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Agnes de Mille dicusses her career as a dancer and choreographer

BROADCAST: May. 11, 1960 | DURATION: 00:45:04


Dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille discusses her career.


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Studs Terkel Tonight's program was a rebroadcast of a conversation with Agnes de Mille, who's been described as a dance visionary which she certainly was, who died October seventh this year at the age of 88. Interview took place 33 years ago

Studs Terkel Agnes de Mille, I, I had to brush up on ya. I knew about you. I, I, I wanted to get hip more of what you've been doing and I, I read Dance to the Piper last night. This is the first book of your autobiography. I was so moved. I was so moved by, I guess it was the affirmation throughout. The trials and tribulations of your life, and how you finally crashed through just because of your belief in, in, in what you were doing. And there, there's a quote in the beginning, perhaps this might be the catapult which to launch things the Havelock Ellis quote in The Dance of Life that you use here "Dancing is the loftiest, the most moving, the most beautiful of the arts, because it is no mere translation or abstraction from life. It is life itself.

Agnes de Mille That's a wonderful quotation, I think. It's ve- always moves me very much. Every time I hear it.

Studs Terkel Would you say that's pretty much your credo, too?

Agnes de Mille Well, yes it is. I, I'm not narrow in my love for dancing. I, I like all sorts of things. I have a son that thinks I'm crazy. He likes baseball. I have- my husband works with Mr. Hurok. He's Hurok's assistant, and so we have a great deal of music in our lives. My father was a writer. My grandfather was Henry George, the political scientist, so I, I'm aware of other fields that have- They do impinge on dancing, but because I think all art is, is interrelated with life. But, I think- Oh, there's so many things to be interested in.

Studs Terkel What- Isn't, isn't it your awareness of all these other avenues that makes your choreography what it is?

Agnes de Mille I don't know. [laughs]

Studs Terkel [laughs]

Agnes de Mille I just do what comes natural.

Studs Terkel Suppose we were to use the book itself as sort of a guide, and I don't mean to haphazardly go through it. But just, since I read it quickly last night, I'm thinking of the various chapters that moved me even more than others--

Agnes de Mille Did you like the first chapter on Hollywood? You see I grew up in Hollywood, and I loved Hollywood. It's the custom now for people to say what a dreadful place it is, and how miserable everyone is. They weren't when I was there. The studios were building, and it was full of excitement. It was, it- there was the real sense of pioneering in a new art form. I can't tell you how excited and full of zest the men were, and it was a country town. There were dirt streets and Hollywood Boulevard. How it was shaded with pepper trees and avocados and palms, and it was a city in the state of, of most delightful growth and flux. There was no smog, may I add that quickly? That has come recently, and it is disastrous, I think to the whole country.

Studs Terkel Would you say the smog, just thinking now symbolically- The smog is part of what had happened to Hollywood since those very thrilling pioneer day- the medium was new when you were there.

Agnes de Mille Yes.

Studs Terkel Chaplain Senate- your uncle, your father.

Agnes de Mille Yes, it was, and I, I don't know about symbolism, but the smog is a fact--

Studs Terkel Yeah--

Agnes de Mille And I was out there doing Oklahoma! and I stayed nine months while I was making Oklahoma! there as a movie. And out of that nine, nine months, there were 10 clear days, and I don't think that's a good percentage. When I was a kid there was always a ground mist, but it lifted by noon. It was burnt off. And then you could see the snow mountains on one side and, and Catalina on the other. Way down south and north and, and the air was very clear and sweet smelling. It's pretty foul now, and you can't see anything. It's, it's as bad as London fogs. And I've been in those many times--

Studs Terkel There's something you say on the subject of California, as you remember it as a child. The, the, the forest and the beauty. You spoke of many of the dancers that came from California, and you pointed out

Agnes de Mille Yes, Isadora Duncan was a Californian. Martha Graham, our greatest, was born in Pittsburgh, but she grew up in California. Carmelita Maracci, who was a very fine artist, is a Californian. Doris Humphrey spent all her- She's from Illinois, but she spent her whole youth and learning period in California. I don't know whether this matters too much, because there were great dancers like Sybil Shearer from the east. She comes from upland New York.

Studs Terkel I think, perhaps we, we, we might touch upon some of these a- dancers- I, I was about to say actresses but that's a good slip, I think because your- We'll come to that later. The matter of acting and dance and your theory about it. You mentioned Martha Graham. She certainly was a- The chapter on her is a most moving one.

Agnes de Mille Well, she is the Nonesuch. There is nothing like her in the world, I think. She's probably the greatest choreographer living, I believe this. She's one of the greatest American artists in any field, and now she's no longer young, but she's just having a season in New York of two weeks. And she's done two new ya- new works, which are brand new and brand new in point of view and in content. And I don't know how it's possible for a woman to go on year after year. She's like Picasso just each, each couple of years, she comes out with a brand new set of ideas. And with all the excitement and energy of a very young creative talent.

Studs Terkel Here's a question of not deteriorating with age, but growing with it.

Agnes de Mille It's, it's magnificent. It's like Verdi and it's a great inspiration to everybody in the art world. She's gathered around her a company of dancers that Walter Terry of the Herald Tribune said he didn't think he'd seen a finer company anywhere in the world. And it's true it's the smartest most stylish stage. I'm using those terms in the ultimate sense. Not that it follows a fashion but that it sets a style, and it's when the curtain goes up you know something extremely important and wonderful is going to happen, and it does.

