Dance to the Piper

A choreographer and dancer whose ballets in Oklahoma!, Bloomer Girl, Brigadoon, and Allegro have brought a new quality to the American stage, AGNES DE MILLEhad a long row to hoe before she could establish herself. The granddaughter of Henry George, and the daughter of William de Mille, the playwright and the first scenario writer in Hollywood, she was brought up in California. She had always wanted to dance, an ambition which her parents did their best to discourage, but when she was taken to see Pavlova and was led backstage to be kissed by the ballerina, she became a convert for life. She studied at the Kosloff School, practiced at home, composed her own dances at college, and then went East to crash Broadway.



IT IS generally reckoned that the cost of launching any concert career is around forty thousand dollars, and the soloist who creates his own vehicles must of course count on spending more because the maturing process is doubly hard and much slower. In a brisk interview I had with Sol Hurok about this time, he named three thousand dollars as the over-all cost for presenting me in a series of New York concerts, a very conservative estimate. I declined, hoping I could earn my way as I went and that no such frightening expenditure would ever be demanded in a lump sum. This was poor economy. Concert artists cannot pay their way for years, and very substantial sums have to be risked without guarantee of any return. But I did not feel justified in losing three thousand dollars in a lump at this point.

The cost of a single concert in the early thirties was about twelve hundred dollars without rehearsal or costume expenses. Add to this a year’s rehearsing, studio rental, pianists’ fees and lessons and, on top of all, costumes. Multiply by four for the cost of every item today and you will see why so few dance recitals are given. Even with sold-out houses, the dancers lose heavily. In the late twenties and early thirties, the only dancer who could draw more than twelve hundred dollars a performance was Martha Graham. Mother began to lose several thousand a year on my career although I always hoped she wouldn’t and never counted on the repeated expense.

Then, on short notice, I found myself engaged to choreograph and dance Christopher Morley’s revival of The Black Crook in Hoboken. This was the first time I had ever arranged dances for a group.

Now I felt it was time to get a partner. Warren Leonard came to audition for me, bringing an introduction from John Martin. He arrived in a blizzard, hatless, with the ice melting on his lashes and two ballet slippers stuck in pockets, one on either side of his greatcoat.

“I would like you to jump for me,” I said.

He look off his galoshes, removed his muffler and overcoat and, putting the slippers on his feet, started jiggling up and down.

“Don’t you want to change and warm up?” I asked.

“Why?” he said, staring at me blandly.

He jiggled twice more, rose vertically and touched his hand to the ceiling, then stood waiting for the next orders. “Anything else?”

“Jump like Kreutzberg.”

He jumped like Kreutzberg.

“Can you do ballet dancing?”


“What else?”

“Tap, acrobatic, adagio, acrobatic tap, front overs, back overs.”

“Can you lift me?”

“Depends on how much you weigh. I don’t know how you dance, you know. You’ve got to show me a thing or two before I answer all your questions.” With that, he fell to the floor and did twenty-five push-ups.

“Can you act?”

“Sure. Why not? What’s there to acting?”

I confirmed all this with Martin. John said he could act. And he could. Very nicely, with a dry humor and an excellent, subtle sense of character.

We began to rehearse. Warren thought I was a mess, too fat, too slow, too timid.

“You depend on your personality to get by with murder,” he said. “Never mind all that fancy feeling. You’ve missed your fall three times running now. And your back — how do you expect me to pick you up if you don’t hold your back? Don’t you care if you do a thing right?” This was an old-time vaudevillian speaking — one did one’s tricks right or one got fired.

“I’m tired,” I whimpered.

“What’s that, got to do with it? You’re scared too. Why are you always so scared? Afraid I’m going to drop you? Here, I will drop you. It’s not so bad.” He dropped me. Deliberately. I hit on my chest.

“ It’s not bad, is it ?”

“It’s not good,”I said quietly.

“Well, now you see? Now get up and do it again and do it right.”I toughened up. He was tireless, He also despised food during rehearsal hours. Rehearsal hours were four hours at a stretch. No food, no rest, no conversation. Lots of argument. “Oh, honey,”he said one day after a long workout, taking my face between his hands and gazing tenderly at me, “oh, honey, you’re so lousy!”

He argued about music, which was supposed to be my province, he not having had much experience with music outside of Orpheum orchestras. “No, no,” he would say, his voice rising to falsetto with irritation. “You’ve done something bad with that phrase. It’s not right. I won’t let you do it.”

He argued about language. I said one day very gently, “May I criticize something? You said ‘I sing good.’ That’s not only untrue, it’s ungrammatical.”

“ You pronounce ‘apotheosis’ wrong,” he snapped.

He argued about clothes. He didn’t like the way I dressed. Nobody ever had — but he began running around town to find suitable and attractive things for me to buy. Mother was appalled. “ What right has this boy to make such suggestions?”

