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One reason tap declined in the Fifties was the rise of the Broadway musical, which dovetailed with a new kind of realistic theater dance, in which every gesture was rooted in the personality of the character. No choreographer was more important to this evolution than Agnes de Mille, but that’s something you’d never know from her finely written memoir, DANCE TO THE PIPER (New York Review Books, $17.95), which was originally published in 1951. It’s a dry and self-deprecating bildungsroman that was, by her account, scratched out on napkins and envelopes while she was “doing a barre” or tending to an infant.

The story begins when de Mille is a child. Her father, a playwright, moves the family from Manhattan to Hollywood, where his brother, Cecil, was breaking into the moving-picture business. She sees Anna Pavlova perform and falls in love with ballet, but is not permitted to attend lessons more than twice a week. Dance was no career for a proper lady; haphazard training, however, is no way to learn a craft. De Mille falls behind as soon as she begins, and eventually pushes her dreams aside to attend UCLA, where she studies English and choreographs a few numbers for campus rallies.

The day after she graduates, her parents announce that they are divorcing. De Mille moves back to New York with her mother, the most vivid character in Dance to the Piper — controlling, suffocating, discouraging, and endlessly self-sacrificing. The daughter of Henry George, a Progressive Era economist, she sews Agnes’s costumes, sells tickets to her performances, and converts the dancers she meets to her father’s Single Tax plan. De Mille’s luck turns when she finally moves out of her mother’s apartment.

The reigning ideal of the woman artist had been set down by Isadora Duncan, who, de Mille writes, “broke all the traditional moralities and lived like a bacchante.” De Mille’s body, temperament, and upbringing all pointed another way:

I had been brought up to believe you must love the man you kissed, pay your bills, keep your word, be as modest as possible and work faithfully. If inspiration hit you along the way, so much the better, but it was not to be counted on. . . . I would very much have liked to be heroic but it struck me that if I went against my instincts I would really be whoring.

Agnes de Mille watches James Mitchell and Gemze de Lappe rehearse for the television broadcast of de Mille’s Gold Rush, 1965 © CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Agnes de Mille watches James Mitchell and Gemze de Lappe rehearse for the television broadcast of de Mille’s Gold Rush, 1965 © CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Bigger than the typical ballerina, and more of a comedienne than she cared to be, de Mille presented her choreography of everyday stories about boys and girls as an invention of necessity. Its expressive, theatrical qualities were also influenced by her early exposure to Uncle Cecil’s movie spectacles. Though she would eventually become one of the most famous choreographers in America — she earned more than a million dollars, adjusted for inflation, in 1950 alone — in earlier years it was hard to persuade anyone to take a gamble on her. She struggled desperately to impress agents, managers, and company directors. She was defrauded by shady bookers and nearly bankrupted her mother. She could not be choosy about where she rehearsed, at one point sinking so low as to share space with — tap dancers.

The school I had chosen to practice at was depressing. The hours alternated with tap-dancing and the rooms resounded to the clatter of steel-bottomed shoes, while the dressing rooms were given over to tiny children getting themselves into satin pants and diamond-studded brassieres under the admonishings of their hard-eyed mothers.

Satin pants, diamond-studded brassieres — the history of the dance costume, and the trauma it has wreaked on our collective consciousness, surely deserve their own book. (I would be happy to contribute my own photographs to the cause.)

De Mille never treats success as her due. (“My brief and frenzied flurries with commercial troupes of mixed prostitutes and chorus dancers had not helped me build a technique of composing and rehearsing nor raised my confidence to speak of” is one typical remark.) And when she does achieve something, she generously credits everyone she has ever met for making it possible, as women will do. De Mille ultimately choreographed fifteen musicals — including Oklahoma!, Carousel, and Brigadoon — and twenty-one ballets, of which three — Rodeo, Three Virgins and a Devil, and Fall River Legend — are still in repertory. But Dance to the Piper ends, disappointingly, with her riding off into the sunset as she marries a man, Walter Prude, whose portrait in her memoir is painted far less brilliantly than those of Martha Graham and the members of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

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