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” and “People Will Say We’re in Love.”
Read about de Mille on agnesdemilledances.com
Agnes de Mille received a Kennedy Center Honor award in 1980. You can read about the award here.