Studs Terkel Way back I saw American document I think that she did--

Agnes de Mille That's way back--

Studs Terkel Way, way back--

Agnes de Mille Well that had marvelous things in it, didn't you think--

Studs Terkel Oh, it was there again, she used- It was American. I mean, I use this in, in, in its noble sense [unintelligible] and letter to the world via Emily Dickinson.

Agnes de Mille Wasn't that moving? She doesn't do that now, I'm sorry to say, but she does other things. She's going right through the Greek classic tragedies, because I think she thinks these are the universal passions now, and she's making her statement about them. And their recreations and they are classic in all the senses that you can use the word.

Studs Terkel Well, the influences on your life were varied and many. Aside from that of your family and dancers, there's one chapter here that's to me- I was almost bawling as I read it, it was your- as you were a small girl you saw Pavlova.

Agnes de Mille Oh well, this was not a, a unique experience. I've met so many girls and women whose lives were quite changed by her. When you see the films of her now as you can at the Museum of Modern Art there's really almost no hint of the effect she had. In the first place, we hadn't seen much great dancing and almost no ballet dancing. So our eyes were innocent, but she came on, she had that sense of electrifying excitement that Callas has, and I don't know anybody else that has quite that. There were technicians in the day that could out-dance her technically, and now I think she could be out-danced in many way, but she could not be outperformed. And what she did in the way of reaching an audience and making them sit up straight and feel that they had a regenerating experience is just extraordinary. I used to go out and just cry with sheer excitement.

Studs Terkel What was seeing her that- You always want to dance?

Agnes de Mille I did from the first time I saw Genée, who was- that when I was a wee child in New York and that was a star of the Danish Ballet quite different kind of technique it was very precise and dainty, and I don't remember much about that. I was too young. But like most little girls, I wanted to put on a fluffy skirt and twinkle around, but mother said it would, you know, not be suitable. When I was a little girl young women didn't go into dancing schools as a rule, and my father had a horror of it he- He said he thought he'd like me to use the other end of my body more like the head. And he wanted me to be educated. He, he said dancing was a form of acrobatics, and it was a hard life, and it wasn't a very fulfilling life. And he was just dead against it, and so I wasn't permitted to study until I reached my teens which is a little bit late. I had a stiff body anyhow, lumpy.

Studs Terkel Something about you the [selfless?] that's quite beautiful when you're on that stage. You know that, I mean

Agnes de Mille I don't know anything when I get on a stage, except what I'm doing.

Studs Terkel You say you don't know anything when you get on the stage--

Agnes de Mille Except what I'm doing. I can't think for one moment what I look like. I'm in- that, that has to have happened in the studio, and when I look in the mirror I'm generally affronted. But if I feel it through I think this is the essence of performing. If I really feel what I'm doing and keep my mind on that then you will see what I want you to see, and you'll forget what I hope you'll forget--

Studs Terkel We will see what you want us to see--

Agnes de Mille Yes because I'm seeing it. And I think this is performing--

Studs Terkel Projecting--

Agnes de Mille Yes. And then of course you have to use taste and discrimination, you mustn't attempt which you simply cannot do. [pause in recording]

Studs Terkel Let's see how Agnes de Mille came to be. What she is as a choreographer, dance director, actress, and also director of act- we'll come to that. There was Pavlova and the classical dance. Then how did you come toward the, they then- Graham introduced something new in your life.

Agnes de Mille Well, in the mean time, I had studied ballet, because my sister's arches fell. And the pediatrician- I don't mean the pediatrician, I mean the- you know what I mean--

Studs Terkel The, the- what is the word--

Agnes de Mille Well,

Studs Terkel The

Agnes de Mille The bald- the bone man must have an

Agnes de Mille Churopodist--

Agnes de Mille No, no, no, no, no, no. The orthopedist said, "Go have her take ballet dancing. It's the best thing in the world for feet." So what one sister did the other sister did in our house, always. Same clothes, same food, same everything or there'd be murder in the nursery. And I went right along, but you see it meshed with me. She was bored. I think her feet strengthened. I haven't noticed, but mine of course permanently pointed. And then my father wanted me to go to college, so I had to give up dancing for that. And then after college I said now I've done it, now please may I go back to the bar? So I did go back to the bar, but it was late. And then I started having a professional career in the theater, and that was very slow. Then I met Martha Graham, and she had a tremendous influence on me. But she wouldn't let me study with her, because she said I had to find my own way. This was very perspicacious of her. I think, you know, she had many pupils, but she said you, you stay by yourself and sweat it out by yourself. If you come to me, you'll imitate me, and it'll harm you. So I did stay by myself. It was long and dreadful, and I felt that my field would be folk dancing. I thought I might be able to be a very great folk dancer, if I worked very hard, because I had such a feeling for people. And the, the folk dancing as the residuum of all the people have known and experienced. And I couldn't be a great ballet dancer that was obvious, because I had started late. And I didn't have the imagination or the vision to become a great innovator the way Graham is. But I thought with taste and love and, and patience, I could remind people of what the- had gone before through the folk forms. And that's what I made a specialty out, then I went to England and studied fo- I studied folk dancing there. I studied all the pre-classic forms with [dommage], but I studied ballet in London. And I've been very lucky in one way. I've- I'm always out of patience with where I am and whom I'm with, and I grouse the whole time. My son said to me- I remember Jean Kerr has written a perfectly lovely book called Please Don't Eat the Daisies, and I said to my little boy here's a wonderful book by Mrs. Kerr, and there's a lot about Christopher her son in it. And he said, "Who's that?" And I said, "You remember that boy we, we had dinner up their house." He said, "Oh yes, he's the one that choked me," and I said, "Oh I don't think he tried to do that." He said, "He didn't try. He did it," and I said, "Nevermind about that. Mrs. Kerr's written a very funny book." And I read a few lines, and he rolled on the ground. He said, "Why don't you write like that?" And I said, "I can't," and he said, "Try." And I said, "Wouldn't do any good trying this is great talent." But I said, "I've written about you." He said, "Oh I know the kind of books you write everybody feels sorry for themselves"--

