December 2005


Agnes de Mille Centenary
A niece of Cecil B. De Mille, the legendary Hollywood director, Agnes de Mille (1905-1993) became one of the seminal figures of twentieth-century dance. She gained worldwide fame as a choreographer for her groundbreaking work in ballet (including Rodeo, 1942; and Fall River Legend, 1948) and on Broadway (Oklahoma!, 1943; and Carousel, 1945, among other classic musicals), and wrote more than a dozen books that in turn inform, delight, and inspire--including a series of memoirs and a two-part autobiography (Dance to the Piper and Promenade Home). Our brief remarks here scarcely do justice to this remarkable woman. Readers who seek out books or films related to her life and work will be richly rewarded.

We offer the following excerpts from her memoirs--one, on childhood; the other, on old age:

From Where the Wings Grow: A Memoir of Childhood (1978)--about summers at Merriewold, the de Mille estate near the Delaware Water Gap:
"'She's a completely spoiled and egocentric girl,' said Aunt Bettie to Uncle Rich, often within the hearing of the others, and always within my hearing. It was true. I was spoiled rotten. I was impossible. I was a pain in the ass. At the same time I was the mysterious child, powerful and beautiful. I was the possible lover. When I stood in the woods alone, as I did with increasing frequency, I was capable of passion. I was the age [fourteen] of the great heroines. I knew all sensitivity, all power, all awareness, all terrible blinding curiosity. I was mysterious and shaking. There were moments, always alone, when anything could have happened, anything."
From Reprieve: A Memoir (1981)--written after she had suffered a massive stroke:
"I was not going to recover the old life. That had been destroyed with my body, sloughed off like a dead snakeskin. What lay ahead was unexperienced. In very truth, I was to be reborn and to face life as a baby, but with this difference: I had a recording mind. / How to begin? Well, first things first. Stay alive. . . . Let me try to be clear, because I think this is important. All those capabilities and activities which I was so used to . . . [were] gone, gone. Denied me suddenly and absolutely. . . . I never yearned to have them back because I couldn't, simply, and therefore there was no choice. But in those concerns where there was a possibility of choice and an undetermined path, there I yearned to be active, to be alive, to be, as the Buddha said, AWAKE. And I felt that I must not, could not, willed not to just shut my eyes and sleep, accepting in these matters also total cessation."

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

* Books by de Mille: A List [more ] [more]
* Brief Profiles: Spotlight (UCLA) and JFK Center for the Performing Arts
* Photographs: de Mille as the Cowgirl in her Rodeo
* Biography: Agnes de Mille (The Library of American Choreographers, 2005)
* Biography: No Intermissions: The Life of Agnes de Mille (2000)
* A Children's Book: Agnes de Mille, Choreographer
* Internet Broadway Database: Productions
* Dance History Archives

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

A Personal Note: On a cold winter night in December 1982, I picked Agnes de Mille up at her apartment on East 9th Street in Manhattan and drove with her uptown to the Theater of the Riverside Church on Morningside Heights. The occasion was a performance of Spanish dance by the William Carter Dance Ensemble, featuring Bill Carter and the incomparable Maria Alba. De Mille and I had never met before, and here I was, her escort for the evening. Was I nervous? Need you ask? I recall only a snippet of our conversation, something she said in reply to a now-forgotten question of mine. She had played tennis in her youth and was fast on the court--"like a grasshopper on ice" was how she put it. (As a sometime tennis player myself, albeit of slower speed, I appreciated the metaphor.) By now you may be wondering how I had found myself in the enviable position of accompanying de Mille that evening. Bill--whom I had come to know several years before--had danced the role of the Champion Roper in her Rodeo, with American Ballet Theatre. De Mille considered him "a figure of magic," whose dancing was "brilliant, passionate, and deeply moving" (indeed, it was), and he had told me that she wanted to be at Riverside to see him perform. Might I make it possible? Like so many luminaries in the dance world, de Mille revered Bill. In stylistic range, sensitivity, and emotional depth he was without peer in twentieth-century dance (he died in 1988). But that is a story for another day--I have not forgotten that this one is about de Mille. How does the proverb go?--"birds of a feather. . . ." -- L. T.

An Unreadable "Classic" about Nothing
Browsing in our local Barnes & Noble a while ago, we came upon the Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Opening to the Introduction, we read the following:

There is no agreement as to what Finnegans Wake is about, whether or not it is "about" anything, or even whether it is, in any ordinary sense of the word, readable.