“He cares how I look.”

“Don’t you think I care how you look? Haven’t I always?”

Why doesn’t she stay out of our rehearsals?” said Warren.

“What’s he doing to your work?” said Mother.

Please don’t be rude to her, Warren,” I begged.

“Tell her not to be rude to me.”

They were rude to one another from then on. Implacably. Never in all the time I worked with him did the tension between them slacken — until he stopped dancing with me, and then she converted him promptly to Single Tax and he became her lifelong friend and devoted correspondent.

The Black Crook turned out to be great fun but the production was disorganized. The dress rehearsal lasted two days and they never did get around to timing the last act. I remember I tore all the blankets and pillows from my local hotel room and bedded down my dancing girls on the floor of the theater boxes for the two nights of dress rehearsal.

The opening performance endured five and a half hours, from eight-thirty until two in the morning. The audience that came in at eight-thirty went home at twelve, and a brand-new audience off the streets and from the Ilofbraus and other Hoboken theaters sauntered in free and filled up the emptying seats. Of course, they didn’t know what the play was about, but that didn’t matter. The dramatic critics went home at eleven and so missed all my work. John Martin stuck it out and came tottering backstage, with his wife, at two-fifteen. Not only that, but he took Warren and me out for food and cheer — and he did cheer us. He thought we were splendid, and he wrote long columns about us in the Sunday Times. But no agent or manager ever read a dance critic, so it didn’t help commercially.

During the course of the season, Warren inadvertently kicked me in the face (an error due to my absent-mindedness) and broke my nose. The sound, a kind of wet scrunch, carried to the back of the theater, but, I am proud to say, neither of us missed step. This did not improve my nose. Neither did it hurt it. It remained the same, but the episode (I danced with splints up my nostrils) fatigued me and I was galled at doing the same thing every night, and after three months I decided to quit. The experience, in any case, had degenerated. People crossed the Hudson in the spring evenings to eat German food and drink beer spiked with ether. They arrived late at the theater, very high, not to say a little crazy. I danced through a barrage of peanuts, popcorn, beer coasters, chewinggum wrappers, and programs and a tumult of catcalls, whistles, and drunken singing. I didn’t like it. I handed in my notice.

Then for a period that seemed endless I tried to break my way through into any possible kind of entertainment. I appeared in third-rate movingpicture houses in Baltimore, Max Reinhardt’s Chorus, a stock company (I had agreed to play anything given me and was handed a piano off stage), a movie short, private parties, third-rate night clubs. All I balked at was jigging on the sidewalk with a tambourine. There was no stone I didn’t turn, no door I didn’t beat against. From time to time, well-meaning friends would suggest something. Whatever it was 1 had tried it. Absolutely nothing worked — nothing lasted — nothIng led to anything else. And yet whenever I put foot to stage under proper conditions I could make an audience rock with laughter. It seemed inexplicable. I continued to give auditions. One for Hilly Rose lasted four hours. He saw nine of my dances in full costume — a concert. He thanked me very courteously afterwards.


THEN, out of the blue, Arnold Meckel, Argentina’s manager, urged me to allow him to present me in Paris. “You realize I have no money?" I said. “There isn’t any moving-picture money behind me.” But Meckel hastened to protest. He was not interested in money. He was interested only in my future, which he assured me was something he believed in strongly.

This was the autumn of 1932. Mother’s income had dwindled to half, what with the depression and mismanagement by the trustees of her fund. There was indeed no money behind me; I was speaking the truth. Although I was getting a small allowance from Pop, it was totally inadequate to finance theatrical ventures. No one ever spontaneously suspected that the de Mille resources were not buying me a professional footing and protecting me every step of the way. My confreres were wary and only very slowly grew to recognize our common plight. I therefore could make use of none of the dodges and cuts of other professionals and I was charged double for everything. Living within the aura of wealth and yet so powerless I came to find extremely galling.

Mother managed the concert costs by giving up thenceforth, for life, all luxuries— taxis, lower berths, good theater tickets, good restaurants, everything but the cheapest clothes.

My brother-in-law, Bernard Lineman, lent me the thousand dollars for my share of the trip, and Mother, having sublet her apartment, took the gamble.

It was raining the night we arrived in Paris. Meckel did not meet the train, being engaged elsewhere on Madame Argentina’s concerns. His secretary came with a bunch of wilted flowers and took me to the office, which she unlocked (it being then near midnight) to cheer me up with a display ot the advertising material. As the l5,000 lolders were a dingy printing job and contained incorrect dates, the effect on me was disappointing.

The theater selected was a small one, the Théâtre de I’Avenue at the Bond-Point, run by the Pitoëlfs. It was a charming little household a flair. The head sceneshifter and his wife, who ran the box office, locked the doors every noon for two hours and lunched on a checked tablecloth in the front lobby.

