Dance to the Piper 
by Agnes de Mille.
NYRB, 368 pp., £11.99, February 2016, 978 1 59017 908 6
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The​ 1940s was the generative decade for American dance. George Balanchine, who was inching towards the founding of the New York City Ballet in 1948, produced eight works for other companies. Antony Tudor moved to New York from London in 1940 and quickly created two visions of psychosexual implosion, Pillar of Fire and Undertow. In 1944, Jerome Robbins burst onto the scene with Fancy Free, a ballet about three sailors on shore leave; the score was by Leonard Bernstein and the two soon stormed Broadway with On the Town. The same year Martha Graham premiered a rich, visually spare piece called Appalachian Spring in collaboration with Aaron Copland and Isamu Noguchi. In 1945, John Cage and Merce Cunningham would marry their exploratory sensibilities. All these artists were struggling, in the words of Lincoln Kirstein, who co-founded the New York City Ballet, ‘to impose a native meaning on a recalcitrant alien dance tradition’.

Agnes de Mille too broke through in the 1940s, with a ballet called Rodeo in 1942, its score commissioned from Copland. The following year her choreography for Oklahoma! revolutionised Broadway. The composer Richard Rodgers had just left his lyricist Lorenz Hart for Oscar Hammerstein II, and the new team realised that the usual dance razzmatazz wasn’t going to be right for a show about cowboys and farmers at the turn of the century. Before Rodeo, de Mille, who was in her late thirties, had been about to quit dance because her big break hadn’t come. When it did, she flew at the chance, redefining what dance could do in a musical. She transformed it from interludes of tap, shimmy or kick into an integral part of the story, revealing the characters while also moving the narrative forward. For the next twenty years she was the Queen of Broadway, putting her stamp on the musicals Carousel, One Touch of Venus, Bloomer Girl, Brigadoon, Gentleman Prefer Blondes and 110 in the Shade. She also wrote 11 books, among them a monumental biography of her colleague and confidante Martha Graham. Dance to the Piper was her first in 1951 and told the story, as she put it, ‘of an American dancer, a spoiled egocentric wealthy girl, who learned with difficulty to become a worker, to set and meet standards, to brace a Victorian sensibility to contemporary roughhousing, and who, with happy good fortune, participated by the side of great colleagues in a renaissance of the most ancient and magical of all the arts.’

Agnes George de Mille was born in New York City on 18 September 1905, into a family of storytellers and intellectuals. Her paternal grandfather, Henry de Mille, was an Episcopal minister who became a playwright, one of the theatre producer David Belasco’s first collaborators. He discouraged his sons William and Cecil from going into the theatre but they didn’t listen. William de Mille, Agnes’s father, became a successful New York playwright, known for dramas with a social conscience; Cecil became a Hollywood legend, the archetypal director of epic films. Agnes’s mother, Anna George, was the daughter of the political economist Henry George, author of the hugely influential Progress and Poverty (1879). Like her father, Anna was a crusader for equality and the single tax, assessed on land value. She believed that every minute of waking life should have a purpose: ‘Don’t just sit there, dearie,’ she would say, ‘do something!’ In Agnes, the first of their two daughters (Margaret was born in 1908), the performer and the crusader were joined, much to her parents’ chagrin. ‘I was brought up, my mother hoped, a lady,’ de Mille wrote, ‘and ladies, my father knew, did not dance.’

Agnes at first wanted to be an actress. ‘I practised acting every night in bed – dreadful scenes of having both my legs amputated, dying at the scaffold, coming upon the family unexpectedly stark and dead on the dining-room rug.’ A tendency to embrace the role of victim would run through de Mille’s life, but she seemed to draw strength from it. ‘I can have ideas,’ she wrote, ‘only under the stress of emotion.’

