Agnes de Mille Choreographs Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Agnes de Mille incorporated American folklore, colloquial gesture, and humor in her choreography for Rodeo. The great success of the production legitimized the use of such elements in ballet.

Summary of Event

In 1942, when Agnes de Mille choreographed Rodeo, American ballet was just beginning to separate itself from Russian influence and find an identity of its own. Until the 1930’s, there had been few well-trained dancers in the United States—and fewer choreographers. The public had acquired some awareness and appreciation of ballet with the tours of Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova in the 1920’s and the teaching of Diaghilev dancers Mikhail Mordkin, Michel Fokine, and Adolph Bolm and the tours of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the 1930’s. Despite the interest they had inspired, however, the Russians inadvertently created a problem: The American public came to believe that if ballet was not Russian, it could not be real ballet. Rodeo (de Mille and Copland) Ballet Choreography;ballet [kw]Agnes de Mille Choreographs Rodeo (Oct. 16, 1942) [kw]Rodeo, Agnes de Mille Choreographs (Oct. 16, 1942) Rodeo (de Mille and Copland) Ballet Choreography;ballet [g]North America;Oct. 16, 1942: Agnes de Mille Choreographs Rodeo[00630] [g]United States;Oct. 16, 1942: Agnes de Mille Choreographs Rodeo[00630] [c]Dance;Oct. 16, 1942: Agnes de Mille Choreographs Rodeo[00630] [c]Theater;Oct. 16, 1942: Agnes de Mille Choreographs Rodeo[00630] [c]Music;Oct. 16, 1942: Agnes de Mille Choreographs Rodeo[00630] De Mille, Agnes Copland, Aaron Smith, Oliver

For de Mille and other major figures in the development of American ballet, though, the days of fairy-tale princesses, Russian exotica, and European character dance were numbered. They were interested in a new ballet that could incorporate into the classical style the emerging forms of modern and jazz dance, which would revivify gestural content and which would use subject matter reflective of American life and energy.

De Mille, daughter of Broadway writer William de Mille and niece of film magnate Cecil B. DeMille, spent much of her early youth in Southern California. She became familiar with the Southwest and responded deeply to its vast spaces, cloudswept skies, and pungent herbal aromas and to its people, who matched so distinctively their semidesert surroundings. It was in the dynamic movements of the cowboys, the hardiness of the women, and the ebullience of their ethnic dances that de Mille found the inspiration for Rodeo.

While she was teaching herself her craft, de Mille did not find much support in the United States. She worked abroad between 1929 and 1939, and it was in London that she developed a suite of American dances, one of which was called Rodeo. The suite, with an all-female cast and without a coherent plot to unify the dances, was performed in London in 1938. In 1942, de Mille, who had returned to New York, was commissioned by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo to create an American ballet.

To compose the music for the production, she requested Aaron Copland, already known for his brilliant use of American folk themes in concert music and for several ballet scores, most notably Billy the Kid (1938). Oliver Smith, an unknown twenty-four-year-old designer, was selected to create the sets for the ballet. Kermit Love designed the costumes.

De Mille decided to re-create, with a mixed cast, the “Americana” dances she had choreographed in London. The story the ballet told was an uncomplicated tale of a cowgirl who tried to get a man by being “one of the guys,” only to discover that she could be much more successful by dressing and behaving like a girl. De Mille was obliged to choreograph while the Ballet Russe was on tour in the United States.

Although the company was a mixture of Russian, English, and American dancers, the training and tone of its members were distinctly those of Russian classical dance. De Mille had to cajole the male dancers into abandoning their usual lightness. She needed them to become grounded, walk bowlegged, and execute movements that were a blend of modern dance and ballet specifically designed to suggest riding horses and roping cattle. De Mille also had to convince the female dancers that showing off their virtuoso technique had no place in a piece depicting life in the Old West. The women’s movements were to be either simple or downright rowdy, suggesting the austerity and vitality of ranch life.

