Agnes de Mille built a bridge between the world of ballet and the Broadway musical. Her pioneering choreography for musicals like Oklahoma! helped transform the musical into a serious American art form. The genius of de Mille lay in her ability to blend the language of classical ballet, the expressive quality of modern dance, and the traditions of American folk dancing. The result was superior choreographic entertainment that appealed to a broad public.
Agnes de Mille was born in New York City on September 18, 1905, and moved to California with her family in 1914. After graduating from the University of California at Los Angeles, de Mille struggled for several years to make a career in dance, first in New York and then in London. She returned to New York and, in 1940, created Black Ritual, her first ballet. Two years later, she had her first resounding success with her Americana ballet Rodeo, commissioned by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
She followed her success with Rodeo by choreographing several noted musicals. In her 1943 milestone of the genre, Oklahoma! and other shows, including Carousel (1945), Brigadoon (1947), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949), and Paint Your Wagon (1951), she used dance to advance the plot, to great critical acclaim. She went on to arrange the dance scenes for the film version of Oklahoma! (1955) while continuing to create distinctive ballets such as Tally-Ho (1944) and Fall River Legend (1948).
An engaging writer, de Mille published several books, including two autobiographical volumes: Dance to the Piper (1952) and the subsequent And Promenade Home (1958). In 1975 she suffered a serious stroke, but she lived almost 20 more years and wrote four more books, received countless awards, lectured, and championed support for the arts before Congress. During the night of October 6, 1993, she died of another, final stroke at her home in New York City.