Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Best seat in the house

West Village rooftop foliage. 2:30 PM. Photo: JH.
Wednesday, October 17, 2012. Beautiful, sunny day in New York yesterday, with temperatures comfortably in the high 60s, turning chilly at night.

Last night at the New York City Center, the American Ballet Theatre held its Opening Night Gala, and celebrated the 70th anniversary of Agnes de Mille’s “Rodeo.” The ballet, with music by Aaron Copland, was first performed exactly 70 years ago, on October 16, 1942 by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, at the old Metropolitan Opera House on 39th Street and Seventh Avenue. De Mille, herself, danced the leading role that night. She received 22 curtain calls.
Rodeo's choreographer, Agnes de Mille, who danced the title role in the original. In the title role 70 years ago tonight at the old Met.
The story, which de Mille based on her own experience, is that of a tomboy in search of love. The cowgirl is a misfit in her community. De Mille wrote, "She acts like a boy, not to be a boy, but to be liked by the boys." It is a bitter lesson for her, but by the ballet's denouement when she puts on a dress, and goes to the hoe-down and finds her man, she finds him through dancing.

De Mille, who was born here in New York, grew up in Hollywood where her father William de Mille and his brother Cecil B. DeMille were early film directors. As a young girl, Agnes, attended a local private school with the two daughters of Louis B. Mayer, Edith (later Goetz) and Irene (later Selznick), and a little girl named Harlean Carpenter who grew up to become Jean Harlow, the most famous platinum blonde in the movies of the 1930s.
L. to. r.: The cowgirl de Mille; her uncle, CB DeMille; in her later years.
De Mille had wanted to be a dancer from early childhood but her parents wouldn’t even let her take lessons until it was recommended that her younger sister take ballet lessons for therapeutic reasons. Then she was allowed to go along. The girl, alas, didn’t have the body for the dance but she was undaunted by a strong will which was a notable characteristic of hers from childhood. She learned to dance by watching actors on the set. She later graduated from UCLA, and moved to London to study ballet When she was 29, in 1934, she got one of her first breaks from her uncle Cecil (known as “CB”) back in Hollywood, choreographing the film Cleopatra starring Claudette Colbert as the Queen of the Nile.

Five years later in 1939, she began her association with the American Ballet Theatre. First known as the Ballet Theatre, the company had been founded two years earlier by the former dancer with the Bolshoi, Mikhail Mordkin who had defected in the 1920s during the Russian Revolution.
Agnes (left), on the set with her uncle (in his trademark work costume) with his favorite daughter Katherine de Mille.
Richard Rodgers, Agnes de Mille, and Oscar Hammerstein II during rehearsals of "Carousel."
“Rodeo” brought Agnes de Mille enormous popular acclaim. Her time had come and she blossomed industriously. The following year she was hired to choreograph Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma,” staging its innovative dream ballet, successfully integrating dance into the musical’s plot.

This was a first on the American musical stage. After that came one success after another: “Bloomer Girl,” “Carousel,” “Brigadoon,” “Gentleman Prefer Blondes,” Paint Your Wagon,” and several other stage musicals, the last being “110 In the Shades” in 1963. Ironically, the lady from a film family did not fare so well in Hollywood, choreographing only the film version of "Oklahoma." Nevertheless she revolutionized musical theatre by creating choreography which also enhanced the plot. Her early background on the film sets emphasized acting which played a key role in her works.

The lifelong friends, Martha Graham (who was eleven years senior) and Agnes de Mille.
With its now world famous score by Copland, the piece is Agnes de Mille’s most popular and most frequently presented ballet. It not only was the beginning of her success as a choreographer, but it gave her an international reputation.

Years later she wrote about that time and a conversation she had with Martha Graham, who would become a lifelong friend. De Mille recalled that the great success of “Oklahoma”: “when I suddenly had unexpected flamboyant success for a work I thought was only fairly good, after years of neglect for work I thought was fine. I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy. I talked to Martha. I remember the conversation well. It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.

“Martha said to me, very quietly, ‘There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable it is nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.’” Friendship.
Martha Graham in an iconic Graham pose.
De Mille lived most of her life in New York where she married and had a son, Jonathan. At age 70, she suffered a stroke on stage, from which she recovered remarkably although it curbed her career as a choreographer.

She wrote five books including a biography of her close friend Martha Graham, published in 1992. A year later Agnes de Mille died from a stroke, at age 88, in her Greenwich Village apartment.

Last night’s Opening Opening Gala also included Mark Morris’ Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, a pas de duex from James Kudelka’s Cruel World, and the company’s premiere of Balanchine’s pas de deux, Stars and Stripes. Mildred Brinn, a longtime supporter of the ABT, was honored with the 2012 Melville Straus Leadership Achievement Award.

Frederic Franklin, who was a member of the original cast of Rodeo 70 years ago, was Honorary Artistic Chair of the evening. The Gala’s co-chairs were Linda Allard, Victoria Phillips Geduld and Nancy McCormick. Junior Chairs were Sarah Arison and Daniel Cappello. Saks Fifth Avenue was sponsor of the Opening Night Gala.
Some of last night's arrivals (clockwise from top left): Amanda Beck and Daniel Cappello; Raymond Lukens, Judith Hoffman, and friend; Anka Palitz; Chiu-Ti Jansen; Solange Knowles. Photos: Rob Rich.
L. to r.: Linda Allard; Nancy McCormack and Christopher Brainard; Mary Louise Parker.

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