De Mille saw the transcendence of traditional ballet movement as necessary to creating more truthful characterizations through dance. Traditional ballet technique has a single, easily identifiable look, involving a straight spine, a very prescribed use of the arms, an aerial quality, and the pointe shoe. As de Mille explained in the first volume of her autobiography, Dance to the Piper Dance to the Piper (de Mille) (1952), this classical style was interchangeable from one work to the next: Classical ballets may differ in the arrangement of steps and the interpretation by individual dancers, but not in style. For Rodeo, de Mille sought to create a distinctive style that was fitted to the content of her work. Classical ballet simply had not previously considered this to be a goal.

While choreographing Rodeo, de Mille searched for hours to find the one gesture that was right for a given moment. She had to rehearse the dancers extensively, moreover, to overcome the automatic responses acquired through years of classical training. “If dance gesture means anything,” said de Mille, “it means the life behind the movement.”

De Mille created movements designed to express Western life. She did so not only by adapting traditional and modern dance techniques but also by peppering her choreography with colloquial gestures. Her cowboys squatted, squinted, brushed off their trousers, and flicked their heads as if to say, “C’mon, let’s go.” De Mille believed that the rhythms of the American West were at the heart of its expression, and she made them the heart of her ballet as well. She incorporated a running square dance performed only to the sounds of clapping and stomping. She created movements conveying the syncopated tread of horses and the repetitive swings of roping. By the use of simple tap steps, she evoked a land in which vast silence was punctuated more by percussive sounds than by speech.

The opening performance took place on October 16, 1942. De Mille herself danced the part of the cowgirl. When it was over, there were twenty-two curtain calls. The ballet’s success was a great relief to the Ballet Russe, which was in serious financial difficulty and was relying upon de Mille to provide a hit. Rodeo also brought de Mille national and international recognition as a leading American choreographer.

The decor for Rodeo, Oliver Smith’s first major work, revealed that he had a special gift for creating American ambiance, rural and urban. Smith became one of the foremost stage designers in the country. Among his ballet credits are Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free (1944) and de Mille’s Fall River Legend. In 1945, he became, with Lucia Chase, codirector of the Ballet Theatre Ballet Theatre . On Broadway, he designed again for de Mille as well as for hit shows such as My Fair Lady (1956), West Side Story (1957), and Hello, Dolly! (1964), and for the films Oklahoma! (1955), Guys and Dolls (1955), and The Sound of Music (1965).

Agnes de Mille came to be recognized as one of American ballet’s most prominent choreographers. Most of her subsequent ballets were produced for the Ballet Theatre (later the American Ballet Theatre), the first American ballet company to achieve national stature. In 1948, de Mille created for them her masterpiece, Fall River Legend Fall River Legend (de Mille) , based on the story of Lizzie Borden. In that work, she brought to its highest fruition her search for movements, gestures, and rhythms that evoked particularly American times, places, and ways of life. As for Rodeo, she said of its opening: “If it is possible for all movement, growth and accumulated power to become apparent at one single point, then my hour struck at 9:40, October 16, 1942.”


The impact of Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo must be looked at against the background of classical ballet tradition. That tradition created a single mold—the classical style—into which all content was to be poured. This mold elevated and enhanced values such as grace and a particular notion of beauty, but it did so at the potential expense of content for which such beauty and grace were not true to the characters being portrayed. De Mille broke the classical mold—not single-handedly, but in the midst of a ferment of new ideas taking shape throughout the dance world. Modern dance choreographers were already working with a more articulated spine, exploring movement that was more natural to the human body than was traditional ballet movement. They sought, like de Mille, to incorporate naturalism and realism Realism;dance within dance.

At first, the ballet world—which had never had a commitment to realistic movement in choreography—was slow to emulate the advances of modern dance, which it saw as graceless and earthbound. By her judicious use of modern dance elements in Rodeo, de Mille pushed ballet to develop a broader choreographic vocabulary. She used a variety of spinal contractions and replaced balletic arm movements with ones more appropriate to her characters. The “ballerina” in Rodeo was a tomboy, her ballet skirt and pointe shoes exchanged for trousers and boots.

