Biographical/historical: Agnes De Mille was an American dancer, choreographer, director, and writer born in New York City in 1905. She was the daughter of William Churchill De Mille, the famous playwright, and Anna George, the daughter of the distinguished economist and ""single tax"" advocate, Henry George. She was also the niece of filmmaker Cecil B. De Mille. She inherited a profound identification with the theater.
De Mille spent her early years in New York City at her family home at Merriewold in Sullivan County. In 1914, William De Mille summoned his family to Los Angeles where he had cast his lot with his brother, Cecil B. De Mille, in the nascent film industry. De Mille and her sister, Margaret, gave piano recitals and staged dramatic productions for their friends, but their parents refused to let Agnes take dancing lessons because of a widely-held contemporary belief that dancers were slightly disreputable. Nevertheless, De Mille had the opportunity to see a dance performance by Anna Pavlova, and that performance inspired in young Agnes the desire to become a famous dancer. Her father continued to oppose her wish for a career in dancing, but she was still allowed to take two lessons a week at the studios of Theodore Koslov.
Frustrated by her family’s indifference, De Mille gave up dancing to attend the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She graduated with a degree in English. After her parents’ divorce, she moved to New York and resumed her dancing, although she struggled to make a living in the field. Her first real dancing job came when she was hired as a dancer-choreographer for Christopher Morley’s revival of a 19th century melodrama, The Black Crook, in Hoboken. In 1932, De Mille moved to London, where she received extensive dance training at Madame Marie Rambert’s Ballet Club. She studied with, and was influenced by, fledging choreographers like Fredrick Ashton and Anthony Tudor, both of whom would later join her in her efforts to revolutionize the ballet and dance worlds. Her experience at the Ballet Club served as one of the most significant phases of her training. Throughout the 1930s, De Mille returned to the United States to take odd jobs. She danced in her uncle’s staging of Cleopatra in 1934, and she choreographed for the Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer film version of Romeo and Juliet in 1936. Most of the time, however, she battled poverty in London while trying to become a full-time choreographer.
De Mille’s career changed for the better in the late 1930s and 1940s. In 1939, she was invited to join the American Ballet Theatre’s opening season. In 1940, she created her first ballet, Black Ritual. In 1942, De Mille choreographed her ballet, Three Virgins and a Devil, for the American Ballet Theatre. The following year, she joined Rodgers and Hammerstein to create the triumphant Oklahoma!, a musical that revolutionized the art form by integrating its choreographic numbers with the plot in a way that had never before been accomplished.
De Mille went on to choreograph some of the biggest Broadway hits of the 1940s and 1950s, including One Touch of Venus in 1943, Carousel in 1945, Brigadoon in 1947, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1949, and Paint Your Wagon in 1951. She also furthered her innovative style with Tally-Ho in 1944 and Fall River Legend, a haunting version of the Lizzie Borden axe-murder case, in 1948. Throughout the 1950s, De Mille embarked on a variety of projects. In 1952, she published the first volume of her autobiography, Dance to the Piper. The following year, she founded the Agnes De Mille Theater and toured with it in 126 cities during 1953 and 1954. In 1955, she choreographed the numbers for a film version of Oklahoma! During the 1960s, De Mille continued to produce many memorable ballets, including The Bitter Weird in 1962, The Wind in the Mountains in 1965, and The Golden Age in 1967. She also published several more dance books, such as To a Young Dancer in 1962, The Book of the Dance in 1963, and Lizzie Borden Dance of Death in 1968. From 1973 to 1974, De Mille founded and toured with the Agnes De Mille Heritage Dance Theater. She suffered a stroke in 1975, but fought her way back to health in time to receive the Handel Medallion, New York’s highest award for achievement in the arts, in 1976. De Mille continued to be involved very actively with artistic endeavors up until her death in October 1993.