Meckel was planning to paper the entire house. We told him to stop. He thereupon stopped all managerial activities of any sort, including publicity. Mother, undaunted, went to work on Paris with her letters of introduction. Geraldine Farrar had written out about fifteen by longhand; she brought them to me herself in New York. Mother began slowly working her way through the chocolate cake and tea of the faubourgs.

There was then in Paris an ardent and brilliant Single-Taxer, Sam Meyer. A true liberal and a Jew, Monsieur Meyer was taken to Auschwitz during the Occupation and destroyed. But at the time of our visit he had a beautiful house in Suresnes and a wide circle of influential and sophisticated friends. He and his wife put their entire weight behind my début. I have never heard of a businessman giving up so much time and effort to help someone he barely knew. This he did out of deference to my grandfather and, of course, to my mother. He and his wife and Farrar’s friends turned the first concert from a dirty little swindle into a legitimate performance.

For it was a swindle. Meckel did nothing. The advertising and publicity were negligible. The stage was covered with a thick rug up to the morning of the concert. The piano had not been tuned, the cyclorama not cleaned. Whenever I lodged a complaint, the secretary found she could understand neither English nor my French. Meckel had another American girl giving dance recitals at the time. The uncle of this one was a director of General Motors. Meckel evidently figured he had tapped two American gold mines. In the meantime, he was busy with Madame Argentina.

There was an audience — a paying audience. Meckel admitted himself stupefied, but grateful. The rug did come off’ the floor because Mother wept on the phone to Madame Meckel, and Madame Meckel personally attended to many matters, coming backstage to help with the costume changes.

Mother wrote in her diary: —

Paris, Sunday, Oct. 30, 1933
Well it’s over — the first one, thank goodness!
The floor of the stage which had so worried A. had been covered with linoleum — and the dirty little theater looked quite clean, which it really wasn’t. The black velvet curtains on the stage had been swept and garnished, and looked very nice too. I stayed in the lobby till the last bell rang for the curtain . . . then took a stance at the door. The usher tried to wave me into seats here and there but I was deaf— stone deaf—and she ultimately pulled down a tiny shelf in the doorway—where I perched. The curtains parted and A. made her entrance in Stagefright— her orange and yellow tutu remade and fresh from the hands of the woman who makes the tarlatan skirts of the Opéra ballet, Barbara Karinska. There was a dead silence — not one hand. Not a trace of welcome. I froze for I knew she had not been prepared for this custom any more than I had. Site started her dance — and did well but drew not one ripple such as she had from every other audience. Suddenly she slipped and tell — the new linoleum — not the fake fall that conies later — but a real fall that left a black mark on her silken leg. I died. ... I flew around to Meckel, pulled him out of Argentina’s box and told him to get rosin for the stage floor.
Next came ′49 ("Danse des plaines de l’Vouest”) and they certainly didn’t understand that.
Next came the Gigue of Bach. As the curtain parted and Agnes stood there in her brocades and white wig, looking very beautiful, the audience came to — and applauded and sat on the edge and at the end called “Bravo” and clapped for I forget how many curtains. Her technique was never so good. From then on I could begin to relax.

At first, the French didn’t think I was a bit funny or even intelligible. It was Kurt Jooss who broke the horrible stalemate halfway through the first half by jumping to his feet after the Bach Gigue and shouting “Bravo" repeatedly, He also did spadework in the lobbies between hahes. As his Green Table had just taken every prize on the Continent and was playing nightly to packed audiences in Paris, he was someone to listen to.

Startled into attention by Jooss and others, Meckel made a shade more effort on the second concert. For this we had nearly a full house. Since the Parisianswere slow, be explained, fifteen more concerts would certainly do the trick. Fifteen! I gasped, for my money was running low. I d received no gate receipts whatever. And, by the way , where was the money that had been taken in at the box office:

Meckel grew vague and bothered. There were so many taxes, so many, many government taxes. He would have to go and figure it all out. This conversation took place in the cellar dressing room with me stark naked, in a bath towel, running make-up and sweat.

Sam Meyer said he would inquire about my accounts. He could talk French —the secretary could not pretend not to comprehend him. Monsieur Merger phoned every day for the next two weeks in the morning and in the afternoon, but Monsieur Meckel was never in.


MY NEXT engagement was a Brussels date Meckel had arranged, and one morning Mother, Warren, and I boarded a train and rode through the magnificent October woods to Belgium. We arrived late in the afternoon and phoned friends who had promised to lay the city at our feet. They were dismayed. Not having seen a line in the press, they concluded, not unreasonably, that the engagement was canceled. I telephoned the manager but he had gone home for the day and left no message. So we spent that night in something akin to apprehension. The Belgians were perfectly right; inquiry failed to disclose any publicity whatever.