Rodeo was the first “Americana” ballet successfully performed by Ballet Russe, and its success was decisive for the company. Rodeo enjoyed large audiences, which led to a broadening of the public’s receptivity to new forms and styles. The greater receptivity to new styles created a greater freedom for choreographers and a greater willingness by classical companies to mount productions that did not look at all classical. The Ballet Russe in particular opened its doors to more original American works. In the years following Rodeo, the Russian company took into repertoire works by Ruth Page, Todd Bolender, Valerie Bettis, and Ruthanna Boris.

One of the happiest results of Rodeo’s success was Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s invitation to de Mille to choreograph their new musical, Oklahoma! Oklahoma! (Rodgers and Hammerstein)[Oklahoma (Rodgers and Hammerstein)] (1943). By the 1940’s, dance in musicals had progressed from the parading beauties and endless kick lines of earlier days, but it was de Mille’s choreography for Oklahoma! that permanently refocused the function of dance in the Broadway musical. Oklahoma! opened six months after Rodeo, and the joint success of the two works assured de Mille plenty of employment in both balletic and Broadway venues. In addition to her ballets, she was subsequently to choreograph such musicals as Carousel (1945), Brigadoon (1947), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949), and Paint Your Wagon (1951). Thus, de Mille’s Rodeo not only introduced distinctively American rhythms into ballet but also led her to become the first important choreographer of one of the few distinctively American art forms, musical theater. Rodeo (de Mille and Copland) Ballet Choreography;ballet

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnes, Clive. Inside American Ballet Theatre. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1977. Pictorial survey of the American Ballet Theatre in the 1970’s. Introduction and commentary by New York Times dance critic Clive Barnes. Has an interesting interview with Agnes de Mille and short essays on Antony Tudor and Jerome Robbins.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Copland, Aaron, and Vivian Perlis. Copland: 1900 Through 1942. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984. Copland’s autobiography, interspersed with short essays by Vivian Perlis placing Copland in the perspective of the larger musical scene. Reflections on Copland by prominent musicians and composers as well as by dance figures Lincoln Kirstein, Edwin Denby, Eugene Loring, and Agnes de Mille. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Mille, Agnes. America Dances. New York: Macmillan, 1980. A history of dance in the United States through 1980. Includes sections on ballet, modern dance, Broadway, and films. De Mille writes with wit, humor, and great perception. Many excellent photographs and drawings. Chronology, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Dance to the Piper. Boston: Little, Brown, 1952. De Mille’s first autobiographical book, beginning with her earliest days in New York. Contains chapters on Cecil B. DeMille and the film industry in Hollywood, de Mille’s work abroad, and the making of Rodeo and Oklahoma! Wonderful descriptions of the life and major figures of theater and dance from the early 1900’s through 1944. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. And Promenade Home. Boston: Little, Brown, 1956. The second volume of de Mille’s autobiography. Covers her courtship and marriage to Walter Prude, overshadowed by World War II, and her 1940’s musicals. Interesting discussions on the nature of choreographic work and on women and dance. Center section of selected photographs. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Easton, Carol. No Intermissions: The Life of Agnes de Mille. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996. Biography of the choreographer relating her life to her work and discussing her place in the choreographic history. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Long, Robert Emmet. Broadway, the Golden Years: Jerome Robbins and the Great Choreographer-Directors, 1940 to the Present. New York: Continuum, 2001. Primarily a study of Robbins, this volume begins with a chapter on de Mille emphasizing her status as the creator of the tradition that Robbins continued. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mordden, Ethan. Broadway Babies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. An entertaining and very informative historical analysis of the twentieth century Broadway musical. Chapters on producers, books, scores, choreographers, and superdirectors, among others. One of the few books on the musical with a section devoted solely to dance. Selective discography, index.

Oklahoma! Opens on Broadway

Robbins’s Fancy Free Premieres

Graham Debuts Appalachian Spring with Copland Score

Categories: History