Dance is fundamentally a subject of aesthetics. But the artistic culture of the body that it involves requires us to include this subject under the scope of this book.
One of the greatest dancers of our modern times was Anna Pavlova, and a few glimpses of her personality can be gathered from the extracts that we are presenting below from a book written by Agnes deMille.
Agnes deMille was born in 1909 in New York City. Her father was the playwright William deMille, and her uncle the famous film director Cecil B. deMille. As a young girl she saw the great Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova perform, and from that moment onwards her life was devoted to dance. Agnes deMille grew up to become a well-known dancer and an important choreographer of ballets and dances for musical drama. Some of her most famous works include Oaklahoma! Carousel, Brigadoon, and Paint Your Wagon. She was as well a prolific writer, and Dance to the Piper, from which we take the extracts below, is considered a classic in its genre. Agnes deMille was the recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees and in 1965 became the first president of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers.
In 1975, at the age of 66, Agnes deMille's life took an unexpected and potentially tragic turn, which her devotion to dance and unswerving will turned into an inspiring victory. She relates the story in a television interview:
"On May 15, 1975, I was about to give a dance concert which consisted of a lecture and my whole company, the American Heritage Dance Theatre, demonstrating the best
of dance in the United States. Everybody in New York was coming and it was sold out. I was sitting in the dress rehearsal, and one of the dancers couldn't go on — this happens — and a substitute arrived and I said, 'I'll sign you a contract and make you legal, otherwise the union won't let you cross the stage. So I picked up a pen and the contract and then said, 'Well, this is odd, I can't write!
Within the hour, as a doctor was being summoned, Agnes deMille remembered her body becoming cold and numb. She lost all feeling, all energy, throughout her right side. In the ambulance she became paralysed and intermittently unconscious. At the hospital her husband was informed that she would probably not live another day.
"The one thing that was astonishing-about it all was there was no pain — no sensation, nothing startling, nothing surprising. You would expect that when your life alters, a thunderclap or something drastic would happen but there was nothing. This is deadly. ".
On the night of her admission, to the hospital a CAT scan of her brain revealed a haemorrhage on the right side in areas associated with motor control, language and vision. Two nights later, another scan revealed that the haemorrhage had vanished almost completely. She was left half paralyzed on the right side.
"There were two difficulties and frightening sensations: one was not knowing how far the paralysis was advancing and what it was doing to me. I couldn't feel at all on the right side of my body or my face, and the right hand would do absolutely wild, outrageous things, I couldn't control it. I also found I didn't know where it was."
Her doctor relates:
" Not knowing where that hand, that leg was, she re learned to walk and to use the hand and to function by looking with her eyes. She would pass the hand, pass the
leg, watching it, using her eyes as feelers. Most patients with this kind of a defect find it so hard to re-learn that they give up. It was her determination which got her so far. It is very touching."
Says Agnes deMille:
"Well you know, I think I kept on going because it's in my character and what I was brought up to be in my family. I am a trained dancer as well — and dancers go through a regimen of exercises and self-control all their lives long. It was instinctive. I did whatever I had to do. And then a little later I began thinking about doing some performances and of my work, which is of very great interest to me."
The doctor continues:
"Sometimes I wonder whether enthusiasm and joy and interest in the world and just plain determination don't form connections between nerve cells faster than nature takes them away as we grow older. That quality of hope, of drive, of walking ten steps as if you are running a one hundred yard dash — that has something to do not only with the quality of life but I am really confident with the length of life and the recovery from severe illness. One can will oneself to die and one can certainly will oneself to be better."
Agnes deMille went on to walk, and to work. In her mid-80's she was still choreographing new dances and writing books. Looking at her life, a life of such commitment, such generosity of spirit and such love of one's art, we cannot but feel that Agnes deMille is a worthy disciple of her great mentor, Anna Pavlova.
In the following extracts, Agnes deMille speaks of her meetings with Pavlova, and then of the rigorous training young boys and girls must undergo to become classical ballet dancers.