Rodgers and Hammerstein'sOklahoma!
Out of Her Dreams: Agnes de Mille
and the "Dream Ballet"
“I’m really like a playwright. … I tell a story and I tell it well.” – Agnes de Mille
On the opening night of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, the audience witnessed a revolution in American musical theater 18 minutes before the end of Act 1: the “Dream Ballet.” This Act 1 finale was choreographer Agnes de Mille’s visionary gamble to create a dance in a theater performance that supported the storyline instead of merely entertaining. Entitled “Laurey Makes Up Her Mind,” de Mille focused on bringing ballet down to earth, humanizing it, and infusing it with humor and truth.
The audience and critics quickly took notice. In the original New York Times review, the “Dream Ballet” was called “a first-rate work of art … it actually carries forward the plot and justifies the most tenuous psychological point in the play, namely, why Laurey, who is obviously in love with Curly, finds herself unable to resist going to the dance with the repugnant Jud. Many a somber problem play has … failed to illuminate it half so clearly after several hours of grim dialogue. Yet this is a ‘dance number’ in a ‘musical show’!” De Mille’s work in Oklahoma! would define American dance for decades, catapulting her to the top of her field as the most famous and influential choreographer of her time.
Born in Harlem and raised in Hollywood, Agnes de Mille (1905-93) seemed destined for a life onstage. The daughter of William C. de Mille, a Broadway playwright and screenwriter, and niece of film director and producer Cecil B. de Mille, de Mille trained in London with Madame Marie Rambert’s Ballet Club. Throughout the 1930s she had some minor success on the London recital circuit and choreographed sequences for the Leslie Howard-Norma Shearer film version of Romeo and Juliet (1936).
Though the 1930s brought recognition among critics, de Mille struggled to make ends meet as a dancer. Then, in 1942, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo invited de Mille to choreograph a ballet for their repertory. The resulting work, entitled Rodeo, was an energetic and comical work set in the Wild West. Rodeo was embraced by audiences and celebrated as “refreshing and as American as Mark Twain.”
de Mille Territory!
Cowboys and pioneers, horses and hoedowns, romance and melodrama: this was de Mille territory. So when de Mille heard that the Theatre Guild was working on a new musical production of Green Grow the Lilacs, she volunteered her skills. Rodgers and Hammerstein and the Guild’s second-in-command, Theresa Helburn, went to the opening of Rodeo and in days, de Mille had signed on for Oklahoma!
Like a woman who knows her territory, de Mille set about staking her claims. She went head to head with the director, Rouben Mamoulian, over casting dancers, rehearsal space, and staging. She fought furiously and sometimes won. A huge victory was the casting of strong, talented dancers over beautiful, mediocre ones – or, as people joked, over the “producers’ girlfriends.” In the end, the clashing of egos, the exhausting rehearsal hours, and the intensity of creation made for fertile ground, and de Mille constantly found herself full of ideas and inspiration: “I was like a pitcher that had been overfilled. Dances simply spilled out of me.”
Agnes Makes Up Her Mind
Hammerstein wanted to illustrate Laurey’s ambivalence about her relationship to Curly by having characters turn into circus performers at the end of Act 1. De Mille objected, insisting that Laurey’s dream reveal her conflicted longings, her sexuality, her fears. She pushed for more suspense and more sex. After all, said de Mille, “Girls don’t dream about the circus. They dream about horrors. And they dream dirty dreams.” De Mille described the 18-minute “Dream Ballet” as “lyric, nonrealistic and highly stylized but salted with detailed action that is colloquial, human, recognizable.”
De Mille believed that the ballet was essential to the audience’s understanding of the characters because it conveyed emotions that words could not. And the audience agreed. “Wonderful is the nearest adjective,” wrote Lewis Nichols in The New York Times. “There is more comedy in one of Miss de Mille’s gay little passages than in many of the other Broadway tom-tom beats together.” An instant success, de Mille’s “Dream Ballet” became a landmark feature of this new American musical.