The family moved to Los Angeles in 1914, when Agnes was nine. Her father had suffered his first flop on Broadway and her mother suggested it was time to accept Cecil’s invitation to come and write film scripts. De Mille’s chapters on ‘Early Hollywood’ (‘broad, low wooden platforms, the stages, open to the weather’), ‘The Industry’ (‘We all went whenever there was anything spectacular, as later when Uncle Cecil fed Gloria Swanson to the lions or threw Conrad Nagel into a crocodile pit’) and ‘The Brothers’ (intellectual William and instinctive Cecil) show us cinema rising out of the dust. Agnes, too, found her footing in the West:

The descending grassy slopes filled me with a passion to run, to roll in delirium, to wreck my body on the earth … It is no accident that California produced our greatest dancers, Duncan and Graham, and fostered the work of St Denis, Doris Humphrey, Maracci and Collins. The eastern states sit in their folded scenery, tamed and remembering, but in California the earth and sky clash, and space is dynamic.

Back in New York, after seeing the Danish ballerina Adeline Genée at a matinée, de Mille had asked to begin ballet classes. Her request was denied. Then, aged 13, she saw Anna Pavlova perform. ‘I sat with the blood beating in my throat,’ de Mille wrote. ‘Nothing in [my father’s] world or my uncle’s prepared me for theatre as I saw it that Saturday afternoon.’ With perfect recall, she describes Pavlova’s ‘ceaseless vibration’: ‘The movie cameras of her day could not record her allegro. Her feet and hands photographed as a blur. Bright little bird bones, delicate bird sinews! She was all fire and steel wire.’ De Mille’s portraits, drawn from life and vividly detailed, are one of the joys of Dance to the Piper, and she describes just about every important figure in theatre and dance of the 1920s, 1930s and early 1940s – stars, producers, up-and-comers like Martha Graham and the clubbish Ballet Rambert (Antony Tudor, Frederick Ashton, Hugh Laing). In her writing and in her choreography it is de Mille’s gift for portraiture that is most evident. (Take a look at the dance-hall girls of the dream ballet in the film version of Oklahoma! – who but de Mille could get such a dirty leer from a rolling shoulder?)

Agnes was undone by Pavlova, but still her parents said no to dance classes. ‘Matters might have gone on this way for years if my sister’s arches hadn’t providentially fallen,’ she wrote. ‘We went straight away to the Theodore Kosloff School of Imperial Russian Ballet.’ Ballet is particularly seductive, she writes, because a body schooled in its technique takes on ‘the elements of abstract design’ and becomes ‘a dream body liberated from trouble’. One of the great affronts of de Mille’s life came with adolescence, when the spider-thin child found herself in a wide-hipped, deep-bosomed body that was ‘a shame, a trap and a betrayal. But I could break it. I was a dancer.’ To make matters worse, her pert nose matured, seemingly overnight, into a Roman one: her father’s. Realising she ‘was not going to be a beautiful woman, I gave up caring how I looked – or thought I did. Except in costume.’ She wasn’t to be a ballerina and under her father’s unrelenting disapproval, de Mille gave up dancing and went to study English at UCLA. Inevitably she began staging dances there. ‘I usually danced about Beauty and how one should be ready to die for it … I suspect the student body must have had pretty nearly enough of me.’ Late one night, catching his daughter practising her pas de bourrée in the hallway, William de Mille commented: ‘All this education and I’m still just the father of a circus.’ Agnes could only agree: ‘I was graduated cum laude and all I longed for was to dance the mazurka in Sylphides, and I knew I never could.’

Now what? It was 1926 and 16 years stood between de Mille and Rodeo. ‘Had I foreseen what lay ahead of me,’ she writes, ‘I think I should not have had the courage to go on.’ With infusions of cash from both parents – they divorced the year de Mille graduated – she began the long, slow process of finding a perch in a profession that didn’t seem to want her. Not built for ballet, not leggy enough for the chorus, a never-been-kissed snob who, she writes, ‘had never hunted a single day’s work’, she was forced to put on her own shows, solo recitals to be performed on rented stages, in costumes made by her mother, rarely turning a profit.

