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And Away She Went!

'Leaps in the Dark: Art and the World"   edited by Mindy Aloff

reviewed by Dean Speer

May 2011

Agnes de Mille never knew it but she was probably one of the most influential persons in my early career development as a young dancer. Even as a teenager I knew that research and knowledge were my best allies in gaining a foothold on a career path in the arts and so read from cover to cover every issue of “Dance Magazine” that came to my local library as well as every book on dance on the library shelf. This became habitual and is a practice that I still enjoy today, finding great delight and glee when new dance books hit the streets.

One of the books was de Mille’s seminal work “Dance To The Piper.” I was so impressed in many ways – her passion for her art, her amazing and facile ability at word-smithing, and how with word pictures, she made us feel like we were living her story too while allowing us the breathing room to understand it in its proper context.

What influenced me so greatly at the time was de Mille’s declarative statements about how, in essence, time was money and the need for dancers to learn and assimilate work quickly and thoroughly – that there was precious little time for mistakes. [Ironically, she also said she’d rather have a nice calf on a dancer than a nice mind, but we can forgive her for that.]

So, with the fear of de Mille in my mind and under my feet, I took class with the goal of never
making a mistake...and did pretty well for a couple of years or so until much to my chagrin, I made my first combination mistake. Which my teacher promptly noticed and said, “Dean, that’s the first mistake you’ve made in class!” Never the less, what I learned – which was a better attitude and approach – was not to beat myself up over errors but rather to learn and correct myself and to gain insights in other ways to improve my technique and knowledge.

Imagine how thrilled I was when I actually got to meet de Mille years later when she was in Seattle to oversee the staging of her “Three Virgins And A Devil” for First Chamber Dance Company. Slightly trembling inside, I introduced myself to her and was happy that she was gracious and signed an autograph with a flourish.

Editor Mindy Aloff and the University Press of Florida have put a lot of heart and thought into a compilation of de Mille’s best writings in the newly released and very welcome “Leaps in the Dark: Art and the World.” Some of my favorite stories are here including a description of the great teacher and dancer Carmelita Maracci and of de Mille’s agony and triumph with her choreographic breakthrough, the1942 “Rodeo.” I loved her telling of how she met Pavlova and how this meeting – and being kissed on the forehead by her – “sealed my fate.”

There is valuable information here– historic and topical – that’s virtually in no other single volume and certainly not with de Mille’s voice. This would include essays about her famous film family – her uncle was that DeMille -- her early memories of a bygone New York City, her observations of the London 1929 premiere of Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son,” her comments and support of Martha Graham, sage advice to young dancers and performers, and a love letter to her husband, among other treasures.

My only wish would have been for more photos – there is one on the cover and another on the
Frontispiece, neither of which I recall seeing before and both are quite good. While I realize it’s not a biography and that licensing images can be both time-consuming and expensive – I know from personal experience as a UPF author myself -- it would have been fun to have had a sampling from different periods her in long career and life.

Never the less, I was thrilled to have received my copy of this important book and, as the author and publisher hope, as I do too, that it introduces and re-introduces de Mille to a new audience and will perpetuate interest in her writings, life, and career. Perhaps this is also the star tof something beautiful – that UPF or another press republishes some of de Mille’s out-of-print titles.

 

University Press of Florida

ISBN 13: 978-0-8130-3570-3
http://www.upf.com/book.asp?id=ALOFF001

Read related stories in the press and see what others are saying -- visit the forum.

 

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