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Crippled by a Stroke, Choreographer Agnes De Mille Fights Her Way Back to the Barre

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She is one of Broadway’s most celebrated choreographers, a tiny, white-haired woman with ice-blue eyes and a commanding manner that some call tyrannical. At 75, Agnes de Mille is deprived of the spontaneous movement she once took for granted—her entire right side is partially paralyzed from a massive stroke six years ago—but she remains as willful, and often as terrifying, as she was in her physical prime. “Glaciers move faster than I do,” she complains, yet every day she stands for 20 minutes at the practice barre in her Greenwich Village apartment, inching her limp right leg into the five positions of classical ballet and forcing her numb right arm to assume a port de bras. “It’s no fun,” she says. “I can’t feel. I can’t see improvement. It’s not like recovering from a ski accident. I’ve lost half my body forever.”

For de Mille, forever began May 15, 1975, two hours before she was to go on stage at New York’s Hunter College as narrator for her Agnes de Mille Heritage Dance Theatre. “I’d been warned I had high blood pressure, but I was just too busy to take the pills,” she recalls ruefully. “Then at the last minute I had to fire a dancer and hire a new one. When the new boy arrived, I went to sign his contract and the pen fell from my hand. Somebody said, ‘Sit down and relax.’ I did, and then I said, ‘I can’t feel my right foot, my right hand. I feel cold.’ I realized I’d better ask for an ambulance.”

De Mille spent the rest of that harrowing night in intensive care, balanced precariously between life and death. Her doctors worked for three months to stop a series of embolisms, and repaired the obstructed carotid artery in her neck with a length of plastic tubing. She left the hospital in a wheelchair, painfully aware that she could never fully recover. “The nurse said it’s as though all the telephone lines had been dragged out of a switchboard and just left on the floor,” she explains. “I give the signals and nothing happens. It took me a year to learn to hold up my right hand. I control it from back in my left shoulder. It feels as if it weighs 70 pounds.” Disciplined, and sublimely stubborn as well, de Mille taught herself to write with her left hand and to walk with a cane and a leg brace. “But I am deprived of what all dancers and choreographers have to have,” she says with a sigh. “The instinctive gesture.”

De Mille chose to turn her struggle into a memoir, Reprieve, due for publication this month (Doubleday, $14.95). It is her 11th book, and it will carry a twofold message. “First,” she says, “that you can have a life after something like this if you really persist. Don’t try to do the impossible. Just lower your sights and zero in on what you can do. Second, that you will discover a tremendous awareness of other faculties. Your capacity just opens up. It’s extraordinary.”

That is the word most often reserved for de Mille herself. Along with Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham, she is revered—and, by some traditionalists, deplored—for shaping the evolution of American dance in this century. Her “overnight success” as the choreographer of Oklahoma! in 1943, a Broadway debut that revolutionized American musicals, followed 15 years of rejection and struggle. Previously, dance in musical dramas had been all frill and decoration; de Mille believed that dance should be seamlessly integrated into plot and character. In the years that followed, she carried out her ambition in hits like Carousel, Paint Your Wagon and Brigadoon.

Success, however, didn’t soften her style. “I came to be known on Broadway as a terror,” she recalls with satisfaction, “a really tough, intransigent woman.” She has never been one to remember the names of the kids in the chorus or to sweeten her tart evaluations of other people’s work. “I’ve never been a very kind person,” she admits. “I’m me. And I had to do what I had to do.” That bulldog cussedness has characterized her life and work throughout, and has enabled her career to survive her ill health. Only two years ago she once again supervised the choreography for a rollicking Broadway revival of Oklahoma! Last year she helped bring back Brigadoon, and was the recipient of a Kennedy Center award for lifetime achievement in the performing arts. Obviously, she relishes the attention. “I used to have to go out there and yell at people to dance,” she says from the sidelines, wielding her cane like a scepter. “Now I just sit here, and everybody treats me as if I were some kind of holy relic. It does have its advantages.”

Born into a patrician New York theatrical family—her father, William, was a producer, a playwright, and later a movie director—de Mille grew up on a first-name basis with most of the show business luminaries of the time. Nothing changed but the setting when the de Milles went West in 1914, following William’s younger brother, the famed Cecil B., to Hollywood. Agnes and her sister Margaret were reminded daily to live up to their lineage. Their mother, the daughter of 19th-century economist Henry George, had a “veneration for her father that bordered on the religious,” Agnes recalls. “Having known one authentic genius, she took it for granted that anyone in whom she placed her love must stand head and shoulders above the multitudes. She expected everybody to be perfect, and she wouldn’t put up with anything else. I can tell you that makes for a restless kind of a time.” De Mille’s own adored father was hardly comic relief. “My passion was to please him,” she says, “but he terrified me. He was very caustic, very sarcastic, and he couldn’t do anything simply or affectionately. He treated us rather like puppies, for whom he had the fondest regard, but whom he did not choose to fondle much. He expressed himself in rude banter and awkward pats.”

Still, de Mille was molded by her parents, not crushed by them. She remembers Hollywood as “a delicious place, a little fruit-growing village.” Most vividly, she remembers being taken to the ballet as a child to see Anna Pavlova. “On that day my desire to become a dancer crystallized,” she says. “I was in the balcony of the Mason Opera House in Los Angeles. Out she came, like a vibrating bird. Nothing in my father’s world had prepared me for that Saturday afternoon. When Pavlova danced, you sat shaking. Or weeping. The day somebody else produces that effect, I want to know it.”

