Last month, I watched a rehearsal and a run-through of Agnes de Mille’s most famous ballet, Rodeo. There’s a strong Colorado connection, and it runs straight through Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp in Steamboat Springs. In 1935, the 30-year-old dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille was in residence at Perry-Mansfield. She came from a privileged and sophisticated background. Her father was William C. de Mille and her uncle was Cecil B. de Mille, both Hollywood movie producers. She had been discouraged from acting because she was not considered pretty enough, so she turned to dance instead.
During her stay in Steamboat Springs, Agnes asked to be taken to a square dance, an important and regular social event in the local schoolhouse. Not only was she fascinated with the actual cowboys–and girls–dancing in actual cowboy boots, but she went out on the floor and did a solo turn, to much applause. The crowd was so enthusiastic that a long line of dancers honored her, in local fashion, by joining hands and “cracking the whip,” propelling Agnes out the schoolhouse door into the sagebrush outside. It’s too bad there was no You-Tube to capture those moments.
Seven years later, her ballet Rodeo premiered in New York, with music by Aaron Copland. The dancers were from the company Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Agnes de Mille herself danced the lead, the tomboy Cowgirl who dances up a storm and also gets her man. She received twenty-two curtain calls.
The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo had left Russia after artistic differences, and moved to Monte Carlo. From there, they went on to tour the United States during World War II. (Tragically, one of the founders, Rene Blum, was one of the very first Jews arrested in France during the Occupation in 1941. He was sent to Auschwitz, where he was killed).
Agnes de Mille was mostly unknown when she landed the job with this company. Rodeo was one of their most successful productions. It took some doing. Russian-trained dancers had to perform in cowboy regalia, incorporating raucous cowboy moves into their exquisite classical technique.
On the strength of this ballet, Agnes de Mille was asked to choreograph the Broadway musical Oklahoma! She went on to choreograph many other musicals, such as Carousel, Brigadoon, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Paint Your Wagon. Her most important innovation, which changed musical theater permanently, was to create dances that deeply expressed character rather than being just thrown in for entertainment value.
The story of Agnes de Mille in Steamboat Springs is one of the many historical nuggets in Dorothy Wickenden’s bestselling book, Nothing Daunted. The book is reviewed by Maria Russo in The New York Times at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/26/books/review/book-review-nothing-daunted-by-dorothy-wickenden.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
The schoolhouse building still stands. And Perry-Mansfield is still a vital presence in Steamboat Springs, 100 years after its founding.