Studs Terkel [laughs]

Agnes de Mille Well, out of the babes. But I do always grouse, and it always turns out that I'm in the very best possible spot for me. When I went to England it was because I couldn't get on in Hollywood or the New York stage. And I went to a little theater in London in a back street and much against my will I found myself smack in the middle of the big British renaissance in dancing and my bar mates. I don't mean the drinking type bar but the Plié-ing type bar were Frederick Ashton and Antony Tudor and Alicia Markova, and it- I was slow at catching on, but I suddenly realized that this was history where I was.

Studs Terkel You were going to suggested Tudor, were you not? Ballet theater.

Agnes de Mille That's right.

Studs Terkel He was unknown then. You- you're the one who suggested him. I think we should point out before we forget, you mentioned the, the importance of folk dancing in your life that you- your Gold Rush ballet, the opera ballet will be performed over television this Thursday night--

Agnes de Mille Yeah CBS. It's a- it's a rebroadcast--

Studs Terkel That's the one with- based on the gold rush day- days

Agnes de Mille It's the story of a ghost town in California, and we went back and got all the old tunes. And there were some Lerner-Loewe songs thrown in. But, but there's a lot of very lovely old material in it.

Studs Terkel But you spoke of, of folk dancers and folk songs, the importance of them, and you integrate them and what you, you had and what you've been doing.

Agnes de Mille Yes. And, and you see since it was difficult when I was studying- a student to see a lot of very good dancing, because there weren't many travelling companies here. And since there are no libraries of, of dances to study, the way young musicians can study music or young playwrights can study the literature of the theater. The only thing that was available were the folk forms, and you can learn a lot if you stud- there's not a bad folk dance in the world, of course, because if it didn't work, it wasn't danced.

Studs Terkel Now as you mentioned, you- when in England, you went to Cornwall to see the Mayday--

Agnes de Mille Yes

Studs Terkel Padstow festival--

Agnes de Mille Way down wherever I could--

Studs Terkel Yeah--

Agnes de Mille And they're very simple these folk forms as our dances are running sets. In a way they're simple and in a way they're not, but they always work. And if you can learn something from the magic of this, you will have learned a great deal about structure and form in dancing.

Studs Terkel Before we come to some of the key moments in your life as a dancer and choreographer, something you said earlier I'd like to challenge you on. You said you were quoting your boy. You write books in which people feel sorry for themselves. I didn't feel this at all. I felt very- I felt that you were quite strong here. You knocked on an awful a lot of doors.

Agnes de Mille Well, I did. But then so does everyone. And as I say possibly it, it was better for me in the long run. If I had been taken into my uncle's lap, and he thought I was not photographable, you know, that I had- not pretty enough. He said so all the time and that hurt my feelings. It also kept me out of the studios, but if I'd been taken in, I might not have searched and found something as individual. And if I'd had a quick success in the Broadway that I first tried to make a success in, which was pretty vulgar. If I hadn't had to go to England and study. Look at the people I worked with, my colleagues now are leading the theater. I gave Jerry Robbins his first solo bit. You know, this is in the long run, it's more fun.

Studs Terkel It's because you were probing and groping and did not settle for less. That this came about, isn't it? I mean you, you, you could have had an easy way, really.

Agnes de Mille I couldn't have really, because the, the passport was a pretty face, and I didn't have that.

Studs Terkel Yet there's something in here, since you mentioned your uncle, Cecil B. DeMille. There's a- There are three sentences to me are key to you and to him. Certainly a marvelous showman, a flamboyant figure, one of the most colorful in all Hollywood history. Yet he said to you he'd put you on the road early. Get set- Get something set in two months. And you said in two years. He couldn't wait for that, because he thought of a certain showmanship now--

Agnes de Mille That's right, yeah--

Studs Terkel Well

Agnes de Mille I had some sense, I guess I had a little sense.

Studs Terkel But is difference say between without demeaning the memory of your uncle, who was a great showman, between, between I say a great showman and an artist is the

Agnes de Mille I don't think slow growth, he realized what that was. The real unfolding of the individuality, he himself had been slow to reach success. He hadn't been a quick success, as a young man he was a failure. He was a failure in New York, and he was a failure at almost everything he did. But he smashed his way through with the most tremendous courage and, and stamina and verve. Only we were poles apart. In, in all our tastes, strangely enough though he did appreciate me. And when finally I did Rodeo and performed out there, he liked it. And he said to me, "Well you could get into pictures," and I said, "But you said I was ugly." He said, "Well you are, but it doesn't seem to matter. Nobody minds." [pause in recording]

Studs Terkel Before we touch Rodeo, you came back from England, and the- Lucia Chase formed the-

Agnes de Mille Ballet Theater.

