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Family Exhibit : De Milles Of Film, Dance And Theater

December 17, 1985|LEWIS SEGAL | Times Dance Writer

Anything these days with the word dynasty attached to it carries inevitable intimations of wealth, power and conflict.

"The De Mille Dynasty Exhibition," in the Century City Shopping Center (through April, 1986) celebrates a family with enough riches, influence, resentments--and genius--to make even the Carringtons of Denver feel like under achievers.

Conceived by Louise Kerz and produced by Joyce Aimee, the exhibition explores major innovations in theater, motion pictures and dance as it documents the careers of the most notable De Milles--Henry C., William C., Cecil B. and Agnes G.--along with their relatives and associates.

Basically, the exhibition is chronological--a family time line--and designer Eugenio Zanetti has managed to unify a vast and potentially unwieldy collection with pseudo-classical wall-sized engravings. These graphics deftly suggest influences on De Mille visual style, provide bright yet unassertive backgrounds for the colorful artifacts and refuse to take the subject(s) at hand too solemnly.

Special effects? Of course. There's a fiber-optics display just inside the entrance that surrounds the viewer with pinpoint galaxies of shifting color. And there's a garden set between Cecil's and Agnes' domains that resourcefully conveys a sense of the environment of this privileged, talented child.

(In the doll house, someone--reportedly not Agnes--has placed a tiny figure in black who resembles the evil stepmother in her ballet "Fall River Legend.")

There's even a hologram of Agnes herself that belies its 20th-Century laser technology with its 19th-Century decorum and formality.

In one room after another mannequins revolve to show off opulent costumes, objects glitter from showcases (everything from a model of the Golden Calf in "The Ten Commandments" to the Golden Popcorn Award given to Cecil B. in 1952) and videotape loops endlessly recycle hype and nonsense: the claim that Charlton Heston resembles Michelangelo's Moses, for example, or the canard that Agnes introduced ballet to Broadway.

What's missing? A sense of cultural context, perhaps. The De Mille creations are evoked with only token reference to historical events, popular trends or the accomplishments of others. And, certainly, the opportunity to screen uninterrupted sequences from De Mille films (and filmed ballets) has been ignored.

What does vividly emerge is the image of the De Milles as taste makers--and the evolution of their individual tastes as evoked by the sets, costumes and properties they commissioned and approved. Certain preoccupations surface continually in the artistic legacy of this family--the frontier, social commentary, moral preaching packaged as mass entertainment--and the exhibition is splendidly organized to show these themes taking personal shape over decades and then generations.

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