The next morning early Madame Gottschalk, a friend of Sam Meyer, took me to the Palais des Beaux-Arts and we faced the situation. It was not promising.

“Mais, si” the manager had inserted an ad in the paper. He exhibited two lines of printing in want-ad type.

Gladys De Nil of the Hollywood He Nils will dance tonight at the Palais des Beaux-Arts.

“ This is unpretentious, certainly,” I said. “Also inaccurate. How many seats has this sold?

“Not one, Mademoiselle.”

“How many seats in the auditorium?”

“Fourteen hundred.”

“Have you papered?”

“No. We had no instructions to do this. And besides, this takes time, and costs money for secretaries, and vvelhoughl the Paramount people would take care of tickets.”

“What Paramount people?”

“The Paramount people— your father’s company.”

“Who is my father;”

“Cecil B. De Mille, the head of Para mount.”

“Did Meckel tel! you what kind of dancing I did?”

He shook his bead.

“Did Meckel send you any pressor photographs or ins! ructions?”


“Why then did you agree to manage me?”

“As a favor to Meckel. We owe him much. He sends us Madame Argentina, lie asked us to let you dance in the theater. We did not expect to spend any money on this. He said that you would take care of all costs, that the Paramount people were behind you.”

“I will cancel,” I said. “I will not dance before three or four people. I cannot stand this.”

I probably looked very ill because Madame Gottschalk put her arms around me and launched into rapid and angry French. I was too disturbed to note what she was saying but it must have been effective. I believe she invoked the name of several cabinet ministers. Her family, it seems, was extremely influential. She flew at that blasé, indifferent young executive like a hen partridge. His manner changed. He turned to me with something like kindness. “You understand, Mademoiselle, nothing was made clear to us. We will do what we can.”

Then Annie rose to her feet. Of course, she hadn’t far to go. But she had a way of gathering herself up and lifting her head that produced the effect of drums and flags. “You’ll dance, Agnes, and before an audience. We’ve paid for this trip and we’ll have this performance. I’m going to the American Embassy. You do the lighting.” And with that she left.

I went, out on stage where Warren was already trying to cope with sullen stagehands who spoke only a kind of catarrh. Three hours later when we had set the cues for the last dances Mother phoned. “It’s all right,” she called cheerily. “I’m at the American Consulate. There are five secretaries working under my direction. There will be an audience. No money, but an audience. The Consul-general is coming with his entire family, which is very large — that will take up twelve seats. And they will all wear full evening dress. The press is coming and the Consul has invited you to tea as soon as you’re finished.”

The kind Consul, Walter Sholes, and his wife and daughters were waiting around a fire with tea and chocolate cake and consolation. He could not speak openly because of his position, but he was angry. I was not the first young American artist to come to Europe and be rooked.

There were four hundred people in the audience — four hundred summoned by phone between noon and six o’clock. Any theatrical secretary who has tried to do papering knows what this means. Did you ever try to give away theater tickets — even so few as four — the afternoon of a performance?

The management provided no dresser. The management did not even clean the dressing rooms. Mother swept them and laid down newspapers on every surface floor and table while I warmed up. Then Mother pressed the dresses while I did my face. When it was time to begin, the manager knocked on the door, and I began. I went through every dance as programmed without sufficient applause to take a bow. Not a laugh. Not a sound. It was like a two-hour-long audition before hostile agents. Paper audiences are traditional. So is the Belgian temperament. I left the stage sobbing for breath and crying tears of vexation and shame. At the end I took Warren by the hand and said, “God damn them. We’ll take a bow. And we’ll be leisurely.” But we were brisk. The sound of diminishing applause sets off a train of automatic reactions no performer can withstand.

The manager was in the wings as I made my final exit. He seemed pleased. “Mademoiselle, you are a success.”

I lowered my eyes in anger.

“On my honor, Mademoiselle. The press did not leave. It will be very enthusiastic. I congratulate you.”

And strangely enough, the press was just that, very intelligent, very discerning, and very enthusiastic.

The Consul was in the wings, sure enough, as Mother said, in white tie, with his lady in fur and velvet, and, oh, the comfort of home accents and home approval! The quiet, tall, Southern gentleman saying I had done well, and that they were proud. The audience, he added, was highly pleased also, but they were not accustomed to showing it.

Mother and I started to pick up the costumes. Everyone had gone home, the manager first of all. We collected and packed unaided. Warren went out to search a taxi, rare in that part of town. Mother and I pulled and tugged the great trunks and sacks down the lengthy hallways to the door, where two hulking Belgian brutes shouted at us to hurry, hurry, did we think they were going to stand there all night? If we didn’t gel on with it, they’d lock us in.

I was hungry, so we had supper in our hotel bedroom. Mother had providentially thought to lay in a stock of cheese, milk, and crackers.

