Books & Ideas | Arts & Culture

Square Dance

Agnes de Mille’s Beloved Community

July 01, 2011

Agnes de Mille and Mindy Aloff (Ed.), Leaps in the Dark: Art and the World. University Press of Florida, $34.95 (cloth)

It was just before 10:00 p.m. on October 16, 1942. The audience at the old Metropolitan Opera House on Broadway sat beneath Spanish friezes and baroque murals, waiting for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo—then home to the biggest names in classical dance—to perform their final piece. But when the golden curtain rose, there were no men in jeweled tunics and no ladies in feathery tutus. Instead, audiences saw a crowd of cowboys, motionless against a red sky. One of them raised his arm to wipe the sweat off his brow and onto his shirtsleeve, and Rodeo began. The cowboys leapt about, barely in control of their imaginary bucking horses. Soon they were joined by a spunky tomboy in dungarees and a button-down shirt. The Girl—played by choreographer Agnes de Mille—tried to impress her crush, the Head Wrangler, with her equestrian prowess. But in a bit of slapstick to rival Charlie Chaplin, she went tumbling across the stage, bucked from her invisible steed. The wrangler didn’t even notice.

Classical ballet originated in the courts of Europe, but Agnes de Mille helped to democratize it. In pieces such as Rodeo, she combined ballet steps with everyday gestures, modern dance, and vernacular forms such as tap, jazz, and folk dancing, creating a new and distinctly American idiom. And she coached her dancers to perform not as untouchable beauties or distant royals, but as real people who leapt and stumbled, sweated and soared. Audiences responded enthusiastically: two minutes into that first performance of Rodeo, they were laughing out loud, and at the end—after the Girl had donned a dress and become the belle of the hoedown with a new and deserving beau—they cheered through 22 curtain calls. When de Mille took her bows, she received a red, white, and blue–beribboned bouquet of corn.

De Mille quickly became one of the most sought-after choreographers in the country, making new dances for American Ballet Theater and more than a dozen Broadway musicals, including Oklahoma!, Carousel, and Brigadoon. For a few years, more than half of the new musicals produced in New York included ballet. De Mille’s work spoke to a mass audience, giving them a vision of society that combined the unruliness of everyday life with the orderly beauty of formal dance. George Amberg, curator of the dance department at the Museum of Modern Art, wrote that she had imbued ballet with such vigor that she “made all the Sylphides look anemic.” John Martin, the dance critic at the New York Times, went further, proclaiming a new era: the “de Millennium.”

Today, when so many people perceive concert dance as an insider art for old white patrons with trained eyes and fat wallets, it’s hard to imagine this transformative moment. But in the ’30s and ’40s, America was experiencing a golden age of dance. De Mille was part of a generation of dance luminaries, including George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Jerome Robbins, and Antony Tudor. Many dances from this era were explicitly nationalist in topic and in movement, as choreographers found inspiration in the country’s streets, barns, and dance halls. Lew Christensen made a car mechanic the hero of Filling Station, which also featured vaudevillian tumbling and a staggering couple who seemed like a drunk Fred and Ginger. Ruth Page and Bentley Stone collaborated on a retelling of the folksong “Frankie and Johnny,” complete with tap-dancing pallbearers. Helen Tamiris found inspiration in black spirituals for How Long Brethren?, and Graham used a minstrel show as the guiding structure for American Document. Robbins’s Fancy Free followed three soldiers on a jazzy, booze-fueled night ashore. Dance was about working men and women, not dying swans. At the same time, Broadway shows and Hollywood musicals were taking lessons from ballet.

In the 1930s and ’40s, American dance was about working men and women, not dying swans.

De Mille was at the center of this blending of highbrow and popular art. And lucky for us, she chronicled the era in prose that’s as stirring as her best choreography. She wrote eleven books, and while they’ve all been out of print for years, a new anthology edited by Mindy Aloff, Leaps in the Dark, includes a fine selection from them. De Mille’s favorite genre was the memoir, and excerpts from four (she published five) make up the bulk of Leaps in the Dark. Memoir keeps the author’s voice central, which works beautifully for de Mille, whose writing is propelled by the force of her personality as well as her mastery of craft. Her prose has the immediacy of live performance.