For our part, we would suppose a literary "classic," even one from the twentieth century, to have a bit more to recommend it. Someone should have informed the editors at Penguin that a classic is a work that "by common consent has achieved a recognized position in literary history for its superior qualities," to quote the excellent Handbook to Literature by Thrall and Hibbard. At the very least, oughtn't one expect a purportedly superior work of "literature" to be about something and readable?

One Man's (or Woman's) Pleasure . . .
We never cease to be amazed by the ease with which the institutional artworld slips from the sublime to the ridiculous. Exiting the Metropolitan Museum not long ago, having just attended a press preview of a splendid exhibition devoted to the early Italian Renaissance master Fra Angelico, we spied the museum's latest membership poster in the great entrance hall. Join today and enjoy the many pleasures of Membership! it proclaimed. Fair enough. But which of the museum's great treasures, ranging from antiquity to the present, was reproduced to entice new members? Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm!--not the work in its entirety but a detail (as if any part of that "allover" pattern were worth singling out for attention), which in reproduction seems even more inconsequential than the painting itself. How trivial its "pleasures" are can be gauged (even on a computer screen) by comparison with any number of other works in the museum's collection of American paintings, such as John F. Kensett's sublime Lake George (1869).

EXHIBITIONS: Coast to Coast
We will again comment on selected art exhibitions, north, south, and west of the Hudson River in our next issue.

EXHIBITIONS: The Art of Landscape
Jacob van Ruisdael: Dutch Master of Landscape (through February 5, 2006) and A Natural Attraction: Dutch and Flemish Landscape Prints from Bruegel to Rembrandt (through February 12, 2006). Both at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

New Forms of Art: A Year-End Report
When What Art Is was published in 2000, we listed (in Appendix A) ninety-eight new forms of purported art that had been invented since the beginning of the twentieth century. Since the book's publication, we have added nearly as many more examples invented, or learned of, in the interim (see Part II of Appendix A)--for a grand (or infamous) total of 189. Even allowing for some duplication, owing to forms that are listed by more than one name, the sum is still staggering. In this issue we add five new forms to the list, including several related to Docudrama.

Buzzwords the Critics Love
Artworld buzzwords are ubiquitous in the critical literature, as a glance at Appendix B-II reveals. We add new instances, such as "straddle the line between representation and abstraction" and (in a purported dance) "explore the relationships between architectural and emotional environments."

"The Arts" at the New York Times--More of the Same
It seems to be our lot to track the Times's shameless abuse of the term art. So here we go again, documenting yet more examples--many with links, and some in full--in the section the paper indiscriminately calls "The Arts" (Appendix C) and in the "Arts, Briefly" column (Appendix D), found therein. Alongside articles about pianists, singers, and dancers the Times features news about persons ranging from Barbara Walters, Katie Couric, and a man with multiple-personality disorder to Tiger Woods, a master chef, and CNN'S Anderson Cooper.

The Year Ahead: Keeping it Simple
We plan to make just three editorial New Year's resolutions this December 31st: to strive mightily for monthly publication, to improve our format for greater readability, and to publish more articles by other writers (we have a few in mind, but would not mind hearing from one or two college students who would be willing to toil as interns at no pay).

Annual Fundraising Appeal
In politics, numerous online periodicals and weblogs give voice to every point of view on the controversial issues of the day--from the war in Iraq to abortion and immigration. In arts criticism and scholarship today there is, in effect, just one controversial issue--is it art? On this point, however, there is no debate. The artworld is unanimous in answering "Yes." Intellectually independent readers who love the arts and seek a contrarian viewpoint--"No! And here's why!--have but one source to turn to: Aristos.

If you are such a reader (if you've read this far, you probably are), we ask for your support--however modest--so that we can continue to disseminate our unique perspective on the arts in 2006. If you value what you read in these pages, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to the nonprofit Aristos Foundation. Take a moment now to review the several contribution options we offer for your convenience. To those who have generously responded to previous fundraising campaigns, we exclaim once more--merci!

Letters to the Editors
We invite readers to comment on matters related to items published in the current or past issues (see Archives).

Aristos E-mail List
If you wish to receive brief notices from us announcing a new issue of Aristos, please contact us. Your e-mail address will never be made available to a third party. If, perchance, you are already on our list and wish to be removed, just say the word.