What was Agnes de Mille really like?


During a wide ranging "Backstage at the Ballet" conversation with Sarasota Ballet Artistic Director Iain Webb Thursday night at the Historic Asolo, Paul Sutherland -- the only person authorized to teach Agnes de Mille's ballet of the American West, "Rodeo," talked a bit about the great lady who died in 1993.

Read more about Paul Sutherland's career in Sunday's Herald Tribune

Choreographer Agnes de Mille danced the role of the lead cowgirl when her ballet, "Rodeo," premiered in 1942.

"She was very intelligent, very well educated, very articulate," said Sutherland, who de Mille chose in 1979 to be the only stager of her iconic ballet. "And she had that quality of all great choreographers -- she knew what was right and wrong and she was a great judge of character."

However, Sutherland added, de Mille was also "a bit of a distant person," who was difficult to approach, often critical and could be extremely intimidating.

"I cringed a bit when she would come in, but I guess I was well prepared," said Sutherland, who trained for a military career before abruptly changing course at 18 when he decided to become a ballet dancer after seeing his first performance (which happened to be of "Rodeo"). "Those four years of military service hardened me to the less happy realities of life. Even at 18, I knew dying was the worst thing that could happen and unless you died young, you weren't going to die dancing."

Unlike the ballets of George Balanchine, which were often abstract and without a story line, de Mille's were all about the characters, Sutherland said.

"Her ballets were all about people," he said, "and she could be very impatinet if you didn't understand that. With 'Rodeo' she always said, 'It's not a dancing problem, it's an acting problem.' It's not about the steps."

So in carrying out her vision, Sutherland, who has set the ballet more than 60 times over the past two decades, said he spends most of his time trying to get the dancers to understand characters and a time period that are often very foreign to them.

"We work a lot on what signifies a cowboy," said Sutherland who, despite growing up in Texas, has never ridden a horse. "How you stand, your attitude, how you walk, your consistency."

Paul Sutherland works with Sarasota Ballet dancers on characterizations in "Rodeo." / Staff photo Carrie Seidman

Sutherland, who spent a week with the company in Sarasota in September, then returned two weeks ago to finish teaching and polish the ballet for the upcoming Dec. 9-10 performances at the Sarasota Opera House, said the local dancers are among the quickest to catch on of any he has taught over the years.

"I tell the dancers that when the performance comes, I want to sit in the back and sleep; I don't want to be nervous," he said. "And I think I'm going to sleep very well here."

"Rodeo" is the only ballet that Sutherland stages, and he has done so all over the world. Sarasota has been among his favorite stops.

"This is a really nice company and there's a very nice atmosphere here," he said. "I wish I knew more ballets to set so I could get invited back."

"From the Park to the Prairies," Sarasota Ballet. 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 9, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10 at the Sarasota Opera House, 61 N. Pineapple Ave., Sarasota. $15-$85. 359-0099, ext. 101;




"From the Park to the Prairies," Sarasota Ballet. 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 9, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10 at the Sarasota Opera House, 61 N. Pineapple Ave., Sarasota. $15-$85. 359-0099, ext. 101;      

Carrie Seidman

Carrie Seidman has been a newspaper features writer, columnist and reviewer for 30 years...and a dancer for longer than that. She has a master's degree from Columbia University Journalism School and is a former competitive ballroom dancer. Contact her via email, or at (941) 361-4834. Make sure to "Like" Arts Sarasota on Facebook for news and reviews of the arts.
Last modified: December 2, 2011
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be published without permissions. Links are encouraged.