We didn’t get any box office from Meckel until the night before we left for England. It amounted to forty-eight dollars — not net, of course, gross intake. We had paid all the bills as they came in, with our cash. The accounting followed ten months later.

Mother and I were very pleased to leave Paris. Our last impression of the Parisians was of the Gare du Nord porters screaming and howling for larger tips. Mother crept whipped into our compartment and promptly had a heart attack, her first, which was very frightening to me. I did not realize exactly what the trouble was, nor did she. By the time we got to England, the blue mark had gone from around her mouth and characteristically she did not trouble to see a doctor.

London was kind to us. This time we managed all our business, and with the help of Romney Brent, an actor and a devoted friend of the family, we did well.

Romney turned London inside out for me. He was playing at that time with enormous success in a Noel Coward revue and had become the darling of the drawing rooms. For three weeks before my concert at the Arts Theatre Club, he took me with him to Lady Sybil Colfax’s, the Raymond Masseys’, Noel Coward’s, Dame May Whitty’s. “This,” he would proclaim to their polite astonishment, “is the greatest pantomimic artist in the world.” And because of his charm and his own undoubted gifts, they all came to see. The house was sold out; the house was warm — there was even a little cheering.

Arnold Haskell rushed back to congratulate me. “Come back,” he said. “Make your home here and dance often. Whatever you want me to do I will do. I believe in you absolutely. I want to help.”

Marie Rambert was nearly as enthusiastic but in her own way. “I can teach you much. Stay and study with me.”

Financially we had broken exactly even; that is, the recitals paid for themselves. The press was fine. On the heels of the success came an invitation from Ashley Dukes, the playwright, and his wife, Marie Rambert, to give a series of concerts at the Mercury Theatre. I accepted and the arrangement was made that I give one recital a week and study with her in between times — all at my own expense. No great profits were possible, but at least the plan guaranteed steady performing without undue loss. Mother and Warren went home, and for the first time in my life I embarked on a project absolutely alone. As Rambert led me into the practice hall for our first business conference, we stepped across flats spread out on the floor. Two young men in sailor pants were bent over painting scenery. They straightened up and regarded me in the fading afternoon fight.

“You know Antony Tudor and Hugh Laing, of course,” said Rambert. We shook hands.


THE Ballet Club — or, as it is now called, the Ballet Rambert —and Mercury Theatre were twin organizations housed in the same building and drawing their inspiration from Marie Rambert and Ashley Dukes. She took care of the dance department, he the dramatic, producing such plays for the first time as The Ascent of F6 by W. H. Auden, and Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot, directly after the Canterbury première.

The theater was run on a shoestring, the house being scaled to £25 maximum. I have always believed that Madame’s ballet school paid most of the bills. Rambert was chief teacher, assisted by a young friendly drudge named Antony Tudor. Tudor also served when need arose as secretary, accompanist, stage manager, and janitor, for a fixed salary of £2 a week, room and tuition thrown in. Some of the better pupils also helped out with the teaching now and then, but the school and theater were kept on a strictly professional basis: dancers got 5/6 a performance, choreographers lump sums and a royalty. Tudor, for instance, was paid £10 for his Jardin aux Lilas, 2/6 a performance royalty. We all, except Tudor, paid Madame for our classes.

Mim’s parsimony never failed as a stimulus to dressing-room conversation. She was relentless about pennies, ha’pence even. The one thing she did not think worth saving was energy, hers or anyone’s. Costumes were let out, material redyed, coats turned, scenery painted over, rather than squander an extra pound and start afresh. In this she was like my mother and I had a sympathy for the point of view.

She had to do this; it was carry on this way or quit. She had no endowment that I know of beyond Ashley’s personal income. They t urned everything they earned back into their theater and its many experimental productions; they lived very quietly without even permitting themselves a car — they considered the Mercury their only luxury. She gave a performance nearly every Sunday night throughout the year and mounted fresh pieces regularly. She furnished her pupils and apprentices with a place to learn and practice their trade. She did not also expect to pay them. Coming from America where there was opportunity of no sort and where one paid overtime for whatever paltry chance, I considered myself lucky to have found such a berth.

The Ballet Club functioned in what had been the vestry house of a small odd-shaped church situated in an apex of land on the Notting Hill Gate bus routes. Outside, it looked like just what it originally was; inside, it was a geometric conglomeration of boxes, hallways, levels, closets, tiny auditoriums, and stairways. All larger divisions were lit by long ecclesiastical windows which gave an air of sanction to everything that went on inside, even the quarreling. One entered a vestibule hardly big enough for five people to stand in together, warmed one’s hands at a coal grate exactly like a Cruikshank hearth, bought a ticket at a cardboard wicket, and walked into an auditorium that seated one hundred and fifty people. The stage was by actual measurement eighteen feet square. The whole place had the air of a tiny eighteenth-century princeling’s court theater. And it was in this shoebox, this Punch and Judy show, that the renaissance of English dance occurred. Frederick Ashton proved himself here. Antony Tudor matured into a finished choreographer, the greatest in Europe. Alicia Markova was a regular performer in the days when no one else would give her footroom.

