Leaps in the Dark: Art and the World

  • Mindy Aloff
  • University Press of Florida
  • 290 pp.

Beyond memoir, this collection showcases the master choreographer’s reflections on dance, film and theater.

Reviewed by Karen Hansen

“If I have one sure gift, it is to be at the place where great things happen, or rather, in that wonderful fermenting prelude to greatness wherein movement and power form. Planning has nothing to do with it, nor has foresight, nor intelligence. Unwilling, resentful, and unknowing, simply I am there.” This is how choreographer Agnes de Mille describes herself in 1973. As evidenced in her excellent collection of essays, de Mille’s success as an innovative American choreographer had less to do with being in the right place at the right time than with the strength of her character, her capacity for hard work and her creative vision.

Leaps in the Dark, scrupulously edited by dance critic Mindy Aloff, includes excerpts from eight of de Mille’s books, her essays and her review of the London premiere of George Balanchine’s revolutionary ballet “Prodigal Son.” Aloff leads into each of de Mille’s writings with a thoughtful introduction that places the text in its historical and cultural context. De Mille was a lyrical and visually evocative writer who was equally capable of discussing the musicality of street sounds in old New York as well as the humiliating racism dancer Katherine Dunham had to endure.

Agnes de Mille (1905–93) cites her long memory, which was “accurate and highly visual,” as her chief asset. She writes: “I learned to remember in color, and what is much rarer, I learned to remember in sequence.” Her richly detailed writing brings to life her early childhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and in Hollywood with her parents, the playwright William de Mille and Anna de Mille, the daughter of the economist Henry George. Her family did not support her decision to become a dancer. Lessons with Russian-born ballet dancer Theodore Kosloff were a happy accident, the result of a prescription to fix her sister’s fallen arches; Agnes was allowed to tag along to class.

Her essays are not limited to memoir. The scope and depth of her writing on dance, film and theater are astounding. She ranges from reflections on the talent of ballet dancer Alicia Markova to analyzing the physicality of the love duet in “Prodigal Son” to explaining how the Lizzie Borden case shaped movements in her ballet “Fall River Legend.”

In her insightful essay “Rhythm in my Blood,” de Mille examines the choreographic process, her own and that of others dancers. De Mille asserts that the idiosyncratic moves and rhythms associated with individual choreographers — for example, de Mille’s falling patterns, Robbins’s exuberant leaps, Balanchine’s intertwined figures, Graham’s body contractions — are intuitive, reflecting the psyche of the choreographer. De Mille believed that the patterns and rhythms unique to a particular choreographer “constitute a key to others’ understanding.” For the choreographer, these signature moves serve as “a means of self-revelation and a technique for reaching his emotional reservoir.”

The essays, set against such backdrops as World War II, early Hollywood and 1940s Broadway, are infused with the sights, sounds and sensations associated with particular time periods in America. De Mille wrote that rehearsals in 1943 for the Broadway show “One Touch of Venus” were grueling for the dancers. Dancers practiced in stuffy, hot rehearsal halls where “their clothes soak through in an hour. … Hands drip and slip, making lifts dangerous as the girls slide like fish through the boys’ insecure clutch.”

De Mille’s words create lush biographical portraits of artists she admired or with whom she worked. Ballerina Anna Pavlova “never appeared to rest static, some parts of her trembled, vibrated, beat like a heart.” Oscar Hammerstein “looks too neighborly, too understanding, too philosophic for our gypsy and disreputable trade.” Richard Rodgers “works anywhere — his home, backstage, the orchestra pit, frequently in a cubicle in Carnegie Hall. …” Martha Graham, whom de Mille revered, contributed the ”greatest addition to dance vocabulary made this century, comparable to the rules of perspective in painting or the use of the thumb in keyboard playing.”

Honest and introspective, she describes unflinchingly her own failures and disappointments. Her uncle, the film director Cecil B. De Mille, fired her as choreographer from his epic “Cleopatra” when they clashed over the aesthetic of the dances. Later, hired to choreograph the film “Romeo and Juliet,” de Mille clashed with the capricious artistic decisions of Hollywood’s wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg. When de Mille screened the film, she was physically upset at the way Thalberg had edited her dances. De Mille “went outside the projection room and lay down in the grass and was very, very sick.”

Her compulsively readable essay on the creation and opening night of the ballet “Rodeo,” commissioned by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and set to the music of Aaron Copland, draws the reader into de Mille’s creative process. She painstakingly describes how she constructs dances, rehearses dancers (such as Frederic Franklin and Maria Tallchief) and prepares for performances. In rehearsal, de Mille directs her male dancers to “walk like cowboys … crotch-sprung, saddle-sore, with rolled-over high heels and sweat-stained leather, ill at ease and alien to the ground, unhorsed centaurs.” The ballet was a success when it premiered. On opening night, de Mille reported, “We had twenty-two curtain calls.” Yet, as she exited the stage, de Mille remarked to Franklin, “What a stinking, lousy performance. We must rehearse like demons tomorrow.”

De Mille’s triumph with “Rodeo” brought her to the attention of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, who hired her to create the dances for the musical Oklahoma! De Mille reminisced that “all Broadway shows are simply fierce during rehearsal, but this one has been insanity.” The cast and de Mille contracted German measles during rehearsals; de Mille exploded when her dances were repeatedly interrupted during dress rehearsals. However, her dances in Oklahoma! were revolutionary and forever changed Broadway musicals. De Mille went on to choreograph dances for musicals on film and on Broadway, including such classics as Carousel, Brigadoon and One Touch of Venus.

Leaps in the Dark presents Agnes de Mille as an extraordinary writer and chronicler of the performing arts in the 20th century. Her essays, memoirs and biographical sketches establish de Mille as a writer who can conjure the oversized personalities of the artists who shaped American dance, theater and film. Sadly, of the 11 books she published in her lifetime, only her biography of modern dancer Martha Graham remains in print. Mindy Aloff deserves credit for resurrecting de Mille’s writing from its premature tomb. The publication of Leaps in the Dark once again makes these important historical documents available to students and devotees of ballet, dance and musical theater.

Karen Hansen is a writer and editor with a special interest in the performing arts, broadcasting and health issues. A former researcher and associate producer at CBS News, she co-authored the book Toward Understanding Children and has been a contributor to the Library of Congress’s annual Anthology of the Performing Arts.

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