What were these dances like? It’s hard to say. She was a solo act, as Isadora Duncan had been, but whereas Duncan had protégés with long memories, de Mille’s early solos and duets (she sometimes used male partners) have been lost. De Mille herself describes the early pieces as ‘realistic character sketches, dramatic rather than choreographic’. This suggests she was plying a hybrid form between acting and dancing, in the vein of Duncan’s early work. But Duncan was consciously artless and her dances felt impulsive and improvised, while de Mille’s sound airtight and overdetermined. Her movement vocabulary was pulled from ballet, tap, pantomime and American folk dance: ‘I clung to old dance steps as women cling to their grandmother’s china,’ she writes. The polished little pieces that she was performing suggest a homegrown art dance – accomplished yet a bit precious. Graham, by contrast, was summoning a chthonic power.

De Mille’s concerts, however, were often critical successes and she was learning, by trial and error (mostly error), to choreograph musicals. She was asked to make dances for Uncle Cecil’s Cleopatra (1934) and MGM’s Romeo and Juliet (1936), but her ideas were overcomplicated. There were continual trips abroad to perform and study – to Paris, to Brussels, to London – again like Duncan, who dealt with blanks in her future by packing her bags and moving on. De Mille didn’t have Duncan’s glamour or sexual abandon, instead, ‘it seems I was very funny, I who always wanted to die for beauty.’ Duncan ‘broke all the traditional moralities and lived like a bacchante’, de Mille writes. ‘She indicated you couldn’t be an artist unless you did. These ideas tortured me – I had been brought up to believe you must love the man you kissed, pay your bills, keep your word.’

John Martin, the dance critic of the New York Times, saw that de Mille was doing something with dance that couldn’t be categorised. ‘You belong to the theatre,’ he told her. ‘One can be very moving in the theatre.’ He was right. She began creating works for the newly formed Ballet Theatre in 1940, and had some success with Three Virgins and a Devil in 1941, though it didn’t bring momentum. Then there was Rodeo.

‘If​ it is possible for a life to change at one given moment, if it is possible for all movement, growth and accumulated power to become apparent at one single point, then my hour struck at 9.40, 16 October 1942.’ Because the war was on and it was suddenly, urgently essential to employ native talent, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which spent the war touring the US, decided to commission ‘an American ballet by an American and not by Massine’. De Mille submitted a proposal to Sergei Ivanovitch Denham. He gave her the commission, saying ‘let us do this thing with lyricism and with beauty,’ and christened the ballet Colorado Pastorale. De Mille produced a work that was lyrical and beautiful, but also spare, dusty, wistful, taut, tough, playful and poignant, without a pointe shoe in sight, and entitled Rodeo. She turned a company of classical dancers into crotch-sprung cowboys who rode their trotting, rearing, racing horses with nonchalant bravado. Dancers in pinafores sashayed and swanned, fanning their skirts, wooing the men down from their horses. With her own brand of abandon – exuberant American slapstick – de Mille danced the role of the Cowgirl, a tomboy who wants to win the love of the Head Wrangler by riding with the men. Even today, watching the Cowgirl’s rattled leaps and falls, her horse running away with her and bucking her off, you feel that dancer’s delirium de Mille wrote of – ‘wrecking her body on the earth’ – and her identification with the girl who wants to gallop with the boys.

Rodeo had de Mille’s meticulous attention to period detail, but also a newfound compositional authority. Her hand with pattern – herds, rows, windmills, wheels and reels – was unforced. Her storytelling was deft, and her depiction of mythic America – those totemic men, the space between them, the quarter-horse dashes across the stage – was energised and elegiac. It’s as if she’d returned to the West of her childhood, to the sun-bleached plank stages of early Hollywood and the outsized emotion of silent movies. In Rodeo all of de Mille’s influences are distilled into a single voice. Classicism is tethered to the more expressionistic weight of Graham’s modernism, and then enlarged by de Mille’s gift for the loaded gesture.

At the premiere there were 22 curtain calls. The telegram from the Theater Guild’s Terry Helburn, who was developing Green Grow the Lilacs into the musical that would become Oklahoma!, had already been sent. And de Mille, who had seemed a minor figure, was suddenly a major one. Five months later Oklahoma! opened. Dance to the Piper concludes with its success. At every performance servicemen stood three rows deep at the back of the orchestra, many watching the folksy, joyful show with tears streaming down their cheeks. ‘It symbolised home,’ de Mille would say, ‘and what they were going to die for.’

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