Agnes de Mille was born in 1905 into a prominent family. Her grandfather was political economist Henry George, her father William de Mille was a successful playwright, and her uncle was film director Cecil B. de Mille. In her childhood autograph album, de Mille’s father encouraged her: “My first-born child you are / But that’s nothing. / I’d rather love you / For what you do / Than because you’re mine. / So go to it.”1 Agnes de Mille revolutionized the American musical comedy; “After Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham,” the New York Times’s Jay Carr wrote in 1979, “Miss de Mille has done more than anybody to give dance a foothold in this country.”2
In 1942, de Mille enjoyed her first major success with the ballet, Rodeo. With a score composed by Aaron Copland, the ballet was one of the first to focus on American themes, as well as to combine classical ballet with folk dancing, modern dance, and mime. The ballet was a huge success, receiving twenty-two curtain calls at its premiere.3
De Mille’s success with Rodeo led her to choreograph Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, and as Jay Carr stated, “Hoping for freshness, they got genius.”4 The dance sequences in Oklahoma! altered the face of the American Broadway musical forever after. Previously, dance numbers had had little or no connection to a musical’s storyline, but were tacked on merely as a divertissement. In Oklahoma!, however, dance was integrated into the plot and used to further the action. The famous dream sequence in Oklahoma! that explored the main character’s psychology and inner turmoil was so groundbreaking that within a few months every new musical on Broadway contained a similar dream scene. Van Vechten described Oklahoma! in his article “Terpsichore and the U.S. Army” as “a work—still alive nine years after its creation—which completely changed the role of dancing in subsequent musicals and which elevated Agnes de Mille to an important position in the theatre world.”5
Subsequently, de Mille choreographed other musicals, including Carousel (1945), Brigadoon (1947), and Paint Your Wagon (1951). In 1944-45, with three hit musicals on Broadway, “she became the first woman to equal the accomplishments of Berlin, Gershwin, and Porter.”6 With Allegro in 1947, de Mille became the first woman to both choreograph and direct a major Broadway musical.
In 1940 and 1941, Van Vechten photographed de Mille in a number of her roles, including in costume for Hell on Wheels, as Venus in Antony Tudor’s The Judgment of Paris, and as a virgin (“The Priggish One”) in Three Virgins and a Devil.
De Mille wrote over a dozen books on dance, and she has been called “one of the finest and most eloquent writers on dance the world has known.”7 In a review of her autobiography Dance to the Piper, Van Vechten wrote, “nobody can read this history of courage and belief in an ideal without understanding both dancing and human nature a little better. Indeed, I believe nobody can read this book without following it up with a salutation, ‘Bravo, Agnes de Mille!’”8