With the exception of the film version of Oklahoma!, for which de Mille was the choreographer, Leaps in the Dark is the closest most can get to her dances today. Companies occasionally revive her work—usually Rodeo, though this spring Alabama Ballet took on Three Virgins and a Devil and The Other. By and large, however, de Mille’s ballets are novelties, not staples, in the repertoires of major U.S. dance companies. She’s been cast in a bit part, overshadowed by American ballet’s leading man, Balanchine. Balanchine, as just about anyone who’s seen his work will tell you, was a genius, blending the Russian Imperial style of his youth with the jazzy, syncopated rhythms and athleticism of America, his new home. His work is often gorgeously abstract, and when it’s performed well—and it often is—it’s as breathtaking and vital as ever. But as Sarah Kaufman pointed out in a controversial piece in The Washington Post two years ago, many companies aren’t making room for much else, including the short, character-driven work of artists such as de Mille. And though de Mille may once have been the country’s most popular choreographer, she is barely mentioned in an acclaimed new cultural history of ballet, Jennifer Homans’s Apollo’s Angels. That might not seem too odd in a book that covers two continents and hundreds of years, but Homans does devote nearly an entire chapter to Balanchine.

Homans closes Apollo’s Angels with a lament for the death of ballet, or at least for its current lull. Nearly every major dance critic in America has weighed in to respond, often defending the contemporary dance scene by pointing to choreographers including Alexei Ratmansky, Christopher Wheeldon, Julia Adams, Trey McIntyre, Paul Taylor, and Mark Morris, all of whom have done marvelous work. Still, ballet doesn’t have the cultural cachet it did when Balanchine was alive, or when de Mille was in her prime. And too much of what goes on in the world of concert dance today feels flat and out of touch, whether it’s candy-store classicism—all lifts and leaps when the music gets loudest—or pretentious techno-dystopia, with dancers moving like cyborgs against a score of static and blips. De Mille represents an alternate tradition, one that valued place, history, and human connection, and that managed to make ballet meaningful for large, popular audiences.

Part of what makes de Mille’s work so appealing is her forthright sentimentality, which can be as moving as a moment of poise in a Frank O’Hara poem, or even the scene in The Jerk where Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters take a break from screwball comedy to sing “Tonight You Belong To Me.” At the end of Rodeo, when the fated couple find each other at last, the whole cast unites in dance. It’s a hopeful vision of what a community, or even a nation, might be: a place where underdogs come out on top and where individuals form a graceful collective. Balanchine never touched this kind of sentimentality. His beauty, though still moving, was more formal and remote. But de Mille pulled it off, partly because—like the New York School poets and fine comedians—she coupled it with cheekiness. De Mille brought sass to classical ballet.

When de Mille was rehearsing Rodeo, she spent hours teaching the Ballet Russe dancers to walk, stand, and squint.

Take, for example, de Mille’s assessment that Anna Pavlova performed some of “the silliest and most tasteless” choreography she had ever seen, holding “each pose until she got applause like a circus performer.” Yet this was a dancer who made audiences, de Mille included, fall in love. “Occasionally, she chewed a paper rose with her teeth. Corn?” de Mille asks. No. “Thunder and fire.” On its own, comparing a dance performance to thunder and fire might not tell you much. But de Mille restores the force to these elemental powers by allowing them to storm into an entertainingly tacky world.

De Mille often veered between earnestness and humor—or as she described it in a harsh characterization of her choreographic tendencies, “the breaking of all lyric line with a joke.” In many of her ballets, she was the butt of those jokes: several early solos had her play the anxious and awkward ballerina, and in Rodeo, she was the clumsy, love-struck Girl. Her memoirs give a similar picture. After kicking off her slipper in the studio one time, she had to crawl underneath the chair of the famous choreographer Leonide Massine and “fumble long-armed behind his feet.” And at the end of a triumphant rehearsal, she turned around and began talking to the cast, only to find an empty room. “They had left on their vacation,” she writes. These gags keep de Mille approachable, but she doesn’t lose sight of art’s heroic powers. The artist, she writes, shows us what life is about: moving forward in the midst of uncertainty. “One can’t go through life on hands and knees,” she writes. Thus the anthology’s title: “One leaps in the dark.”

• • •


De Mille grew up in Hollywood, niece to the pioneering filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille. Her few early forays into film choreography weren’t too successful, but she brought a number of lessons from the movies to the ballet: how to collaborate with set and costume designers to suggest something like a whole world on a stage; how to create art that would appeal to popular audiences; and perhaps most important, how to craft a drama and develop believable, sympathetic characters. She also learned much from silent films, whose performers, like ballet dancers, had to communicate without speech. Her earliest pieces were really character studies, half-dance and half-pantomime.

When she began a new work, de Mille would imagine how a character “walks and stands” in “the basic rhythms of his natural gesture,” before worrying about his dancing. That may sound like an obvious first step, the equivalent of a fiction writer figuring out who his characters are before he sets them into the full motions of plot. But in the dance community, it’s fairly unusual, both because abstract work often downplays personality, and because most choreographers don’t research their subjects with the depth that de Mille and her peers did. It was that thoroughness that helped de Mille create a world audiences could believe in. When she was rehearsing Rodeo, she spent hours teaching the Ballet Russe dancers to walk, stand, and squint.

