Musicals Blog

Agnes de Mille - Ballet as Part of the Story

by Claire J Rottenberg

Agnes de Mille was born into a well-known and respected film industry family. Her uncle was the successful director, Cecil B. de Mille and her father was also a film director. De Mille started to study ballet as a child but she didn't seem to have a natural ability for classical ballet. On her own, she studied the acting of stars in her father's films and, by the age of 11, was cast in a film.

As an adult, de Mille renewed her interest in ballet. In 1933, at the age of 28, she went to London to study modern ballet. Six years later, her first choreographed ballet was produced by the American Ballet Theatre. A few years later, in 1942, her most important ballet, "Rodeo," was produced for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

In 1943, de Mille was hired as the choreographer for Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma." It was in that play that de Mille introduced a new form of dance and ballet to musical theater. For the first time, dances, including a long, dream-sequence ballet, were used as part of the storyline to express the play's actions and plot and to express the characters' emotions. This magnificent work earned de Mille a Tony award and launched her career as a choreographer. She followed "Oklahoma" with, among other plays, "Carousel" in 1945, "Brigadoon" in 1947 and "Paint Your Wagon" in 1951. In 1955, de Mille was hired to choreograph her only movie success, "Oklahoma."

Although Agnes de Mille had limited success as a film choreographer, her influence on movie musicals is apparent, particularly in such Gene Kelly classics as "An American in Paris" (1951) and later works by Jerome Robbins.