Dance is an art that allows for expressing ideas through the human body. Dance has the ability to tell a story without words and the extraordinary work of Agnes de Mille is a prime example. Agness de Mille’s heritage was of a storyteller. Her choreography not only conveyed the emotional dimensions of the characters, it enhanced the plot. Her storytelling and passion for instruction left an impression on the theatrical dance as seen today. Although she was primarily an actress and not a dancer, her love for dance was evident in every gesture her dancer carried in the choreography. Agnes de Mille love for dance extended by her explaining the choreographic process and the importance of the arts to the community and resulted in positive impact to make a more peaceful society.
Agnes de Mille born was born on September 18, 1905 in Harlem, New York City and moved to Hollywood with her family. She dreamed to become an actress, which seemed only appropriate due to her uncle being a Hollywood filmmaker and director. Unfortunately, her desire to perform for the camera wasn’t an easy process. She was told that she wasn’t “pretty enough”, therefore, she studied and performed the piano and also staged drama productions. She then began studying dance, including ballet. Classical ballet was the most widely known form of dance at that time, but she lacked the physical attributes needed to have a career in classical ballet. And, her family saw it more as an activity, rather than a career choice. Her early and most elementary training was mostly self-taught. She was able to convince her parents to allow her to take dance lessons, but she wasn’t given positive encouragement by her family or instructors. However, she accompanied her father to the film sets to see her uncle at work. There, she studied the dancers and taught herself the dance sequences. She attended UCLA and again faced disparaging remarks from dance professors. Her gift was for the drama, but she still was determined to dance. Upon graduation from UCLA, she moved to New York and struggled to work in the dance field. Dancing jobs were few and far between for de Mille.
In 1932, she moved to London to find an outlet for her desire to dance. Throughout the 1930’s de Mille spent much of her time training, but was never able to support herself as a dancer or choreographer. She would return to the United States to take jobs, through family connections. She was hired to choreograph for the movie Cleopatra (1934). Unfortunately, the dance sequences were cut from the film. She also gained some attention for her choreography for the film Romeo and Juliet starring Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard. By this time, de Mille had begun to make a choreographic impact on the dance world. In 1940, she became a charter member of American Ballet Theatre and created Black Ritual. Although the ballet was not a success, it was the first time black dancers had appeared in a major ballet company. Her next work, Three Virgins and A Devil, also for American Ballet Theatre, was a hit and sparked the beginning of her American choreographic career. In her own words, “Technically, my work is eclectic, a mixture of classical and modern, which makes special demands on the performers.”
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