Saluting Agnes de Mille

A. de Mille Celebration
New York Theatre Ballet
Florence Gould Hall
New York, NY
April 28, 2006

by Susan Reiter
copyright ©2006, Susan Reiter

By the calendar, this celebration of Agnes de Mille’s centenary (she was born September 18, 1905) was seven months late, but the New York Theatre Ballet certainly used the extra time to get this gem of an evening right. Modest yet very complete, it gave quiet a complete sense of who de Mille was, as both a dancer and choreographer — at least for the earlier (and, let’s face it, more enduring) portion of her career, since nothing dating any later than 1951 was presented. Two leading de Mille interpreters — former ABT principal Sallie Wilson and Broadway/concert dancer Gemze de Lappe — were responsible for the stagings.

New York Theater Ballet is a worthy chamber-sized troupe that has brought us significant Ashton and Tudor revivals in the past. For this intelligently designed de Mille program, attention was paid to important details, such as costuming, and there was the extremely welcome inclusion of live music; the 13-member New York Theatre Ballet Chamber Ensemble was nestled in a corner just below the downstage right corner of the stage.

The first half was titled “Agnes the Dancer” — as opposed to the second half, “Agnes the Choreographer” — but while it did comprise works in which she created vividly distinctive roles, two of its three works were also choreographed by her. Her familiar 1941 “Three Virgins and a Devil,” which ABT had revived a few years ago, and Tudor’s less frequently seen “Judgment of Paris” (1938) both focus on the sexuality of a female trio. In the playful, satirical de Mille work, they are medieval ladies trying to maintain their piety in the face of the Devil’s temptations. In the Tudor, they are hilariously washed-up, seen-it-all old whores, half-heartedly plying their declining wares to a café customer, until the ending gives them the last laugh.

“Three Virgins” is quite broad, and much of the movement is quite simplistically layered onto the jaunty, tuneful Respighi music, but within its cartoonish limits and dated approach, it makes its point merrily. As The Priggish One (de Mille’s role), Melissa Sadler maintained her hauteur and righteousness, haughtily trying to keep her less pious companions focused on the church they kept approaching but never quite made it inside. Elena Zahlman’s Lustful One, dutifully bored and very ready to respond to the attentions of the goofy Youth who lays the Devil’s groundwork, was clearly ripe for the Devil’s picking. Danielle Genest’s Greedy Virgin tried to maintain a veneer of morality but was also easily lured astray. Steven Melendez was a particularly animated Devil, capering through his occasional bursts of virtuosity nimbly, despite his dangerously long tail. The simple approximation of the set worked well enough, and the familiar costumes were on loan from ABT.

“Judgment of Paris” was quite funny and never veered over the top in this performance. Thanks to the well-chosen, deliciously sardonic Kurt Weill “Threepenny Opera that Tudor chose, the sad, grotesque women’s hilariously lame vaudevillean turns — fluttering a mangy old feather boa, making two hoops go through some exceedingly simple maneuvers, waving a fan with would-be Spanish allure — have bite. Tudor’s three vivid creations must have been lodged somewhere in Jerome Robbins’ memory when he shaped the roles of the three over-the-hill strippers in “Gypsy,” to similarly wicked comic effect. Sadler, Ursula Cooper (in the role de Mille created), and NYTB artistic director Diana Byer conveyed utter boredom with life and al its shenanigans without ever going over the top.

In between these two ballets was a novelty — what was identified in a program note as an early “solo Ms. de Mille performed prior to achieving fame as a choreographer.” No date was given, and from the set, costume and one pose from a famous Soichi Sunami photograph of De Mille, it resembled “Ballet Class,” which de Mille first performed in 1928. But this one was titled “Debut at the Opera” — a title I could not find in the index of any of my books by or about De Mille. The program stated it was “reconstructed by Janet Eilber” but did not say when, or for what occasion — whether it had been reconstructed earlier or specifically for this performance.

Whatever its specific provenance (and authenticity), it was a charming little vignette of an opera-house ballet dancer nervously preparing herself, to gentle comic effect, in the wings, while occasionally sneaking a peek at the action on stage. Elena Zahlmann — who proved to be a wonderfully versatile, subtly dramatic dancer throughout the evening —was charming as this plucky, insecure creature, quickly adjusting her feet before each pirouette, trying to be perfectly prepared to forsake the safety of the wings for the perils of the world onstage. In the Sunami photo, De Mille appears wistful and vulnerable, but Zahlmann created a charmingly determined, if somewhat deluded, character.

