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Speak to me, dance with me by Agnes de Mille

Speak to me, dance with me

by Agnes de Mille

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Speak to Me, Dance with Me is a memoir by famed dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille. The book covers the years 1933 through 1935, when de Mille, an American, was struggling to make her name as a dancer and dance designer in England. I found that a very interesting world, time and place to learn about. I'm not really that interested in dance and dance history, to be honest, but I am interested in the creative process and in human nature, and both are on vivid display in this book. It is interesting that many of the key dance/ballet troupes in England at that time were led by women.

But when it came to theatrical or concert productions, usually men had the money and made the decisions. de Mille chronicles the ways in which her struggles to gain support among important men (and even women) were affected by the fact that she was not deemed glamorous enough. At one point de Mille has it explained to her that the reason two particular producers had lost interest in her as an artist was that she was not well dressed enough at rehearsals.

Finally, her uncle, the famous movie director Cecil B. de Mille, calls her to Hollywood to create and perform in a dance number for his production of Cleopatra. The experience is a horror for Agnes, as her uncle wants something artistically vulgar, Agnes refuses to go along, and she is ousted from the production. The following passages explain de Milles' frustration:

Mim {a dance troupe leader in London and de Mille's teacher and employer} later asked, "Whatever made you think you could collaborate with this kind of taste?" He was my uncle who had excited me all my life and I thought I could. I believe had I been a man I would have been given a second chance. Men give men second chances, never women, except as an act of courtship. Cecil liked a show of spirit in a girl, but only as a gambit in flirtation; he liked sauciness, the devout preparation for his attention and then the taunting. That was high coquetry. One could say "no" if one was irresistibly gotten up. I've seen his daughter and my sister tease jewels out of him. But I met him eyeball to eyeball in football regalia and said like any man, "I won't budge. My soul forbids it."

My work marched on its own feet. But not very far, alas! I should have been able simply to dress better and to flirt. It was not simple. To me it was basic.

Mary Austin, the writer, had once said to me, "In all the history of art I have never heard of a man helping a woman because of the quality of her talent, not once. If they helped, they were seduced into helping the woman first and, if needs must, secondly the talent. Men's talents are, of course, something else."

I don't want to convey the idea that this book is a feminist polemic. It is about the struggles of an artist to gain a foothold in a tough, tough world where she doesn't quite fit in. The narrative is helped enormously by de Mille's considerable talent as a writer. Also, I should say, a second theme of the memoir (second but not secondary) is de Mille's relationship with a young man named Ramon, paralyzed from the waist down since his early teens but beautiful, articulate and sensitive. Great company for a struggling artist in need of cheering, in other words.

Because of the circles de Mille is moving in (and the family she comes from), there are many friendships and encounters (leading to sometimes fascinating written portraits) of famous people of the day. Gertrude Lawrence, Cole Porter, Elizabeth Bowen and George Bernard Shaw all play roles in de Mille's story to a greater or lesser degree.

Later, de Mille gained considerable fame and success, particularly for her choreography on Broadway hits like Oklahoma and Brigadoon. But this book is about the early years of struggle, and that later success is only alluded to in passing once or twice.

I picked this book up basically at random from the shelf of my used bookstore and it opened up a world I had never really thought to explore at all. That's one of the very best things about reading, for me. ( )
1 vote rocketjk | Apr 21, 2018 |
According to her biographer, all the while Agnes had this romantic idyll with a handicapped man, she was having a passionately miserable affair with a married man. ( )
  picardyrose | Feb 20, 2008 |
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