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RECOLLECTIONS : Agnes de Mille: Indomitable, Inimitable

October 09, 1993|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC/DANCE CRITIC

Agnes de Mille, who died on Thursday at 88, never liked fuss and bother. And she didn't suffer fools at all, never mind gladly.

The last time we saw her, this past June, she was accepting a special citation at the Tony Awards ceremony. Frail and infirm, she delivered some poignant remarks in defiantly raspy tones. Then she wanted to make what would have been a premature exit.

"Wheel me off," she commanded in a sotto-voce growl heard, thanks to television, 'round the world. She always liked being in charge.

Agnes George de Mille (also proudly known as Mrs. Walter Prude) was an all-American original. The world applauded her as a choreographer, author, director, dancer and lecturer. The world admired her as a stubborn pioneer and energetic innovator, as a hopeless idealist and, for all the right reasons, as a blissful troublemaker.

It wasn't smart to get in her way.

She was tough and bright, this apple-pie heroine. She was witty and sympathetic, this gutsy iconoclast.

She had a healthy, ultimately realistic sense of her own worth. She knew what she wanted, and usually knew how to get it.

Bad luck and ill health slowed her down over the decades. An insensitive fate forced certain compromises, both physical and professional, upon her. But nothing so prosaic as a stroke or the passage of time could stop Agnes de Mille.

Everyone will remember her, of course, for "Oklahoma!" She made Broadway history in 1943 with the dream ballet, a creation that integrated dance with the basic narrative.

For once, the plot didn't stop cold for a hippity-hop diversion that would bring on the showgirls. With a little help from Rodgers & Hammerstein, De Mille introduced choreography that propelled the drama forward and, at the same time, added telling psychological comment.

She was understandably bitter when Hollywood decided that most of her efforts on behalf of Laury and Curly were expendable. She believed that moviegoers were intelligent enough to follow her ideas. The myopic producers were the ones afflicted with limited attention spans.

De Mille received lots of glory for her inventions in "Oklahoma!" She received very little money. She always harbored some bitterness about that.

Her most enduring, and endearing, achievements in so-called legitimate ballet probably involve three works: the whimsical "Three Virgins and a Devil," in which the devil dances but the virgins don't; the irresistibly folksy "Rodeo," and the somber "Fall River Legend," in which a ballerina commits a famous ax-murder on pointe.

De Mille tended to bristle, however, when chroniclers failed to appreciate the rest of her prolific output.

"I did so much more," she used to grumble. "So much more."

And she did. She choreographed numerous other ballets, some of which would no doubt deserve a revival--if they can be reconstituted at this distance. She wrote provocative, thoughtful books. She worked in film and television. She was active in the formation of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Even in later years, she remained eminently and intrinsically theatrical, as a person and as an artist. A no-nonsense storyteller, she wasted neither words nor steps.

"You must not bore," she repeatedly admonished anyone who might listen.

Agnes de Mille practiced what she admonished.

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