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.