The school revolved around the practice hall which lay alongside the auditorium on a lower level. One went down precipitous steps at the back and entered a large oak-beamed room with a typical ecclesiastical vaulted ceiling. The windows were high up in the clerestory and admitted a pale reflected light because this part of the building was surrounded by Notting Hill dwellings. Voices and music sounded unnaturally loud as in all empty high-studded rooms. The floor was of oak polished to the shine of a dining table and literally worn into the grain by human flesh. I can still feel the knots, nailheads, and joinings under the balls of my feet, the bruising crack under my heel. Down the length of the walls ran de rigueur the barre. At one end of the room hung a large old mirror; at the other, encased in iron railing, stood a pothellied stove which grew rosy when prodded by the janitor, and gave off mustiness but no heat. The pianist, with blue fingers, sat at her upright, her back to comfort, in two sweaters, a shawl, a coat, an old felt hat. Whenever a dancer passetl close to the stove, she steamed slightly.

The whole room smelled of damp black woolens. The walls sweated. The gray damp of English winter streamed and thickened on the pale windows. Visitors sat fully coated and hatted without dreaming of undoing a button. The dancers dressed in lumber rooms and storage closets filled with old scenery and costume trunks. The practice clothes hung three deep on hooks all around the walls and they did not dry of body sweat from one day to the next. On arrival a girl would rigorously pull off her woolen dress and, standing in her woolen undershirt, hold her damp black tights over the oil stove while her pale flesh quivered at the exposure. I never put on my pants without looking for mushrooms in the seams. The dank contact made my skin jump.


THE English girls took it all quite naturally. Those astonishing English girls! Modest, shy, dogged, and indestructible, with plain bodies, all largeboned and rheumatic. They were virginal, flowerskinned, their cheeks already veined with the raw damp, their knuckles red, their joints and backs punished with incipient arthritis. Their bodies had not the resilience or nerve of American bodies. By comparison, they seemed slow. American speed in learning, American brilliance in turns, American bounce and recoil were bywords on the Continent. “Every race,” said Karsavina to me, “has its time for growth, flowering, and decline. Racially your bodies are young; ours are old.” The English dancers learned their trade doggedly. How so many of them became great artists is the miracle. But this is an English faculty: the achievement of glory through daily plodding.

The English girls stood long and slender in their black woolen tights and long-sleeved black jumpers at the barre. Their names were Andree Howard, Diana Gould (Mrs. Yehudi Menuhin), Elizabeth Ruxton (Lisa Serova of the Ballet Basse), Betty Cuff (Nelidova of the Ballet Russe), Pearl Argyle with a face like an anemone, Elizabeth Schooling, Prudence Hyman, Mona Inglesby, and Mim’s daughters Lulu and Angela Dukes (Lulu later danced the comedy lead in the English Oklahoma!). Beside them were the boys. Their names were Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor, Hugh Laing, Frank Staff, Walter Gore, William Chappell.

In the center of the room dart ed Mim, Madame Wasp, queen hornet, vixen mother, the lady boss of Not ting Hill. Knobby, knotted with passion, her little legs in wrinkled black tights, her child’s tough body in a shapeless baby-pink garment ruffled at the hips, a veil around her little dark head, she scrabbled from side to side in the room, pulling, pushing, poking, screaming, and imploring. Now and then she would stamp her foot and literally howl with distaste. Her hands were not kind. “Long the arms,” she would say, pulling an arm almost out of its shoulder socket, “Eggie” (that would be me). “Long the arms and the hands long 1o be in line,” and she molded the lingers roughly into a pointed chimp. “Now, relax!” And she sharply rapped the extended wristbone. “Down ihe shoulders” — a blow on the collarbone. “Up the head!” A jerk behind the ears. “Frrrrreddie, pull in your great bottom. You flaunt your bottom like a banner. Schooling, how dare you be late! With your woolly legs? I give all my time and strength to making something we have not to be ashamed of and you bring your woolly legs to class late without a pli’é.” Schooling’s face goes like custard and she quietly walks out of the room. “Eggie! Relax!” Diana murmurs between exercises, “I saw you-know-who at the Ballet Russe last night. He’d grown a new mustache, and he did look too Madonna!”

“Deeanna,” shouts Mim. “Do not make jokes! I am tired of your humor. I am tired of your wit. I would prefer one good arabesque to six jokes.” Diana’s face hardens. “Sue, you use your leg like a mop. Down the eyebrows, Eggie, down the eyebrows. No, not that music, Norah, how stupid!”