In her memoirs de Mille stages her work for the Ballet Russe as a nationalist crusade, a triumph of the American style over courtly Europe’s. She had to “break” the men, as if they were wild mustangs and she their tamer. In effect, she was the Girl in Rodeo, pretending to be a cowboy—except this time, she succeeded. It was she, a short and fiery lady, who taught the men to quit moving like “wind-blown petals” with “the delicate wrists and the curled fingers of the eighteenth-century dandy.” In the meantime Luba Roudenko, who played the Girl when de Mille wasn’t, kept asking for choreography to show off her ballet technique. Roudenko’s requests for fouettés, batterie, and chainé turns recur every few paragraphs, a gag that gains momentum until eventually de Mille can slip it in an abbreviated form: “Luba Roudenko came to me. I said no.”

For de Mille the connection between audience and performer is the ultimate achievement.

De Mille’s account has the pep of Hollywood’s best backstage musicals, but eventually, she lets the gravity of World War II, always in the background, come surging forward. It’s more than a foil to her comedy—it also helps explain, and up the stakes of, her art. While making Rodeo she kept thinking about the “generation on generation of men leaving and falling and the women remembering. And what was left of any of them but a folk tune and a way of joining hands in a ring?” That ring is in the middle of Rodeo, when Copland’s score stops, and the dancers do a square dance with no sounds but the stomps of their feet, the slaps of their hands as they change partners, and the cries of a caller who leads them on. Set apart from the rest of the ballet, the square dance feels like a piece of the past, a reminder that generations pass down movements like memories, or perhaps, pass down their memories in movement. As de Mille writes elsewhere, “Every gesture is a portrait” of the people who’ve performed it before. In her writing on Rodeo, though, she doesn’t linger with too much analysis. A beat passes, and she’s back to levity. “In the morning I screamed for three hours at the Russians to shut up and be simple.”

 

• • •


In 1975, when de Mille was 70 years old, she had a stroke that paralyzed her right side. Instead of slowing down, she wrote five books. One of them, Reprieve, chronicles her life after the stroke in remarkable detail: the sensation of having half of her body feel like a heavy trap, or the inability to feel her own hand, even when it fluttered about on its own. In 1977 she returned to the public eye to perform her lecture-demonstration “Conversations about the Dance” at City Center. Joffrey Ballet dancers and other guests, including the tap legend Honi Cole, performed living illustrations of the dance history she recounted from the side of the stage. Her doctors knew that sitting and reading aloud for two hours would be a challenge, and they were standing by in case she needed them. But she found her real support in the audience. “They were with me. They were ahead of me. They intended that I succeed,” she writes. “With that collaboration from the audience I knew I could not show weakness or uncertainty. They expected me to be excellent, and so I obliged them. We did it together.” When the program ended, de Mille moved both of her arms for the first time in two years. She flung them out to her audience.

For de Mille the connection between audience and performer is the ultimate achievement. Pavlova “jumped, and [the audience] broke bonds with reality.” In Balanchine’s Apollo, a ballerina perches on the lead’s back to become his wings, and both “dancers and audience rise in ecstasy to thin heights.” When Alicia Alonso performs, “it is her core she gives us. It is our core.” Inherent in these descriptions is de Mille’s belief that the performing arts can embody, and even create, community.

In the last few minutes of her lecture, de Mille bemoaned the state of social dancing since the Cold War began. “The boys and girls didn’t dance with one another,” she said. “They danced in spite of one another. Our discotheques became an exercise in mass loneliness.” In these undisciplined dances “there was no sense whatever of mutual participation or trust.” As she spoke, a cluster of dancers thrashed about and eventually collapsed to the floor, as if the apocalypse had arrived. But in a bit of stage magic, the dancers stood back up, ran into formation, and did a joyous square dance. “We’ll survive with gallantry,” de Mille asserted. “Our parents taught us how.”

In a way, this was a slipshod ending, the sign of a forced and nostalgic idealism that may have something to do with why de Mille’s work fell out of fashion. But in Rodeo that same square dance, grounded in a plot but set away from its everyday dramas and slapstick gags, feels profound. De Mille had an enduring faith in the way dance could allow people to perform a more perfect and graceful union, whether at a party or on the two sides of a golden proscenium. The best performers, de Mille wrote in To a Young Dancer, “join forces with the waiting audience in high anticipation” of what’s to come, even before they go onstage. And when you dance well, she continued with considerable solemnity, “you are out of yourself—larger and more potent, more beautiful. . . . This is power. This is glory on earth. And it is yours nightly.” Power and glory? Yes. But if de Mille wore a tiara, you’d know it was a game of dress-up.

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