03 January 2016
Dance to the Piper by Agnes de Mille
Born into a family of successful playwrights and producers, Agnes de Mille was determined to be an actress. Then one day she witnessed the Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova, and her life was altered forever. Hypnotized by Pavlova’s beauty, in that moment de Mille dedicated herself to dance. Her memoir records with lighthearted humor and wisdom not only the difficulties she faced—the resistance of her parents, the sacrifices of her training—but also the frontier atmosphere of early Hollywood and New York and London during the Depression. “This is the story of an American dancer,” writes de Mille, “a spoiled egocentric wealthy girl, who learned with difficulty to become a worker, to set and meet standards, to brace a Victorian sensibility to contemporary roughhousing, and who, with happy good fortune, participated by the side of great colleagues in a renaissance of the most ancient and magical of all the arts.”
Strangely, I think I read Dance to the Piper before, or tried to, because the early sections of the book were crazily familiar. When I was a child, I read any and all dance biographies or memoirs I could lay my hands on, which were pitifully few given my local public library. I read Alicia Markova's constantly, understood most of Margot Fonteyn's, was frightened by Gelsey Kirkland's, but I didn't understand Agnes de Mille's.
1) de Mille wasn't a ballet dancer so was immediately of less interest to me (tutus and toe shoes were my jam)
2) She didn't take ballet lessons until she was an adult but she still wanted to emulate Pavlova (*cue scoffing from one totally stuck-up kid*)
3) She went on and on about her own dances which I had never heard of or seen (I knew she had choreographed Oklahoma! but this was completely prior to that and made no sense).
It didn't take.
Well, I'm so thankful that NYRB Classics printed a new edition and that they contacted me out of the blue and offered a review copy. A re-read almost 30 years later - with a much wider dance education and modern classes under my belt, not to mention a dance minor - really made the difference in my understanding. de Mille's memoir is not only a chronicle of her experiences as an itinerant, aspiring dancer in an era when America was developing its idea of the art form apart from classical ballet but also the very early silent motion picture era when her father moved the family West to join his brother Cecil (yep, that de Mille) in California. Her story is a testament to how your dreams and goals change over time. She never gives up her dream of being a dancer, and her determination to keep with her ballet training was a major influence on her later choreographic style, but she slowly turns from classical ballet to an original contemporary or modern style. We would never have had Rodeo without her.
A few chapters are a bit uneven in places, and clearly shows mid-century psychological theories around the edges, but de Mille captured everything so brilliantly. Dance history fanatics will goggle at the sheer number of mid-twentieth century dancers de Mille interacted with both in the US and in England. For a memoir supposedly delivered to her editor in a grocery sack, the sentence-level quality of writing is excellent.
(Must also point out an introduction by the dance critic Joan Acocella)
Dear FTC: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.