All this time the pumping goes on around the room without surcease, the heavy breathing, the lifting and falling of legs, the striking and stroking of feet on the floor. Mim, hanging on to the barre around the stove, practices along with the class. Hugh Laing suddenly leaves his place and goes and sits in a corner by the stove brooding. Schooling, with pink eyes, returns. “Andree, you will never dance if you persist in this ugliness. You have been losing ground steadily for the last six months.” Andree’s gray eyes fill. Mini believes in Andrée’s choreographic gifts, and feels sorry for her because she has heart trouble. From here on Andree weeps silently until the end of class.

Antony potters along neither very good nor very bad, biding his time. Ashley Dukes, that “tawny man,” as Diana calls him, wanders in from a conference with W. H. Auden, and stands in the door beaming in a kind of effulgent dislike. “I must say I do hate all forms of dancing,” he remarks as he leaves.

“Antony,” calls Mim, “they need an accompanist in the basement. Go do it, please.” Antony docilely leaves and goes down to the children’s class which contains three little girls closely related to nobility. Hugh is sitting with glazed eyes fixed to a crack and apparently secs nothing. Mona Inglesby demonstrates an adagio. Mona is subject to headaches, and a mother. She has lots and lots of money. Mim gives her a great deal of attention and she is becoming an unusually fine dancer. “Deeanna, I hope you watched this. That is what I call real feeling. No comments, please.”

A new mother is led into the room. She has two daughters of the proper age for ballet training. Mim suddenly turns girlish and frisky. There is a complete reshuffling of the class. Pearl is brought to the front as well as the rebuked but defiant Diana. I am hidden at the rear. Class is reorientated to what used to be called in court dancing “The Presence.”

It ends at last. Mim does three cartwheels and stands on her head. She shouts, “Frrrrreddie, catch me!" and jumps into the arms of the blushing Ashton. The mother is surprised. Mini cackles like a banshee, invites the visitor for lunch, and goes off to change.

At the back of the room we discover Alicia Markova, who has been there quite some time waiting for Ashton’s rehearsal to begin. She sits upright, her long slender legs in their hand-wrought lights crossed like two knitting needles. Beside her sits Hugh, unmoving. The pianist, Norah, has spread a coat over his bare legs and is talking in a low motherly way, and although he hasn’t stirred he is obviously softening up inside. The damp has become almost visible. Antony has promised to bring him some hot tea and a sandwich so that he won’t have to leave off his interesting occupation. We pass through the auditorium. Markova is doing finger-turns on Ashton’s hand, six, eight, ten turns like a piano stool, round and round, and then smooths out as easy as butter at the end.

Mim goes to family lunch in her home on Campden Hill around the corner. The children and Reine, Miss Dukes, chatter like squirrels in the technical jargon that is comprehensible only to ballet students and more particularly to Cecchetti ballet students. Mim nibbles and sips, taking her spoon from her mouth, to contradict Ashley when he becomes too grandiloquent. Ashley doesn’t hear the children, doesn’t mind Mim, sits like the last of the Georgians, ruddy with satisfactory food, making finely balanced pronouncements. Buttressed by the august tradition of English letters he heaps scorn on the arduous labors of his womenfolk. One would gather from his remarks that they wore indulging in some sort of time-killer like Victorian needlework or acrostics. The continual mockery of her lord and master can have been of no comfort to Mim but she apparently turns it all aside with gaiety. She nibbles a bit of biscuit, demolishes with one phrase the latest West End play, works out mentally the cost of a set of costumes at 4/6 each; analyzes Angie’s pirouettes dehors et dedans, hums a liltle Prokofieff, and sounds out the mother sharply on the likelihood of her daughters’ starting lessons soon. I cannot answer for the mother. She probably loves it, as I always did. What she cannot understand she must recognize as robusl, salty, and explosively vital. The chances are the daughters will be enrolled before cheese.

We, the pupils, cat at Sally’s Tea Boom in Church Street. Elizabeth Schooling has found her tongue at last. Schooling is a true English beauty, all pink and white and powdered gold. She has a pink pout for a mouth and her voice sounds like Miss Muffet out of sorts. Diana, deep in a sultana pudding, sums Mim up in terms that would have done Wilde no discredit. But Andrée only sits, tears still streaming down her cheeks. I eat. I’m hungry. And besides I have a three-hour rehearsal ahead of me in the afternoon, in a basement where there is no heat whatsoever.


IT IS difficult to give a just appraisal of Rambert. At the very mention of her name dancers sometimes lose all self-control. Sometimes their eyes fill. Sometimes they grow pale. However, after they have spent their exasperation, they usually add, “But you know, she could be wonderfully sweet. And, after all, she did do a lot for English dancing.”