Studs Terkel Ballet Theater. Would you mind telling us a bit of that whole period,

Agnes de Mille Well, yes. She was forming a, a company, and there was a young man named Richard Pleasant, who'd seen me rehearsing in, in a studio in Hollywood, a dance studio not a moving picture studio. And he had said to me there, "Someday I'm going to have a big company, and I'll give you a chance to choreograph," and well I, you know, that was just talk. But here he called me up, and he said, "We're forming this company, and will you come to lunch?" And so I came to lunch with Miss Chase, and she really was. She was just- had a pencil and a paper and think of- think of 20 good choreographers. So I thought of 20 good ones, she wrote them all down, and the wires were going out that afternoon all over the world. And they were going to bring over Frederick Ashton, who's now the head choreographer of the Royal Ballet. But I said, "I don't think you can get him, because he's tied up with Sadlers Wells" and that's the same company- the earlier name. But there is one that is not recognized in London that I think is equally great, and in some ways more original, and it's Antony Tudor. Well he came over then at their request, and he did for them a series of ballets that have made history. Lilac Garden, Pillar of Fire, Gala Performance, Undertow. Well it was just one masterpiece after

Studs Terkel And yours, Fall River Legend and--

Agnes de Mille No, that's mine.

Studs Terkel I know I'm coming to that--

Agnes de Mille Oh

Studs Terkel Fall River Legend was yours, during the Ballet

Agnes de Mille That, that came later. Yes. Well, I did Rodeo for the Ballet Russe. That, that, that was an interesting thing, because I was- I did several ballets for Ballet Theater, but they were small ones. And Ballet Theater sort of went on great tours, and I was kind of left out. But then I met someone who said- the war came, you see, and they said Ballet Russe is looking for a novelty, and the novelty would be an American ballet done by an American for a change. Well, there didn't seem to be but two Americans. And I got to the office first, and they said, "Have you got a story?" And I didn't have a story, but I made it up on the subway. And I got down there quick and shoved it under Mr. Denham's nose, and he was very startled because he didn't seem to think it was, you know, a very spectacular type of thing. And he kept saying he wanted a red barn. I wanted to do cowboy things. He wanted a red barn. I said, "They don't have barns out in the west, Mr. Denham, because they are a- Herds are roughly 8,000 to 12,000 head, and that would be some barn." Well, he said, "A red barn would be so pretty," and well we had fights like that right along. But in the long run, we got it done, and it's Rodeo. And I made them dance in a way that they had never danced before, and I introduced tapdancing. And the [French - répétiteur?] that's the man who rehearses them, put his eye to the keyhole, because I work behind locked doors. And then phoned to Mr. Denham said, "She's reducing us to the level of a nightclub," but you see it was all in Russian, so I couldn't understand. It didn't hurt my feelings any, and the audience loved it. I think they loved it especially 'cause it was wartime, and we were reminding ourselves--

Studs Terkel Now wasn't there more to it than that? Aside from the- you, your choreography concept, and the Copland music. Oh, what about- now did Copland write this for you or how

Agnes de Mille Yes. He did--

Studs Terkel How'd that work out?

Agnes de Mille No, he wrote it. I- they said, "Who do you want for a composer?" I said, "Let's start at the top. Let's get Aaron Copland." Well they phoned Aaron Copland, and he said, "Okay, send me a scenario." So he came down to tea, and I told him the story. And he said, "That's alright that's fine." Then he went home, and he said, "I've got a nice lyric piece." And I said, "I can't do lyric dancing," and he said, "Well, that's too bad, because I've written it." I think he was lying. I think he had something in an old drawer.

Studs Terkel [laughs]

Agnes de Mille But he did play it for me, and it was just perfectly lovely. So I said, "Well, I'll try." And then he said, "Break it down into minute lengths. How many minutes of each scene," which I did. And then he went away to, to Tanglewood, where he taught, and he composed the piece. And this is a story, I don't think it's in the book, it's quite fun. I went- I went away and started working out the dance steps I- in London before I'd come home. I had worked out a lot of American things on some English girls, so I had a start toward the new style, and we worked separately. And then I went up to Jacob's Pillow, Ted Shawn's dance theater, you see. And I was on the program which opened the new theater there, doing square dances and one thing and another. And Copland came over from Tanglewood with a, a young pianist and played me the score that night. Start to finish. And it was marvelous. And he had it on that thin paper that they used for multigraphs music, and it kept falling off the keyboard. And this boy kept picking it up and putting it back on and playing at sight superbly. And then he'd say to Copland, "That's pretty dull you better fix that up." and I went, "Well of all the insolence." And it was Lenny Bernstein--

Studs Terkel That figured didn't it--

Agnes de Mille Well, that figured.

