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Tv Dance Review : 'The Indomitable De Mille' On Pbs

May 08, 1987|LEWIS SEGAL | Times Dance Writer

One hour of TV time is simply inadequate to cover the important family influences, career highlights and creative achievements of 81-year-old American choreographer, author and former dancer, Agnes de Mille.

After all, small libraries and large exhibits have been devoted to these subjects--and a 60-minute "Dance in America" telecast allows only the most superficial overview, even when narrated by the superbly pithy De Mille herself.

"Agnes, the Indomitable de Mille" (tonight at 8 on Channel 24; tonight at 9 on Channels 28 and 15; Saturday at 8 p.m. on Channel 50) tries to tell the story in the lady's own words, but is uneven as oral history and all too often reduces De Mille's dances to incoherent snippets.

You glimpse something of the movement style of her most celebrated work through re-edited sequences from vintage TV shows, a theatrical feature and even home movies. The sampling is about evenly divided between De Mille's ballets ("Rodeo," "Fall River Legend," "Three Virgins and a Devil") and her musical-comedy choreographies ("Oklahoma!," "Bloomer Girl," "Brigadoon"), all adapted for the camera to some extent.

En route, you also rediscover memorable dancers in their prime--notably James Mitchell, Christine Sarry, Lucia Chase, the great Nora Kaye and Agnes de Mille, too. But, cut to the bone and abruptly terminated, these excerpts seldom register strongly. Sometimes they make no sense whatsoever out of context.

De Mille usually explains why the clips are important but she's hardly an objective observer and, anyway, what's wrong with being allowed to decide for yourself? A half-hour more of dance footage would have made all the difference.

Similarly, De Mille's fights to make herself into a professional dancer, to get her choreographic ideas accepted and to recover from a massive, near-fatal stroke (12 years ago) need to be more than just colorful voice-over anecdotes.

Director Merrill Brockway does present a few significant digressions on the De Mille character, including her delicious confrontation (over freedom of expression) with Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper. However he's eventually forced to make up for lost time with patches of drastically telescoped chronology: De Mille's Broadway successes summarized in a fast shuffle of album covers and snatches of hit tunes, for instance.

It all comes dangerously close to those obnoxious commercials for 100 best-loved classical melodies. De Mille deserves much, much more--and, ironically, seems to have been better showcased 30 years ago on the "Omnibus" series than in this ambitious but indomitably middlebrow "Great Performances" telecast.

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