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Book Review

Leaps in the Dark: Art and the World
by Agnes De Mille, edited by Mindy Aloff 

reviewed by Elizabeth MacPherson

Leaps in the Dark: Art and the World is a collection of writings by Agnes de Mille, edited by Mindy Aloff. The selections are drawn from de Mille’s books: Speak to Me, Dance with Me; Dance to the Piper; Portrait Gallery; And Promenade Home; Reprieve; The Book of the Dance; Lizzie Borden: Dance of Dark; To a Young Dancer; and Walter’s Book: In Memory of Walter Prude (1909-1988) as well as articles published in Dance Perspectives and Theatre Guild Magazine. The book is organized into three sections: “Portraits and Self-Portraits” in which de Mille describes and pays tribute to many of the great artists she knew, “Essays” which covers choreographic process among other topics; and “Curtains Up” which focuses on performance and includes letters to and from de Mille’s husband Walter Prude. Aloff introduces each selection by providing context as well as commentary on the dance figures and events mentioned by de Mille.

Although I had read many of these selections before, I found myself immensely captivated by this book. Through her extraordinary, detailed descriptions, de Mille makes one see, hear, feel, and sometimes even smell the environments and situations she describes.
De Mille comes across as a complex personality -- on the one hand confident of her superior choreographic abilities and accomplishments, and on the other hand deeply insecure. This insecurity might possibly stem from an early age when her family declared her not pretty enough to be an actress. In addition, although there were great supporters of her as a choreographer through the years such as Martha Graham, Richard Rodgers, and Oscar Hammerstein II, there were also people who did not value her abilities as highly such as Marie Rambert and her uncle Cecil B. De Mille. Agnes de Mille seems to have taken the mixed messages all to heart.

Some of the most intriguing selections are found toward the end of the book. The vividness of de Mille’s writings on the development of Oklahoma! give wonderful insight into that musical theatre masterpiece, and provide perspective into the personalities who were responsible for the creation of the original production.
Another illuminating segment is “Preparing for Performance” from To a Young Dancer. This selection gives much advice on professionalism that should be read and followed by all young dancers today. Majors points stressed are: being neat in the dressing room; rehearsing in full, exact costume before the performance; and bowing simply yet graciously. As a teacher of young dancers, it amused me to be reminded that needing to encourage and teach professionalism is no new issue.
Perhaps my favorite selection is titled “Old New York” in which de Mille depicts the city as she knew it in childhood. The sights and sounds she describes make me wish I could go back in time because they are quite different from the New York I know. An example: “Fairly frequently from alleyways came the unmistakable clang of a blacksmith’s anvil and the clatter of a newly shod horse proudly stamping back into the streets. These sounds have completely gone from our lives.” (p. 176) Other sounds and sights she mentions are newspaper boys calling out, “Extra, Extra!” and piano playing pouring into the streets from open windows, before there was such things as radio and air conditioning, and in a time when many more people knew how to play the piano.
Because the selections are not necessarily chronological, there is overlap in time periods and certain descriptions from one selection to another. This was mildly disconcerting to me at the beginning of my reading, however I quickly moved past that to an admiration for the depth of the material presented. One aspect I continued to miss was photographs. Although de Mille’s descriptions create visual images in the reader’s head in and of themselves, I would have greatly enjoyed seeing a collection of photos that illustrated various writings.
Overall, the book is of tremendous value in that it brings Agnes de Mille “back to the table” for conversation and appreciation of her remarkable contributions to the dance field, particularly in the United States. One can hope, as Aloff mentions in her introduction, that this book will inspire republication of one or more of de Mille’s out-of-print books in their entirety.

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