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Agnes de Mille as the cowgirl in Rodeo (1942), choreographed by de Mille for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo to an original score by Aaron Copland with scenery by Oliver Smith.
Agnes de Mille as the cowgirl in Rodeo (1942), choreographed by de Mille for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo to an original score by Aaron Copland with scenery by Oliver Smith.

Agnes de Mille (1905-1993) choreographed the original stage musical Oklahoma! in 1943 and the film version of Oklahoma! in 1955. Oklahoma! used dance as one of the ways to tell the story, and became the first musical to fully integrate song, story, and dance.

Agnes de Mille was born in 1905 in New York City. She graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and studied dance in America and England. In 1939, she was invited to join a new ballet company in New York City called Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre) where she choreographed her first ballet titled Black Ritual.

In 1942, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a successful ballet company in Europe, invited de Mille to create a new ballet for their repertoire. She choreographed Rodeo, a ballet about American cowboys and cowgirls. With a score by Aaron Copeland, Rodeo tells the story of a young cowgirl tomboy in search of love. The ballet used stylized movements to represent cowboys riding horseback and roping cattle. Rodeo was an immediate success and received 22 curtain calls on opening night Gclub.

The dance style of Rodeo fused classical ballet technique with modern dance and American culture. This unique dance style caught the attention of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and they invited de Mille to choreograph Oklahoma! De Mille’s choreography for Oklahoma! combined classical ballet, modern dance, and stylized gesture in a way that had not been seen in musical theatre before. She created the first “dream ballet” sequence using dance without lyrics to convey the characters’ emotions and struggles. Earlier musicals included dance, but usually as an interlude or for pure entertainment. For the first time in a musical Holiday Palace, dance was used to convey the character’s emotions and motivation to the audience and to move the plot forward. The dream ballet later became a common characteristic of musicals during that era.

After Oklahoma!, de Mille continued to choreograph ballets and musicals. Her musicals include Carousel (1945), Brigadoon (1947), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949) and Paint Your Wagon (1951), as well as a dramatic ballet called Fall River Legend (1948). De Mille also worked on revivals of musicals, including the 1979 Broadway revival of Oklahoma!

De Mille is perhaps best known for her musical theatre choreography, but she also contributed to the performing arts as a dancer, director, and author. De Mille wrote a number of external image arrow-10x10.png about dance and was a strong advocate for the arts until her death in 1993. Her awards include a Tony Award (American Theatre Wing Award) for Brigadoon (1947), New York City’s Handel Medallion (1976), and a Ruby888 Kennedy Center Honor by President Carter (1980).
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external image arrow-10x10.png by Agnes de Mille
And Promenade Home (1957)
external image arrow-10x10.png of the Dance (1963)
Dance to the Piper (1952)
To a Young Dancer: A Handbook (1962)

Easton, Carol. No Intermissions: The Life of Agnes De Mille. Da Capo Press: New York, 2000.


-- Jasmine Yep (July 2011)