Agnes De Mille Said: “You Won’t Catch Me Doing That!”

Dancer Iris Pell writes of her experience performing “Lewitzky Floor Exercises” in “Conversations About the Dance”, a lecture demonstration that was created by Agnes DeMille in 1980 and was videotaped at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles for the PBS series Dance in America.

The whole Agnes De Mille experience materialized one afternoon like a fantastic dream. I was coming into Bella’s studio for company rehearsal after the lunch break when Bella told me of a performance that would be happening in San Francisco at the Opera House in one week.

It was a dance performance Agnes De Mille was producing called “Conversations About the Dance”, and Agnes would be speaking.  The Joffrey Ballet would be involved and along with other guest artists demonstrate some highlights of the evolution of dance in America.  Agnes De Mille would be the director, narrating and commenting before each dance.

Agnes had planned to use a dancer from the Martha Graham Dance Company to show modern floor exercises.  Martha and Agnes had gotten into some kind of a scrabble.  Martha had pulled the Graham dancer out of the upcoming performance.  Agnes phoned Bella and asked if she could provide a replacement for the modern floor technique section.  I see from reading Agnes De Mille’s book, America Dances, Agnes admired Bella as a strong technician and innovative choreographer.  Bella asked me if I would want to do it and of course I said “yes” I would stay after company rehearsal that day and she would choreograph the solo.

I was amazed how quickly and beautifully the steps flowed out of Bella.  She seamlessly wove the steps together.  I knew exactly what was expected of me.  I had been studying and dancing with The Master for eight years.  Every second of motion must be communicated with conscious wisdom, personal control and power from my soul.   The “Lewitzky Floor Exercises” began with a fourth descent.  A fourth descent began in a wide fourth position and was controlled by the hips to a sit on the floor.  The magical part of this was the seemingly effortless rise back to standing from the seated position.  And so from that point Bella molded together a series of descents and rises, turns and sculptured motion shaped in space and in the body.  Breath, energy, silence and inner rhythms were used as the musical score.  Bella completed the entire five-minute solo the next afternoon. The ending was a spectacular jump and fall onto the floor from a hinged “T” position supported on one leg in relevé plié.  The landing was on the back and hips, with one leg tucked under.  This may seem tame presently with the gymnastic accomplishments involved in today’s choreography.  At that time, 1978, it was unexpected and a thrilling ending to the floor work solo.

A few days later I caught a flight from Burbank airport to San Francisco.  James Mitchell met me and we had lunch together at an elegant restaurant in the city near the San Francisco Opera House.  James Mitchell was a close friend of Bella and of Agnes.  He had been a dancer in the Lester Horton Company and had danced with Bella.

“In 1944, Horton took Mitchell to New York with him to form a new dance company, but the venture abruptly collapsed.  As it happened, the failure of Horton’s company was a significant turning point in Mitchell’s career: while struggling to find either acting or dancing roles in New York, he successfully auditioned for Agnes de Mille, who was choreographing her first musical since Oklahoma! Mitchell, who did not study ballet until he was in his mid-twenties, was at a loss when faced with de Mille’s ballet combination. Much later, describing his approach to the audition, he said, “Well, I really hadn’t too much familiarity with that but I threw myself across the floor and about the third or fourth pass, Agnes cried ‘Stop’ and summoned me over and said ‘Where on earth did you get your dance training?’  De Mille nevertheless offered him the dual position of principal dancer and assistant choreographer.” [1]

James Mitchell was prominent in the world of theater and the world of dance.  He had worked with Agnes de Mille for many years as a dancer, choreographer and friend.  As I walked with him into the theater from the stage entrance I felt like I was among dance royalty.  There at the front of the stage was Agnes de Mille speaking with Gemze de Lappe.  Gemze had danced in many of Agnes’s original Broadway dances and would be dancing in this presentation.  I remember her as a very friendly and kind presence during the meeting Agnes de Mille experience.  After James introduced me to Agnes, de Mille asked me to walk over into the light on the stage.  She smiled and said nodding her head, “she will do fine.”   I felt as if she knew my whole life story from that one deep look.

The first run through of the program occurred the next day.  While waiting for my turn I saw some wonderful dances and dancers.  There was a dance from “Rodeo” performed by the Joffrey Ballet, a Pas de deux from “Paint Your Wagon”, a satire of early ballet choreography, a jitterbug and the amazing tap dancing of Honi Coles.  It was a varied program that showed the fabulous dance heritage of America. Agnes de Mille, with her wit and wisdom would be the centerpiece of the performance.

I am sure I was nervous, but I was very prepared and proud to be representing Bella Lewitzky.  I think Agnes de Mille was very impressed. At the end of my solo, after I did the jump up from the “T” position and landed the floor face up there was a silence and applause before Agnes said, “You won’t catch me doing that.”  She was 73 at that time and had recovered from a stroke.  I have no doubt that with her strong will Agnes could have survived the “T” fall if she had so desired.

The performance day was wonderful.   I was happy to be dancing in the beautiful San Francisco Opera House with it’s multiple balconies and ornate décor.  I was able to take a ballet class on stage with the Joffrey Ballet Company.  I remember finding my own private spot backstage to warm-up right before the performance was to begin.  Robert Joffrey suddenly appeared.  He came over to me and wished me well.  Joffrey was charming and vibrant and it was a thrilling moment!

Agnes de Mille captivated the audience with her commentary.  One of her lines was,  “Never bore your audience” and she certainly kept them entertained.  I performed my “Lewitzky Modern Floor Exercises” in complete silence.  There was a gasp at the end of the “T” fall (either from Agnes or the audience) and then thunderous applause!

After the entire performance was over Robert Joffrey returned to see me backstage to congratulate me and to give a Joffrey Ballet “T” shirt!  I would soon learn of another performance of “Conversations About the Dance” scheduled to take place in a few weeks at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.  This performance would be filmed for “Dance in America.”  “Conversations About the Dance with Agnes de Mille and the Joffrey Ballet” aired nationally on P.B.S. in 1980.

© Copyright 2012, Iris Pell, All rights reserved

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Saul Goodman, “Brief Biographies: James Mitchell,” Dance Magazine (August 1955 James Mitchell, “Dance Magazine Awards 1978,” Dance Magazine (July 1978)