The program’s second half — excerpts from four of the Broadway musicals to which De Mille made crucial, and enduring, choreographic contributions — was staged by de Lappe, an 85-year-old petite dynamo who performed in many De Mille musicals, as well as creating a role in “A Rose for Miss Emily.” She threaded the four selections together as an almost-continuous suite, saving all the bows for the end. A simple abstract backdrop, suggesting a wide-open vista, served as the only scenery, and the costumes were evocative but simple. These finely wrought examples of vintage musical-theater choreography demonstrated their dramatic persuasiveness and provided a richly textured experience that one doubts the audiences plunking down $110 these days to see ”Lestat” or “Tarzan” will find.

The least-known excerpt was a duet, “Another Autumn,” originally performed by de Lappe and James Mitchell, from the 1951 Lerner & Loewe musical “Paint Your Wagon.” This wistful and fluid duet, filled with plant partnering — at one point the woman hangs draped around the man’s torso — suggested a couple mourning a loss together. Zahlmann, in a simple white pinafore-like slip, took on de Lappe’s role of the Dance Hall Girl, and Melendez, in western gear, portrayed the Young Miner.

There were plenty of other women in white during these selections. The well-known “Come to Me, Bend to Me” from “Brigadoon” (1947), has the dewy. expectant bride Jean’s friends shoo away her fiancé Charlie (Jarrod Cafaro, whose plangent tenor delivered the song beautifully) and joining her in a dance of tremulous expectancy on the eve of her wedding. Its simplicity and innocence with which de Mille evokes the supportive camaraderie of women away from their men, and a hint of sexual longing and nervousness, remain touching. Zahlmann transformed herself into a plaintive, eloquent Jean.

It was wonderful to see two substantial ensemble set pieces from “Oklahoma!” (1943) and “Carousel” (1945) — two of the most significant and enduring musicals, both by Rodgers and Hammerstein, in which de Mille was a crucial collaborator — because in both cases, the most recent Broadway revivals had jettisoned her choreography in favor of new interpretations. In the “Oklahoma” for which Susan Stroman did the choreography, there were no “dream’ versions of the three central characters who took over for the pivotal Dream Ballet; the same performers did it all. While that had an impressive aspect, there is much to be said for the power of de Lappe’s lovingly detailed, exciting recreation here of the de Mille version — in which a demure Kathleen R. White, as Laurie, sang “Many a new Day” before her dance double, Danielle Genest, magically took over and the stage filled up with the vivid characters of her dream. There are wholesale borrowings from “Rodeo” incorporated, as de Mille brings to life Laurie’s conflict between safe romantic yearning and the allure of sexual danger. The cowboys “ride” through, the demure, modestly dress women bustle along, and the curvy dance hall girls flaunt their assets. One could also appreciate what one presumes is the original dance music arrangements, which weaves through many of the show’s songs to great dramatic effect.

The rousing, witty hornpipe from “Carousel” was launched by Matt Castle’s spectacular rendition of the robust “Blow High, Blow Low” — the rousing salute to the joys of life at sea — and pitted the hearty men against the spunky women, until an adorable focal couple (Yukiko Kashiki and Kieran Stoneley) got past their wariness and delivered an invigorating courtship through dance. The energy, patterns, and sheer good-natured fun of this “Hornpipe” brought a most satisfying evening to a delicious close.

In a post-performance talk-back, de Lappe said of “Paint Your Wagon” that “half the show was dancing.” Perhaps we might hope for further examples of what de Mille contributed to this lesser-known show. There have been other attempts to preserve her contribution to musical theater. In 1998, the De Mille Project Workshop, gathered veteran de Mille dancers together with a group of young dancers to reconstruct — and document on videotape — her choreography for “Allegro” and “One Touch of Venus,” as well as the ballet “A Rose for Miss Emily.” We can only be grateful to those, such as de Lappe, whose memories are so vivid and whose dedication is so strong.

Volume 4, No. 17
May 1, 2006

copyright ©2006 Susan Reiter



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