Though William de Mille regarded professional dancing as not too many rungs up the ladder from streetwalking, Agnes was eventually allowed to take lessons. The results did not immediately please her. “I seemed to be all wire and rusty safety pins,” she recalls. “My torso was long, with unusually broad hips, my legs and arms abnormally short. I did not know that I was constructed for endurance, and that I would develop through effort alone a capacity for outperforming far better technicians.”

Agnes deferred her dance career to major in English literature at UCLA and graduated cum laude in 1926 at 19. “On the day I put the diploma in Father’s hands, Mother told me that the marriage was broken up,” she says. “It was a hard divorce. He just smashed all our lives.” Out of loyalty to her mother, Agnes refused to speak to her father for two years. Receiving no help from her uncle Cecil B., she tried in vain to find work on Broadway. “All I balked at was jigging on the sidewalk with a tambourine,” she says. “But nothing worked. Nothing led to anything else.”

Falling back on a generous allowance, Agnes financed the staging of her own concert evenings. Although her New York debut and a 1930 homecoming performance in California prompted good reviews and a reconciliation with her father, no producer was seriously interested in her offbeat dances and “character sketches.” Yet, ultimately, her persistence paid off. The devices de Mille used to disguise her lack of classical technique—comic gestures, athletic movements and folk dance—later became the elements that made her choreography famous. Meanwhile, she danced for pay wherever she could—in movie houses, tacky nightclubs, even at private parties. To broaden her repertoire, she included belly-dancing routines picked up in the Greek coffeehouses along Eighth Avenue. “I was absolutely without inhibition,” she recalls. “By the time I got through, experts believed I’d learned my stuff in Marrakesh.”

Finally, de Mille got her first Broadway job, as choreographer for a 1932 Shubert musical called Flying Colors. But she was fired before the show even opened in New York for taking too long to make up the dances, and she decided it was time to take stock. She was getting nowhere with her own dancing; she had fouled up her relationship with the powerful Shuberts; the Depression had depleted her father’s fortune; and there was no permanent man in her life. “I never knew why men didn’t want me for a wife,” she recalls, “though, looking back, it seems as plain as a pikestaff. I would have been a dreadful wife. I didn’t give a rap about domesticity, and very little about anyone else’s problems except my own. I was extremely interested in me. Men hanker after something else. Passion, character—even deep love—do not modify the flaw of divided attention.”

Discouraged, she took the next boat to Europe, where she studied some, and worked less. With war imminent, she returned to the U.S. stone broke in 1938. She thereupon landed a $20-a-week job teaching dance, and had her teeth straightened—on credit. In 1939 a wealthy dance enthusiast named Lucia Chase decided to bankroll the company that later became the American Ballet Theatre, and Agnes was signed as a choreographer. Her first piece for them, Black Ritual, was unremarkable, but the presentation of black dancers created a sensation, and her affiliation with the ABT has continued to this day. By 1942 her work had brought her to the attention of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which, for novelty’s sake, had decided to include a ballet by an American in its classical repertoire. De Mille created Rodeo out of sketches she had done in England, demanded Aaron Copland as her composer, and took advice from Martha Graham on how to handle the Russians. “Be arrogant,” counseled Graham. “They won’t respect you unless you’re rude.”

On opening night, Agnes herself danced the role of a rambunctious cowgirl who can’t get a man, while Russian male dancers leaped like cowboys astride bucking broncs. “If it is possible for a life to change at one given moment,” she says, “my hour struck at 9:40 p.m., October 16,1942. Chewing gum, squinting under a Texas hat, I turned to face what I had been preparing for the whole of my life.” There were 22 curtain calls, and in the audience were Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, on the verge of their landmark hit, Oklahoma! “Here at last were the aristocrats of the business,” she says. “When I met them I thought, ‘Oh, my God, where have you been all my life?’ ” Though her memory of the two men is not as fond as it might be—she was paid only $50 a week during the Broadway run of Oklahoma! and has received only a minuscule share of the show’s fabulous royalties—her collaboration with them was her watershed success.

Just as her star was unexpectedly rising, de Mille met Walter Prude, a Texas-born concert manager, and fell in love. When he was drafted into the Army, Agnes followed him from one training camp to another and married him just weeks before he was sent overseas. Two and a half years later Walter returned. Their only child, Jonathan, was born in 1946. Jonathan, who is now married and a professor of history at Emory University in Atlanta, was desperately ill for the first five years of his life. De Mille found herself a combination working mother and nurse. To complicate matters, her husband was outspokenly resentful of her career. “It was hard,” she admits, “and we both paid a price for it. Walter wouldn’t go to my opening nights, and I always cried myself to sleep even after a smash success.” Yet the marriage had a saving quality, too. “Somehow we always delighted each other,” Agnes muses. “Never at any point, no matter how mad I got with him, did I not think, ‘Gee, I’m going to have dinner with Walter tonight. That’ll be exciting!’ That kind of feeling will take you through a lot.”

Enough, in fact, to sustain the marriage for 38 years. “I’m a cripple now,” Agnes says frankly. “I’m dependent on Walter. He’s been an angel to me. He’ll come home tonight and fix my dinner and sit beside me. We’ll look at the TV together and read and go to sleep. It’s all very gemütlich.” Yet it would be a mistake to regard this peace as surrender. Even now, as de Mille wrestles her traitorous right leg into position, she dreams the improbable dream that she may once again make it perform. “But even if I don’t,” she says with a defiant smile, “you can say I certainly used it when I had it, kiddo.”