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Agnes de Mille, Choreographer

  • By Wendy Soderburg
  • Published Aug 21, 2000 8:00 AM

Few could imagine that the tiny woman with child-sized feet — older and heavier than most dancers, with holes in her tights and masses of uncontrollable red hair — would make history in the ballet world and become the Queen of Broadway.

But fiery Agnes George de Mille did just that. Born in Harlem to a family of successful theater professionals — including her uncle, director Cecil B. de Mille — young Agnes had to convince her parents to let her take dance lessons. She recalled later that she was considered "a perfectly rotten dancer."

Undaunted, the future choreographer enrolled at UCLA, then called the University of California, Southern Branch. De Mille gave up her formal dance lessons but continued to create skits and dance pantomimes in her sophomore year. Announcing UCLA's 1925 "Press Club Vodevil," the university's Friday Morning Club Bulletin said, "Those who have never seen Agnes dance will have something to remember when their youth is over."

De Mille's climb to success wasn't an easy one, however. After graduation from UCLA, she battled poverty in London while struggling to become an original choreographer. Her career finally took off when she created her first ballet, Black Ritual (1940), for the American Ballet Theatre.

After that followed Rodeo (1942), Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), Brigadoon (1947), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949) and Paint Your Wagon (1951). She founded the Agnes de Mille Theater in 1953 and continued to produce many memorable ballets and dance books during the 1960s.

De Mille suffered a debilitating 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.

When she died in October 1993, her friends and family could not believe she was gone. "She was in some ways like a terrific wind," said her son, Jonathan Prude. "Never still, til now."

In 1953, Agnes de Mille '26 was honored as UCLA's alumnus of the year.