By God, she did! Had she had an organization behind her comparable to the Sadler’s Wells, Rambert, like Ninette do Valois, might have turned her theater into a national institution. More, because of her daring, her catholicity of interest, her infallible taste, and her enormous flair for new talent — and this was her great Hair beyond anyone else’s — she might have headed the first lyric theater of Europe. De Valois was a great organizer, Mim a poor one. She drove people nuts. They left. This is no small tragedy

As a pupil of Dalerozc she had been hired by Diaghilev to help Nijinsky count out ihe Sacre music. It was while at work on this project that she learned ballet technique under Cecchetti. She married Ashley Dukes during World War I and immediately started her classes.

She was very small, with jet-black hair, smoldering dark eyes set in a little sharp face, a fine forehead, and a mobile, vulnerable mouth that was held in a tension of artificial politeness against the world. When she was not laughing too shrilly or talking too quickly she looked as though she were about to scream. Sometimes she did scream. She has been known to roll on the floor, throw chairs, and cry out with the intolerable anguish of her balked hopes. And when the agony had passed she looked as though she had made a truce with God that might rupture at any moment.

Her true genius lay in perception and stimulus. Somehow, most unhappily, she mismanaged matters. She had not, the iron traplike intention to force success. There were confusions. There were distractions of rage or love. There were quarrels. Matters never marched straight ahead. Every so often she would remember in the middle of a class or a conversation some cruel bottomless disappointment and she would reach out and break whomever she was with. Antony, being possessed of the inner durability of genius, learned quietly to step aside in a kind of mental jujitsu and let her fall against her own fury. Ashton escaped. The rest were cowed on odd days, recalcitrant on even.

But Hugh shouted back, not always with reason. Being young and male and without scruples when angry, he usually did her down. These bouts were not pretty to hear, but Hugh would emerge from them as from a Turkish bath, refreshed and exhilarated. “That wicked woman” — Mini could be heard scuttling and muttering back of the partitions as she made her way to a cup of tea and Ashley. “That dreadful, dreadful wicked woman,” he would say with shining eyes as though each phrase were oxygen to his fainting lungs. All she had done was give him a sound beginning in dance technique and prepare him to be the instrument for great choreography. “How can you talk to a woman like that?” I exclaimed. “Don’t you ever talk to me like that or you’ll be sorry.”

Sometimes Mim merited a scolding. She behaved on occasion outrageously. She has been known to walk down the theater aisle and say to paid customers, “I would like to sit next to Lady Oxford. Do you mind moving to the back row?” And she moved them, to their astonishment, although they had held their tickets for weeks. She has turned cartwheels in Piccadilly Circus in broad daylight and right down Netting Hill High Street after a performance. She could, of course, at will conduct herself with distinction and elegance. She was a wit. If in any of the above I have suggested that Madame could not command English grammar, I shall not have been exact. She spoke brilliantly in several languages and her English was vivid. Many a columnist has made copy of her talk. But she had learned dancing in the Russo-Parisian dialect that was the studio jargon of all the Diaghilev generation, and the idiom stuck.

Above all, she was warmhearted. She could be motherly-kind if one were in trouble, darling, wise, and loving. Her woman-to-woman talks were tender with experience. It was just one’s good fortune she could not bear. That is, not every day, under her nose, in her own theater; not if one achieved it independently, against her advice, free from control. Rambert, like most women, wanted to feel indispensable.

Mim has at last received some part of her due. The Ballet Rambert is known throughout the British Isles, on the Continent — even as far as Australia. The Queen attended her Gala. She is recognized as a cultural force.

Her hair is now white; her daughters are grown; she has seen many a boy and many a girl through dreadful times. When my husband, an officer in the American Army, went to call on her she was enchantingly gracious. But the old fires still burn. At the end of the war in ‘45, while I was at work on a picture in London, she shrieked denunciation over the phone for ruining her life’s work. (I had engaged one of her principal male dancers for two weeks during his vacation and thereby worn him out and altered his perspective on money matters, she claimed.) “Mim,” I yelled. “Stop shouting and listen to me. I am going to have a baby.”

“That’s fine, Eggie. Splendid! But how could you do this to me? How could you as a woman knowing my lifelong struggle against incrrrredible odds?” So we parted. But there was a cable at the birth of my son, and when later my ballet Fall River Legend was performed at the 1950 Edinburgh Festival, Rambert, I am told, threw herself weeping into Nora Kaye’s arms. She said lavish things about the work and she wrote me long and poignantly. “Forgive me, Aggie, dear, if I didn’t think you had it in you — but I didn’t.”

She seemed a touch wistful about the unprecedented triumphs currently achieved by the Sadler’s Wells and Ninette de Valois. “I also like beautiful legs and feet, but the Wells has the entire world to select from. I only get the rejects. But I remind myself that among the rejects were Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor, Andrée Howard, and, I dare say, Aggie de Mille.”

So we were indeed. It is to Rambert we owe our deepest bows. We make them with love.

(To be concluded)