Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Agnes de Mille and "One Touch of Venus"

The choreographer Agnes de Mille is one of the most important American cultural figures of the 20th century, but she seems to be fading from historical memory except as the originator of the ambitious ballets for "Oklahoma," which were mostly preserved in the movie version.

She was born in 1905, granddaughter to the famous economic philosopher Henry George on her mother's side, and niece to the infamous film producer/director Cecil B. Demille on her father's side. She decided she wanted to be an actress, and then a dancer, but she wasn't conventionally pretty enough for either, and so she made her own way on her own terms. Before becoming an "overnight success" in the early 1940s with her ballet "Rodeo" for the touring Ballet Russe, quickly followed by her startling choreography for "Oklahoma" and "One Touch of Venus," she was a starving artist for decades. In New York, she became best friends with Martha Graham, where the two of them basically created what we think of as American Modern Dance. In the 1930s, she took a five-year sabbatical to London where she was collaborator and best friends with the great British choreographer Anthony Tudor when he was a starving artist.

In addition to her choreographic gifts, Agnes turned out to be an exquisite writer, and her memoir of her Starving Artist years, entitled "Dance to the Piper," (click here to order a copy) is one of the greatest artistic memoirs ever written, with prose that reads as smoothly as the incomparable food writer M.F.K. Fisher, who was a contemporary.

The memoir's sequel, "And Promenade Home," published in 1958, is not quite as successful, being a strange combination of stories of artistic triumphs/disasters and her neurotic romance which turns into a World War II separated marriage with Walter Prude, who remained her husband until his death in 1988. The great sequence in the book, however, is a surprisingly frank 50-page backstage chronicle of the making of "One Touch of Venus," which was a series of outrageous disasters from the very beginning until it squeaked out as a Broadway triumph in the end.

Here's her description of Mary Martin arriving for the first day of rehearsal surrounded by the professional ballet dancers who Agnes had cast rather than the usual young boyfriends and girlfriends who usually ended up in the chorus:

"I'm not very good at this," Miss Martin said to me simply as she put on her beautiful costly hat before leaving that first day. "I'm going to need lots of help."

Sono Osato [the star dancer, half Irish/half Japanese sensation from the Ballet Russe] later spoke crisply to me over a chocolate malted. "I've made a decision. I'm going to be a gentleman...I'm going to fix it so that she looks better than all of us. Do you think she'd mind if I coached her a little?"

I gazed at Osato with something close to awe. She had spent her teens with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo...and had learned theater entirely with the Russian dancers, whose second technique is chicanery. They expect nothing else and they give nothing else. From the outright criminal compassing of planned accidents (broken glass and slashed slipper ribbons) to constant ungrounded suspicion, they never, under any circumstances, practice anything but deviousness...Somo, however, was gallant and, as she said, a gentleman. So she approached Mary Martin and the coaching began very gently and unobtrusively.

"Why do you stand like that, with your knees all slack and your chest caved in?"

"They told me to in Hollywood," said our star meekly.

"Never mind Hollywood. This is Olympus. My goodness," Sono said, "you've got a fine body. Be proud of it. Throw out your chest - and here, tuck your tail in. Stand on your feet. Put your heels down and stand hard. Be proud."

"I wish I could move the way you do," said Mary.

"You're going to move like yourself," said Osato, "and it will be dandy. But you've got to have confidence."

And thereafter every day I could see, from the corner of my eye, Sono take her quietly aside to work out their problems. Mary straightened, Mary walked and stood like a deity, and it didn't take her very long to learn. She did, as Sono had promised, dandy. Mary has never scorned coaching since.

There's fifty pages of this kind of writing about the disastrous Boston tryouts that are an intimate, fascinating look at the truly bizarre collection of disparate geniuses that were brought together by the producer Cheryl Crawford for this project. There are accounts of librettist Ogden Nash (Broadway debut), director Elia Kazan above whose Group Theatre style was completely at odds with the material, three crazy costume designers including the couturier Mainbocher, book writer S.J. Perelman, and the great composer Kurt Weill.

Just before her death in 1993, de Mille published a 500-page biography of her great friend and colleague Martha Graham that's one of the best artist's biographies ever written. If you ever see it at the library or a used bookstore, I can't recommend it highly enough.

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