Studs Terkel [laughs]

Agnes de Mille So, that's the way we worked. And then when I got on the road with the Russian ballet, I realized that I was going to change the end of the story a little bit, and the girl was going to get the man that I hadn't thought she was gonna get. And she only had eight bars to change her mind and that didn't seem very decent somehow. And I said, "Could we have 16 bars for her to change her mind in? It's more ladylike," and he said, "No, you could not." So she changed her mind in eight bars. And that's the way it stands.

Studs Terkel Well, you describe this- it's a very thrilling chapter, of course, there was this, this was obviously a, a key

Agnes de Mille This turned my life. There's just no question. I don't think one single episode ever changes your life. But there are moments when the culmination of years slip over into the next era, and the direction alters. And it just happened at that time on the clock that night. We got- we got 18 or 20 curtain calls, and the whole of the Theatre Guild and Rodgers and Hammerstein were sitting in a box. This did not go unnoticed. The 18 calls were not lost on them, and so then came Oklahoma!

Studs Terkel It was natural that Oklahoma! follow Rodeo and that was- I think it was inevitable that you would have to choreograph Oklahoma!

Agnes de Mille Well I, I had to fight for it, because Oscar wanted me. He'd always liked my work. He'd seen it way back when I was doing concerts with Sybil, Sybil Shearer.

Studs Terkel Sybil Shearer was now in Winnetka here--

Agnes de Mille That's right, but he never knew how to use it. And Dick Rogers had never seen me, and he said, "Well this is great fun, and it's dandy and all. But we're not sure she can handle, handle the rough and tumble of Broadway rehearsals on the clock with a mixture of dances and, and it's a much- It's a much rougher kind of work." And so when they, they- I was taken in probably on sufferance. I didn't realize this, but Rodgers sat in the rehearsal fixing me with beady eyes in a way that was just absolutely unnerving. And I remember two or three of the girls came up to me in a sweat, saying they're watching me, and we're going to be fired. And I said, "Toots, they're not watching you. They're watching me." And at the third day, he slapped me on the back and said, "Okay, kid," and then he relaxed.

Studs Terkel You brought some- obviously, well we know the history now, this revolutionized the American musical comedy in which the dance, the dance director- the choreo- became a key figure. It's the first time ballet and, and modern dance were ever integrated in a musical comedy, weren't they?

Agnes de Mille Well, Balanchine had done some very fine things, and then in Slaughter on 10th Avenue, which was his, you know. That was a- this was a--

Studs Terkel Zorina--

Agnes de Mille Yes, yes--

Studs Terkel Zorina--

Agnes de Mille His wife- he was married to her then. This was integrated right in but using the dance as a part of the story and using the dancers as characters in the environment, so that they maintain their character right through the whole play, I think was new. And it was- it was successful, you see, so that people have done it since. There was such a spate of dream ballets. I've only done two by the way, but there were so many dream ballets that really it's just sickening for a while. Now, it's gone farther and after some years Rodgers and Hammerstein had me do a play called Allegro which was to be largely dance action and that was not the success the other things were, but it had some very beautiful things in it. And I think it hasn't been remembered or appreciated for some of

Studs Terkel That's the 1\one of the young doctor

Agnes de Mille Yes, well the story was weak, and I don't think Roger's score was as strong as others he's, he's composed. There were a lot of faults, but it had certain scenes that were very, very imaginative. And this same idea has come to fruition in West Side Story, where I think possibly the musical theater and Broadway, if it continues like West Side Story through lyric action. This way, we may get a kind of opera which is indigenous to us and will be largely in movement with some voices. That will be as successful and as meaningful and beautiful as the Italian singing opera in the nineteenth century.

Studs Terkel You see a new form that a new American

Agnes de Mille Yes, I do. I think we're movers. I think the sixteenth and seventeenth century people were speakers. I think language was their medium, and I think the eighteenth and nineteenth century theater people were singers and musicians, and music was their medium. But this is an age of visual movement, and I think TV and movies and all you know this is augmenting this thing. And I think Broadway or our theater- it's synonymous are going to develop extraordinary action dramas, lyric action dramas. I hope so.

Studs Terkel Well, since you've mentioned the word action dramas and certainly there's a thread throughout here. There would be no Oklahoma! without Rodeo. There could have been no West Side Story without Oklahoma! and, and whatever else that will follow could not have been- will be without a West Side Story. This general thread throughout--

Agnes de Mille Oh, this is history.

Studs Terkel So we come to the form itself. You as choreographer. You said there's- line is very narrow now in what you do between dancing and acting. The dancers are really character- they're not just, you know, beautiful dolls or boy and girl dolls as in many of the--

Agnes de Mille Well--

Studs Terkel Classical ballets--

Agnes de Mille In the

Studs Terkel class-- Individuals--

Agnes de Mille The classical ballet is an old form, and it was long and developing. And it developed out of the folk dance forms and out of the court dances, which in turn developed out of the folk dance forms. This is highly abstract movement as always. But the closer we get to theater, you get more and more realistic acting. Now I feel that I am a better director than I am a choreographer, and I am a better actress than I am a dancer. And since I had to work out of my own body, I put my own stamp on things, and there is a good deal of nearly realistic acting. It isn't absolutely realistic, of course, because it's measured to music, and it's somewhat abstracted. I think possibly I've explored that, that kind of acting as far as it can go, but it has enriched the, the idiom that lost some what, and it has gotten away from the highly stereotyped pantomime of the nineteenth century, which was in tone with a very stylized ballet dancing. Now you find dancers doing things that aren't exactly realistic, but they are easily recognizable and understandable by an ordinary audience. And I think that's a good thing. I think you shouldn't have to, you know, go through an initiation before you even understand what people are doing on the stage.

