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DANCE : Class From the Old School : Choreographer Agnes de Mille, standard-bearer for a past generation, keeps on writing, rehearsing: 'What else would I do?' she says

January 17, 1993|JANICE BERMAN | Janice Berman is the dance critic for New York Newsday

The trick for McKerrow as the Maiden was to become "a real person, to have enough weight and be grounded enough to give enough value to the movement," McKerrow said on the phone. "I have a tendency to move through things, and I needed to try to stay there a second longer."

De Mille is "very definite about what she wants," McKerrow said, yet "she gave me the freedom to find my own interpretation. You'd think she'd be limited."

Working in the studio as De Mille, seated, watched, McKerrow found that "the expressions on her face are a body language to me. Her emotions come through her face so strongly, you could almost visualize her out of her chair, doing it."

De Mille needs to work quickly if possible, as she can only work a couple of hours at a time before she becomes exhausted. Orr--part demonstrator, part notator, part imaginator--downplays his creative role, but admitted to working with her on the story, an elaboration upon De Mille's 1978 "A Bridegroom Called Death," choreographed for the Boston Ballet, which never satisfied her. Orr feels free to disagree with her and is impressed by her flexibility.

"I'll say, 'That's not working and this is redundant,' and she'll say, 'I think it's great!' But then if she thinks about it and doesn't think it's working, she'll toss it out like a 17-year-old kid."

The company is mounting a De Mille tribute at the Kennedy Center Feb. 5--she's planning to attend--that includes "The Informer" (1988), the revival of "Three Virgins and a Devil" (1941), and "Rodeo" (Ballets Russes, 1942; Ballet Theatre in Germany, 1950; in New York, 1951).

Based on McKerrow's success with "The Other," Orr, who was acclaimed in the '70s for his performances in "Rodeo" as the Champion Roper, prevailed upon De Mille to let McKerrow learn the role of the Cowgirl. "I auditioned for it, and she was very hard on me," McKerrow said. "In the part where I was bucked off the horse, she said the movement had to come more from the pelvis. I think she was testing me, making sure if I was game to do it."

"I think she'll be enchanting," De Mille was saying in her bedroom. "The Cowgirl has to feel herself as a misfit, an unsuccessful baby woman."

That was De Mille's role Oct. 16, 1942, when her ballet premiered with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo at the Metropolitan Opera House--"the old Met, the good Met," says De Mille, who hates the one at Lincoln Center because, she says, nobody past the eighth row can see the dancers' facial expressions.

De Mille had a meeting with Ballet Russe impresario Sergei Ivanovich Denham about doing "Rodeo." "I was very, very poor. I had to borrow a dress and hat from my sister.

" 'How much do you want?' Denham asked me.

"I said, 'Five hundred dollars. If it's no good, it's the end of me--and if it's good, you've got a hit for very little. And I have to dance the opening. I must have $15 per performance.'

"Opening night was not a very good performance. Casimir Kokitch forgot one entrance and I had to play one scene as a solo; my dress was too tight around the throat and I nearly strangled." No matter. "It just went, on a great tidal wave of enthusiasm. We had 22 curtain calls."

After the opening, Denham doubled her pay per performance to $30.

"I couldn't jump the way the others could," said De Mille, "but I got a laugh every time I wanted to. I knew where the laughs were coming."

She knows about tears, too. When they rehearsed the prologue of "The Other," McKerrow said, "we spent an entire hour in the studio, just she, myself and Terry. I think she wanted to set the gravity, but at the same time the joy, of living and moving and finding the peace in one's existence.

"There's sort of a sadness," he said, "appreciating the beauty and knowing it will die, and enjoying it anyway while you can."

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