AGNES DE MILLE has endured a lot in the last five years: the threat of imminent death, seemingly endless months in a hospital bed, estrangement from an active theater career.
But there was one thing she could not tolerate: someone else recreating her show. When Broadway producers began planning a comeback two years ago for the choreographer's famed musical "Oklahoma!" De Mille leaped out of her self-imposed retirement.
"I wasn't going to have a stranger doing my dances," she snaps, her frail shoulders shuddering.
At 72, Agnes de Mille guards her musical creations as tenaciously as a child hoarding candy sticks.
Mention her theatrical productions and the lines of the drawn, pallid face become animated. Translucent blue eyes strain forward, as if to transfix her audience on the other side of the thick glasses.
The queen of modern choreography has started over, 37 years after her first major theatrical success.
"Oklahoma!" was the first to be revived. Now it's the Scottish fantasy "Brigadoon," which recently opened in New Orleans, where she was interviewed, and which goes to the National Theater for four weeks beginning Sept. 11. Previews were held last week at Wolf Trap. The 1947 Lerner and Loewe musical will return to Broadway in mid-October.
This theatrical resurrection hasn't been easy for De Mille. Five years ago she suffered a massive stroke on stage, minutes before the curtain went up on her "Conversations About the Dance." The audience was sent home. De Mille was rushed to a hospital where she was to spend the next three months.
The illness put her in a wheelchair and left her right arm virtually useless.
At first she was bitter.
"I'm deprived of what all dancers and choreographers have to have: the instinctive gesture," she told a Florida newspaper reporter shortly after her return to active theater life. "Furstrating is not the word. It's defeating."
Since then she seems to have mellowed. "I was lucky -- they told my husband I'd die," she says softly. "I should have lost my speech, but I didn't. And my memory's still good except for names.
"While I was in the hospital my therapist accused me of not doing enough of the exercises she had prescribed. I told her, 'I wrote a book instead.'"
The book, "insult," is about her illness, how she coped, how she survived. "I think I will have said something that could help people in similar situations," she says. "I tell them, 'Don't go out on a tightrope. Set a goal within reason, then try to reach it.'" For De Mille, the goal was a return to the stage show, an art form she helped revolutionize, along with George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Micheal Kidd and others, by bringing to it the sophisticated symbolic drama of ballet. (At the same time, she was helping to liberate classic ballet: Her seminal work "Rodeo" shocked the old guard and some young dancers too with its earthy, unorthodox kicks and leaps.)
But the theater world today is in many ways alien to what it was four decades ago, she says. The job is easier, the dancers better trained, more professional
Most important to De Mille: "The theater is no longer used as a brothel. My friends used to be fired if they didn't go upstairs with the producers and lawyers. They'd be dismissed without being paid a penny for a week of stage work. Now the union won't tolerate it.
"The type of men in the theater then were ruffians. I won't name names, because many of them are still in the business."
And standards of pay have increased drastically, according to De Mille. "Dancers can now take lessons and eat regularly -- eat real food instead of existing on cornflakes as many did in the past."
She compares her first "Brigadoon" creation to a bargain basement sale, recounting one backstage rumpus with particular distaste. She accosted a Boston conductor and his symphony: "I told him, 'You're like naughty children with Christmas toys. You won't stop cussing and cussing and beating. It annoys the rest of us.'
"W-e-e-e-ll," sniffs De Mille. "those men were shocked that I talked to a musician like that. Musicians -- they despise everybody. About the only thing they respected was Brahms."
Even before the stroke, De Mille had sworn off the career she now relishes -- though she has always kept closely in touch with developments in dance.
"Broadway? There no place for me. I'm a romantic and there's no place for that," she told a New Orleans reporter in 1973. Today she explains, "At that time I didn't think I'd ever be asked to do a new show."
Enter producer Zev Bufman. "When he began tossing about plans for a revival of 'Oklahoma!' I had to do it." She sent word of her interest through the theatrical grapevine, and Bufman asked her to recreate her dances for the new rendition.
"Then Zev said he wanted to do 'Paint Your Wagan.' I said 'You must let me do 'Brigadoon.' He said of course.'"
Age and illness haven't softened De Mille's spicy tongue.
"Choreography today? E-e-h." Eyes roll skywards. Her left hand jumps to her forehead, then sweeps through a wisp of champagne-colored hair. "It's lively. V-e-e-y lively. E-e-everybody's dancing. Everybody's in choreography." A pause. An impish smile. "It's not all good, though."
She does applaud the work of Bob Fosse, who is stirring up choreography the way she once did herself. "His choregraphy is brilliant. It snaps. It's erotic," she says, but she can't resist adding that "he's taken all the sex out of eroticism. It's gymnastics of the groin. It's a risk to be in a Fosse show. The amount of breakage in his company is enormous."
DeMille prefers her own "delicate" dances.
Her role in theater today is different; different because "recreating plays is totally different from the originals," different because of her disability. "I don't take the risks. I don't go in with my nails bitten down to the third joint. I say I'll do the best I can. I tell my cast, 'Be patient. I'm slow.'"
She directs the young dancers from her wheelchair, supervising, orchestrating, dispatching orders.
There's one component of DeMille's work that hasn't changed, however. She still demands perfection.
In the new "Brigadoon" dancers skip through mounds of rocks on a reconstructed hillside covered with flowering heather.
"The heather is too lavender," scoffs De Mille. "It should be red. The moors burn with them. And it doesn't bloom in May as it says in the song in the play."
She waves an arm in the air. "The heather will look wrong. But I'm the only one who really cares."
More and more these days, Agnes de Mille is eager to retreat to her upstate New York country cottage with husband Walter Prude, a concert manager. She credits him with pulling her through the excruciating pain of her illness.
"The doctors told me I could survive if I had love and a project to keep me going."
A smile of innocence lights her face. "I had plenty of both."
She's recreated two musicals and written two books since the illness. She hasn't decided what will come next.
"One thing I've learned is not to foretell the future. I faced death very seriously. I came out able to work. I just plan to take it as it comes."
A dramatic paus. A low, weary voice says almost wistfully, "I've known my first real happiness. I had to lose one half of my body. It meant having to abandon certain things. Hell -- I don't expect what isn't possible."