Agnes de Mille Sealed This Envelope in 1963. Five Choreographers Are Imagining What's Inside
Karen Azenberg, a past president of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, stumbled on something peculiar before the union's 2015 move to new offices: a 52-year-old sealed envelope with a handwritten note attached. It was from Agnes de Mille, the groundbreaking choreographer of Oklahoma! and Rodeo. De Mille, a founding member of SDC, had sealed the envelope with gold wax before mailing it to the union and asking, in a separate note, that it not be opened. The reason? "It is the outline for a play, and I have no means of copyrighting…The material is eminently stealable."
It triggered a chain of events that will culminate March 25 with the world premieres of five freshly commissioned dances at the annual "Mr. Abbott" Award Gala. The choreographers—Al Blackstone, Raja Feather Kelly, Kitty McNamee, Jenn Rose and Katie Spelman—prevailed in what may have been the most unusual dance competition ever.
The items had lain in SDC's files since 1963, and Azenberg gave them to the Society's current executive director, Laura Penn, who immediately had them locked in the office safe.
Penn was curious, but, she explains, "the note said don't open it. We'd honored her wishes for 50 years." But the contents spurred lots of speculation, and in the course of a conversation with Susan Stroman, Penn found herself musing about what SDC's membership might imagine the "eminently stealable" idea to be, and whether there was a way to make the letter part of the union's looming 60th-anniversary celebration. After the 50th-anniversary bash, Penn had noticed that its focus had been on male directors. "We have not given honor to the voices of the women or the choreographers," she says. "For the 60th, we could lift those voices, using the letter as inspiration."
Agnes de Mille's seal remains intact.
Howard Sherman, Courtesy SDC
The board of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation, SDC's nonprofit affiliate, offered to commission five short pieces for the SDCF gala, and invited members to submit sample choreography and written answers to a question about de Mille. Stroman and nine others sifted through more than 40 entries to select winners.
"Agnes' work was known for combining storytelling and dance to propel the plot forward," Stroman wrote in an email, so she scrutinized the contenders' "choice of movement and how it lived in the art of storytelling." Fellow juror Joshua Bergasse noted the entries' wide variety of choreographic styles. "I expect the pieces to be quite diverse in concept," he wrote. Sam Pinkleton saw one thing the applicants shared: "de Mille's fierceness and MUSCLE....Nobody wants to make museum pieces."
Kitty McNamee is one choreographer imagining de Mille's "eminently stealable" idea.
Erich Koyama, Courtesy McNamee
One of their choices, McNamee, says she applied because "Agnes came from the female point of view, what we would now call the female gaze. And she was so engaged with the inequities of society."
What Penn loved was reading the varied responses. "We don't provide enough places to experience the written word of choreographers," she says. And one of these days, she may open that envelope.
Alicia has died. I walked around my apartment feeling her spirit, but knowing something had changed utterly.
My father, the late conductor Benjamin Steinberg, was the first music director of the Ballet de Cuba, as it was called then. I grew up in Vedado on la Calle 1ra y doce in a building called Vista al Mar. My family lived there from 1959 to 1963. My days were filled with watching Alicia teach class, rehearse and dance. She was everything: hilarious, serious, dramatic, passionate and elegiac. You lost yourself and found yourself when you loved her.
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.
It's Nutcracker time again: the season of sweet delights and a sparkling good time—if we're able to ignore the sour taste left behind by the outdated racial stereotypes so often portrayed in the second act.
In 2017, as a result of a growing list of letters from audience members, to New York City Ballet's ballet master in chief Peter Martins reached out to us asking for assistance on how to modify the elements of Chinese caricature in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. Following that conversation, we founded the Final Bow for Yellowface pledge that states, "I love ballet as an art form, and acknowledge that to achieve a diversity amongst our artists, audiences, donors, students, volunteers, and staff, I am committed to eliminating outdated and offensive stereotypes of Asians (Yellowface) on our stages."
An audience member once emailed Dallas choreographer Joshua L. Peugh, claiming his work was vulgar. It complained that he shouldn't be pushing his agenda. As the artistic director of Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, Peugh's recent choreography largely deals with LGBTQ issues.
"I got angry when I saw that email, wrote my angry response, deleted it, and then went back and explained to him that that's exactly why I should be making those works," says Peugh.
With the current political climate as polarized as it is, many artists today feel compelled to use their work to speak out on issues they care deeply about. But touring with a message is not for the faint of heart. From considerations about how to market the work to concerns about safety, touring to cities where, in general, that message may not be so welcome, requires companies to figure out how they'll respond to opposition.