The Mustang Among Swans

Agnes de Mille was built like a mustang.

Where other ballerinas were swans, long and lithe, she was short and sturdy. Plus, she had broad hands and broad hips, weak knees and a curved spine.

And yet. “Many other women have kicked higher, balanced longer, or turned faster,” Ms. de Mille once wrote of her childhood idol, ballerina Anna Pavlov. “These are poor substitutes for passion.” Of which Ms. de Mille, like her idol, had an unchecked supply.

So, the mustang among swans learned to dance in the body she had. She couldn’t do all those swan-ish ballets with their swan-ish leaps and swan-ish lifts. Anyway, they’d already been done before.

“I thought it was high time that somebody did something else,” Ms. de Mille asserted. “And I personally had to do what I can do.”

Which was choreograph these fiery, vigorous ballets. Filled with humor and everyday gestures and American folk stories. None of which the world had seen before.

And the world didn’t take to it right away. Ms. de Mille was bucking tradition and precedence and swans, after all.

She lived through “15 years of unbroken failure.” But in 1942, the world caught on. Her piece, “Rodeo,” took ballet off its elegant perch and stuck it square into the American West. The first great American ballet, critics said of it.

Ms. de Mille went on to choreograph smash hit musicals like Oklahoma! and Carousel. Write books like Leaps in the Dark and Where the Wings Grow. Testify before Congress about the importance of art in America.

In 1975, when she was 70, Ms. de Mille had a massive stroke that paralyzed her right side. She couldn’t kick, balance, turn like before. But these, she knew, were poor substitutes for passion.

So, she re-learned her body: worked in the mornings when her energy was highest, figured out how to write with her left hand. By 1978, she’d choreographed three new pieces. By 1988, she’d written three new books. She’d write two more before her death in 1993.

Once, in Washington, D.C., a short young ballerina named Kitty asked Ms. de Mille if she should have a bone transplant to make her taller.

“Kitty, dear,” the mustang replied, “you have to learn to dance in the body you have.”

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