Studs Terkel Something you said the, the very something in the book that highlights what you just said. Fall River Legend, the story with Nora Kaye [unintelligible] the one you choreographed--

Agnes de Mille Yes--

Studs Terkel There was this soldier or the sailor sitting there. These, these are actions larger than life that she's doing, but what we know what she's feeling. She throws herself into the arms of this man, she doesn't love, and the sailor said, "Oh my god." You know- he, he, he may never have seen--

Agnes de Mille Well I think--

Studs Terkel A

Agnes de Mille I think art to be communicating, should be this way. Now I'm not saying, because it wouldn't be- you couldn't be- defend such a point of view that all art must communicate immediately. The newer music is not readily understandable. At first hearing and the newer painting is not readily understandable at first seeing, but in the theater there's not much time. You have to get something before you leave that evening, because there's no retrospect in the theater, you see. And I think this particular form has to get through emotionally, and if it doesn't it has failed.

Studs Terkel It has to get through emotionally, you say.

Agnes de Mille Absolutely.

Studs Terkel Here then the, the, the fusion of both the acting and, and the dance seemed to just what- highlight the emotion at least they did- I remember in seeing- It was Fall River Legend I saw and something called Undertow, too, another one--

Agnes de Mille Yes that's, that's Tudor's--

Studs Terkel That's

Agnes de Mille That's a remarkable

Studs Terkel In which I, I remember I said to a friend of mine. "This is better than a drama"--

Agnes de Mille It's,

Studs Terkel Because it, it highlights. Beyond it, it's- it was

Agnes de Mille Well it's the large- the large gesture and poet- poetic drama can do this. Anything I think that's stylized music or poetry or, or color or all these things. There's an aura of something much greater around the actual fact, and I think realistic drama sometimes has this but not always, and that's why I think the, the permanent classics always have some one of these other elements. Poetry or music or something. It's a preservative.

Studs Terkel A preservative.

Agnes de Mille Yes.

Studs Terkel Just as you said earlier about poetic drama. You know saying even more than realistic drama might say more and much more- Essence form, and you spoke of, we're being, we live in a visual age. This is then visual poetic drama.

Agnes de Mille That's

Studs Terkel That which you see coming.

Agnes de Mille That's what I- Yes. [pause in recording]

Studs Terkel What have you now that- This is not a trade secret since it's a very fascinating chapter in your book, the one called Contributions. How you go about when- is everything when, when you have an assignment, and it's one that excites you- Is it all- do you visualize it all as you're alone--

Agnes de Mille I try to. But, you know, I try to do as much work beforehand as I can because dancing is, is difficult. Choreography is hard because you're working on living bodies, and they get tired, and they get bored. And, and if you've lost your- it, it the equivalent would be if a conductor actually composed on his musicians while they sat before him, and that would be very tedious to them. And it's very difficult if you've tried to entertain people in a, in a drawing room by telling them a story, let's see, and you see that they're bored. You stop being funny. Well, if you're trying to create, and they're bored and exhausted, you stop being creative. It's just that simple. So that the job of a choreographer is to, to be immersed in the idea and to be creative and to work out all the technical problems and still hold the attention and the energies of his group. He has to work on many levels at once. Now dancers are very patient, and they're very disciplined people. They're the most disciplined people in the theater. But if you're fumbling past a point, their legs hurt, and they just plain sit down, and everybody gets depressed. So that I- to spare myself and them all these moments of, of waste and, and depression, I work out as much as I can beforehand. I do it on my own body, and I do it on paper, and I do it everywhere I can. I can work out acting very well- was that I told you I am an actress, but I can't work out all the technical lifts and things, because I'm one person and a woman, and so that when I'm transferring my ideas onto a man's body enormous changes have to take place. Well, sometimes this is disappointing and things I'd thought would work don't work, but sometimes it's very revealing. And they will catch on to an idea and expand it and explode it, way beyond what you thought. These are the rewards of the trade. I work a great deal beforehand preparing. In New York, we have to work on union hours, and they're very expensive. And they're very circumscribed because of the expense. So you have to deliver right on the clock. This is nerve-wracking.

Studs Terkel As you- even though you're- you prepare as much as you can beforehand by yourself. There's still the flexibility allowed, new ideas--

Agnes de Mille Oh yes--

Studs Terkel That occur to you during rehearsals--

Agnes de Mille Frederick Ashton. I- I'm going to do a book for the golden book series on dancing, and I've been working on it three years and as far as I can tell it's going to take the rest of my natural life to finish. But one of the things that has been very interesting to me is interviewing choreographers wherever I could meet them around the world. And I had a long talk with Freddy Ashton who is the chief choreographer of the Royal Ballet, and he said he prepares very, very hard and long and that he vomited his way to rehearsals. And I understood that perfectly, sheer nervous funk--

Agnes de Mille Nervousness--

Agnes de Mille And this man has done more ballets than anybody else, even including Balanchine, and with greater success, I would say than anyone in the field. But he said he always made allowance for what he called the accident of the theater. Something might happen which would clarify or change, and he would use this. Now on the other hand Birgit Cullberg, the Swedish choreographer, who's just coming to our notice with her works for ballet theater in New York, and who is superb, I think, a very big talent showed me her script, and I was astonished. She puts in 400 hours before she goes into the rehearsal hall with one single dancer, and this is after the music is composed to her request. She first writes a scenario, then the music is composed. Then she gets the music and on strips of paper pasted on each page she writes out and draws every single position, working five hours a day alone in a studio.

