Ballet’s cowgirl

12 September 2012 | By Valerie Lawson

Agnes de Mille in Rodeo
Agnes de Mille in Rodeo
Franklin Frederic in Rodeo
Franklin Frederic in Rodeo

On a summer day in 1942, Agnes de Mille faced up to the men of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. Nervous yet resolute, the petite American choreographer spoke in a trembling voice. “We are going to begin,” she said, “with men riding horses in a rodeo”. Silence. These men, she knew, “were trained to move like wind-blown petals”. In the rehearsal studio in Hollywood, where the company was on tour, the premier danseur, Frederic Franklin, urged the others: “Come on, boys, let’s have a try”.

The dancers ambled into their places. “Raise your arms,” de Mille chimed in. “You have men’s arms, they have striking power.” Instead, as she later recalled, “up came the delicate wrists and the curled fingers of the 18th-century dandy.” A few of the Russian dancers lolled at the barre, watched the action, and considered their options. “It’s not dancing”, they decided, and headed for the door.

De Mille turned to the stayers, most of them American or English. They were game. They did as she asked: they crouched and walked bow-legged, they jack-knifed and sweated and held their hands to their eyes to shield them from an imaginary sun.

In the rehearsals that followed, de Mille spent three hours each morning instructing her cast “to shut up and be simple, and in the afternoon I screamed for three more hours to be quiet and simple. We finished the ballet in ten days”.

Four months later, on October 16, 1942, at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, the curtain rose at on the premiere of de Mille’s revolutionary ballet, Rodeo, set in the pioneer West, and subtitled The Courting at Burnt Ranch. As the orchestra played the first notes of Aaron Copland’s score, the audience saw a deep red sky, the parched and dusty ground of a corral and de Mille herself in the role of a cowgirl in a red shirt, brown hat, pants and boots, standing among a group of cowboys who don’t even notice she’s there.

At the curtain calls, she was handed a bunch of corn tied with red, white and blue ribbons. After the eighth bow, she looked into the pit. “The fiddlers were beating their bows on their instruments. The others were standing up yelling.” That night, the cast took 22 curtain calls.

Seventy years later, on the 16th of next month, the dancers of the American Ballet Theatre will strut onto the stage at Lincoln Centre to perform Rodeo once more, to celebrate the ballet and all it meant for dance in America.

Rodeo represented a democratisation of ballet with its merging of classical steps, everyday gesture, modern dance, tap, social dance, and a square dance that anchored the whole. The eloquent De Mille, speaking of  American choreographers such as herself, Jerome Robbins and Michael Kidd, put it this way: “to the classic base we have accordingly added colloquialism. We have come down to earth; we have put our feet on the ground”.

De Mille, 37, when she created Rodeo, was the niece of the film director, Cecil B. DeMille (unlike Agnes, he linked the De and the Mille). Born in New York, she fell in love with ballet after watching Anna Pavlova on tour in the United States. She trained in the 1930s with Marie Rambert in London, then joined Ballet Rambert, where she found an ally in the choreographer Antony Tudor; he cast her in his Dark Elegies in 1937.

The initial success of Rodeo led de Mille to much greater acclaim in the United States, not only for the ballets she choreographed for American Ballet Theatre, but for her choreography in the musicals Oklahoma, Carousel and Brigadoon. Such success earned her the ultimate accolade from the then dance critic at The New York Times, John Martin, who announced a new era of dance, one he called the “de Millennium”.

De Mille understood, always, that “real choreography – really instinctive, deeply found gestures – don’t come out of the brain, they come out of the guts, somewhere, and it’s an instinctive, creative act and you don’t know how it happens”. She never stopped coaching and writing about dance. Among her many superb dance books is a biography of Martha Graham. Published in 1992, it was her swan song. De Mille died one year later.