DANCE TO THE PIPER

By Agnes de Mille

Da Capo. 1980. Out of print.

Adry book on dance is a crime against its subject matter, but it is, sadly, the norm. Dance books so often lack vitality and color. Not so with the works of Agnes de Mille, who is simply a fine writer, period.

De Mille, choreographer of such Broadway hits as "Oklahoma!" and "Carousel" and the groundbreaking barnyard ballet "Rodeo," had an eye for distilling personality and circumstance into movement. She brought the same clarity to her writing. Among my favorites is the first of her memoirs, "Dance to the Piper" (Da Capo, 1980, out of print).

De Mille writes with effortless style, cool frankness and a marksman's accuracy. In "Dance to the Piper," she draws you into several worlds. There is the celebrity sphere of her childhood in the company of Uncle Cecil B. and a revolving door of Hollywood stars. Then she pulls you into the life of the dancer, a miserable, exhausted yet driven creature, addicted to the stage even while relegated to the status of second-class citizen in a society with only passing respect for her art. And she throws open a window on the often frantic, always uncertain plight of the choreographer, the impoverished life she chose over her famous family's inclinations toward the loftier arts.

Among her mentors and collaborators were Englishman Antony Tudor, Russian ballerina Alexandra Danilova, choreographers Martha Graham and Jerome Robbins, composer Aaron Copland and musical-theater greats Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.

"This is the story of an American dancer," she writes, "a spoiled egocentric wealthy girl, who learned with difficulty to become a worker, to set and meet standards, to brace a Victorian sensibility to contemporary roughhousing, and who, with happy good fortune, participated by the side of great colleagues in a renaissance of the most ancient and magical of all the arts."

This is true, and yet her story is also a diary of an era, a sketchbook of portraits, a ruthless and lively personal account that's often funny. Most importantly, it is an illuminating permanent record of an ephemeral art, rendered just as it ought to be: with equal measures of grace and muscle.

-- Sarah Kaufman, dance critic

De Mille in 1952: She could write the same way she moved: Brilliantly.