Studs Terkel And this doesn't

Agnes de Mille And I said, "Do you change?" And she said, "Somewhat, but not very much. Sometimes I think a pattern can be repeated within the music, and I find that 20 people running take a little longer than I had supposed so that we can only do the pattern once." But she just doesn't tear out whole sections. Now Ashton does. He said, "I do my pas de deux sometimes six and seven times." And what I do in the way of altering is abysmal.

Studs Terkel [laughs] Now you allow very much then for, for the accident that can happen.

Agnes de Mille Well, yes I do. I do, and I don't want to.

Studs Terkel Isn't it good? I mean

Agnes de Mille Sometimes it's good, sometimes it just wears the company out, and sometimes I write that way, too. I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite 'til the papers gone and printed. In the second book, there's a book on women and art. There's a chapter on women and art, which I think is my best contribution. I rewrote that 19 times, and my secretary said, "Miss de Mille, will you please get someone else to type this? 'Cause I don't know what I'm typing any longer."

Studs Terkel [laughs] Do- The dancers, now, the dancers don't say this- when you redo

Agnes de Mille Oh sometimes they do, poor lambs. And you see the thing is that there's nothing on paper. I have to say, "Do you remember what you did Tuesday but not Thursday?" And they do, if they're, you know experienced. It's in most incredible act of memory. They said, "Well, you got this far. You got eight bars of this on Tuesday. And then Wednesday and Thursday, we did this," and I said, "Well, we won't do that. Now, we'll do what we did Monday after that." [laughs]

Studs Terkel I think it should be pointed out, the number of the dancers whom you've introduced into the musical theater. I mean Bambi Linn and Joan McCracken among- that- They were in Oklahoma!

Agnes de Mille Sono Osato--

Studs Terkel Sona Osato--

Agnes de Mille As I said I gave Jerry Robbins his first

Studs Terkel Come to think of it. On the Town came from Oklahoma! Jerry Robbins did On the Town.

Agnes de Mille No, that came from Fancy Free.

Studs Terkel Fancy Free the dance.

Agnes de Mille Fancy Free

Studs Terkel No, I mean as a result- But it came after Oklahoma!, didn't it--

Agnes de Mille Yes, it did. But I- yes, it did.

Studs Terkel Could there have been an, an On the Town without an Oklahoma! That's the point I was trying to make.

Agnes de Mille Probably- Well--

Studs Terkel You

Agnes de Mille Somebody has to start. But I very much doubt it, because all the people involved in On the Town are the people that had been involved in Fancy Free. And they got a chance because Opoka- Oklahoma! had succeeded so rapturously on Broadway.

Studs Terkel Didn't you have a problem convincing commercial producers that, these, these dancers would be acceptable?

Agnes de Mille Oh yes, I certainly did. I remember I went to Walt Disney, whom I'd known when we were both not successful, and I said, "I'd like very much to do a short on ballet," and he said, "Well I'd like to do it with you, but nobody would be interested. At all." And then later on, I went away of course disconsolate. Later on, I was doing One Touch of Venus, and I was rehearsing in a place, and the woman who ran the studio said, "There's someone on the phone says he's Walt Disney, and I cannot make him say who he really is, and he won't get off it." So I went there, and he said, "Agnes, this is Walt, and I've seen Oklahoma! And my doors are wide. You come out, and do anything you want." But- And he's a very, very imaginative man, you know. But nobody- I was told everybody- People don't like dancing. They don't like bad dancing. And quite right, too. They hadn't seen good dancing. When you see good dancing and easy to understand dancing, I think my service has been I'm the sugar on the pill, you see. Lots and lots of ordinary American men saw Oklahoma! and Carousel and Brigadoon and things like that, and they'd seen a hunk of dancing, and they didn't mind it. That was the great surprise--

Studs Terkel Prior--

Agnes de Mille And that's easy stages towards Swan Lake, you see.

Studs Terkel And yet it was towards something else, too. The new form you're talking about.

Agnes de Mille Yes, it is. And, of course, West Side Story is a smash success. Nobody thought it would be. It is.

Studs Terkel Again it is, too, I see.

Agnes de Mille Again, and in London, they practically knighted Robbins. It- it's a tremendous success.

Studs Terkel We just touched a few of, of the musicals, and that's probably not the right phrase of, of the productions of which you've been involved. Oklahoma!, Brigadoon, Carousel, a great many of the Rodg-, and you did Bloomer Girl, too--

Agnes de Mille Yes. Yes, I did a long ballet in that one on the civil war. Everybody was very dubious about that. We had a terrific fight keeping it in. The people are always uneasy when you do anything that's sad in dancing. They want dancing to be very gay, and, you know, quick, quick beat. But in Bloomer Girl I had a very sad ballet. And there was a, the whole company split up and fighting over it. But the audience just sat there weeping. So they decided that was some kind of a reaction. And they, they left it in, and it gave the play some weight it might otherwise not have had. And then in, in Brigadoon there was a funeral dance. Well, the office was so infuriated over that, that they almost went to the union to get it removed. They have that right in the office league of New York, you see, to playwrights' guild. I mean you know, too, they have absolute say.

