Agnes de Mille was born in 1905 in New York City into a family of theatre professionals. Her father was William C. deMille and her uncle was Cecil B. DeMille, both to become the moving forces in creating Hollywood. She originally wanted to act but was told that she was not pretty enough. Then she longed to dance, but dance was not considered a proper profession. When de Mille’s younger sister was prescribed ballet lessons to cure her flat feet, Agnes was allowed to join her. Classical ballet was the most widely known dance form at this time, but de Mille lacked a natural aptitude for this. She seems to have spent time in Los Angeles watching film stars on her father’s sets and developed a strong sense of narrative and character development. The psychological development of character was to become another of the motifs of American Dance. There was a gritty reality about existence which could not be inscribed in the concept of beauty in ballet terms, but it had a nobility of its own. It was fertile like plowing the land (I am reminded of Seamus Heany’s father ‘digging’.)
It was a symbol of regeneration. I would like to quote again from Jose Limon’s autobiography about the times and his first impressions of both Graham and Agnes de Mille. In 1930, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Helen Tamaris, and Agnes de Mille formed the Dance Repertory Theatre. Limon wryly quotes Benjamin Franklin, who said to the assembled men in 1776 at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, that if they didn’t hang together, they would hang separately. The dancers shared expenses, responsibilities and programmes. They hired a theatre and presented two seasons.
Jose Limon paints a vivid picture of the reality outside the theatre:
‘In the merciless cold of the streets, ragged, hungry men huddled together in dumb desperation. Some lined up waiting for bread and soup and a night’s lodgings. Some sought refuge in the recesses of doorways and covered their misery with newspapers. These were the great horde of the unemployed, victims of a catastrophic failure of the economic machinery. The president, Herbert Hoover, appeared unable or unwilling to do much that was effective, and the sick economy grew progressively worse.’
Jose Limon joined the Dance Repertory Theatre in February of 1931, its second season. He records these first impressions:
‘Agnes de Mille was a young dancer, as fresh and pink as the tropical lilies I remember on dewy mornings in my native land [Mexico]. I had never seen such a flawless complexion. She was no end baffling. Although surrounded by dancers who were barefoot and costumed in stark simplicity, she appeared in the full panoply of elegance. While her older colleagues were intent on discarding the past, she seemed to be holding it gently, tenderly, even protectively sometimes, in the voluminous folds of her skirts, petticoats and tutus. The past was not dead, her dances seemed to say, only somnolent. It would awaken presently, refreshed and renewed.’
‘My first sight of Martha Graham was from the darkened wings of the Craig Theatre. I watched her spellbound dancing a solo- a dark woman, standing on a small pedestal, dressed in blood- red, addressing the universe, arms raised to the zenith. At the end of the solo came numerous curtain calls. She passed me breathless on the way to the dressing room. Presently, the stage manager came and told me that Miss Graham would not tolerate being watched from the wings. I slunk away. For years she remained a distant planet, forbidding and forbidden.’
In 1948 Agnes de Mille made a ballet called ‘Fall River Legend’ about the axe murderer, Lizzie Borden. She was spurred on by an interest in myth and the human psyche. Passionate drives and inner conflict became the subject of dance. How one felt rather than what one did became the subject of choreography. In the real world, Lizzie was found not guilty, but in de Mille’s version she was found guilty and hanged. Thomas Hardy had persued a not dissimilar theme in ‘Tess of the d’Ubervilles’, first published in 1891.