Studs Terkel Here's a case where Loewe and Lerner were not sure, and--

Agnes de Mille They were sure. They loathed it.

Studs Terkel They, they loathed it--

Agnes de Mille They were perfectly sure. It was the director who said give it to two, two public performances, and Loewe, who's a good friend of mine, and I think a very fine composer, said, "Agnes, I'm sorry," he said, "Of course, it just gets the press everywhere as the distinguished thing in the, in the show. But it's where I have my second whiskey, and I just always have it at that point."

Studs Terkel And yet it moved the audience, there again.

Agnes de Mille Yes.

Studs Terkel There's one aspect about you. This again answers your whole accusation of the book as being- of your boys accusation being so self-pitying on the countrary, it's one of to me an indomitable spirit. You stuck to your guns and--

Agnes de Mille Well, you have to! What other guns do have? They're your guns, and I remember when I was doing Paint Your Wagon. Again, they came to me and said this is as Loewe said, he's a Viennese, you see, he said, "It's so boring. It's so boring. I can't stand it!" And I said, "Well, Fritz, I'll have to resign. I'll, I'll- fire- you fire me, or I'll get out. I think it's marvelous. I think it's one of the best things, I ever did, and if I'm that wrong, I'm wrong for your play." Well, they went out and had a drink--

Studs Terkel Had another whiskey--

Agnes de Mille Had a lot of whiskies, and they came back. And there was some yelling going on, and Lerner came crashing into the theater, said, "There'd been an accident," but it was just cheering [laughs].

Studs Terkel And that was it.

Agnes de Mille Well, it's tough, though, you know, and then they did My Fair Lady. And there isn't very much dancing there, and it's been the success of this century. So leave me not brag

Studs Terkel I'm thinking now of, of some of these musicals of different periods in American history. Paint Your Wagon, the Gold Rush; Bloomer Girl, pre-civil war, the, the suffragette movement. Do you- in arranging the choreography of these, you've studied the period, too, then and--

Agnes de Mille Pretty well but in Bloomer Girl for instance, there was- we weren't historically accurate in anyway at all. And so I, I just used American folk steps of the time and polkas and waltzes and mazurkas and that kind of thing, but it wasn't accurate. I can be accurate if I want to be. That's another, another kind of performance. And in the Gold Rush I did use fairly authentic steps, but of course they have to be done better than those people ever could, because you're selling tickets after all. The way a bunch of miners dance, I think, no one would sit down to look at.

Studs Terkel Well, do you see the- before I ask about the future. The fact, the next big project which is certainly a key one in I think international relations, do you see- is the dance a fusion? This is just a layman asking this. Ballet technique used with modern--

Agnes de Mille Well, today, today in a, in a- America. I feel that all the different techniques are coming together. The- And that's right. They're not exclusive. Ballet, I think, as far as I know is the best technique that the world has evolved for the feet and legs and for elevation. Elevation is rising off the ground easily, and it gives the body the most beautiful stance. It was built on the king's posture, and it was built on the nobles of the court of France, and they were very superb people. But the, the modern technique uses the ground and uses the whole torso in an emotional way--

Studs Terkel Is this, is this Graham's big

Agnes de Mille Yes and uses arms and with, with a dynamism that the ballet dances don't have. And then we have our own indigenous techniques of tap dancing, and don't let anyone ever underestimate that because that's beautiful. That came out of the clog, the clog dancing of England and Ireland, meeting up with and marrying so to speak the negro.

Studs Terkel Minstrel show--

Agnes de Mille Well no, the minstrel shows out of this- the negro shuffling on the ground. The negroes were forbidden to use drums after an uprising in the south, and they beat out the rhythms on the ground but they did it on the African upbeat and the clog was always on the northern European downbeat. So they started doing the clogs on the upbeat, and that's where you get syncopation in jazz. And that's ours, and that's wonderful, and there's a big technique in it. The only thing is that the body was rather neglected. It just sort of goes along with the feet in a way, you know. Well all of these techniques are practiced sometimes by the same person. And that's a very versatile dancer, and it means a very rich medium to work in. And I think this is what- in Broadway now we demand a ballet technique and enough modern work, so that they can get to the floor and get off the floor and all that knee business you know that, that is so exciting. And, and also some tap.

Studs Terkel And so it's a fusion then of all. there's the discipline and the vitali- discipline of one and the vitality of the other.

Agnes de Mille Yes, and that's why Robbin's group has had such a success in Europe, but it has had a very big success, you know. It's- they've never seen anything like it.

Studs Terkel Agnes de Mille, thank you very much for, for giving of your time. I- But more and, but more than that, thank you for being the artist you are.

Agnes de Mille That's very gracious--

Studs Terkel And--

Agnes de Mille Of you.

Studs Terkel That was a conversation with Agnes de Mille that took place 33 years ago in 1960. A tribute to her, of the choreographer, the dance visionary, who died at the age of 88 October seventh this year.