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woman strikes a dance pose in cowboy hate and western wear
Agnes de Mille, choreographer of Ballet Theatre's hit "Rodeo" makes a guest appearance in the central role of the Cowgirl / Maurice Seymour, Chicago, 1951. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The Choreographer Who Gave Us “Ken-ergy”

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During last Sunday’s Oscars, many were quick to note the parallels between Ryan Gosling’s performance of “I’m Just Ken” and Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” from the 1953 film “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. ”The “Ken Dance” took many cues from pop culture and vintage Hollywood to play on gender stereotypes. However, there was one major influence behind them all: choreographer Agnes de Mille (1905–1993), who defined American masculinity and femininity through her unique dance language.

Copyright deposits of sheet music from the 1953 film and 1949 stage production of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Music Division, Library of Congress.

Agnes de Mille choreographed the hit 1949 Broadway production of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” a racy comedy for its time with no lack of glitz, glam, and suited gentlemen. Jack Cole subsequently drew upon her work to develop Monroe’s sultrier film performance, which inspired Sunday’s “Ken Dance” by choreographer Mandy Moore. Gosling donned “Barbie”pink suit reminiscent of Monroe’s iconic dress and was supported by a chorus of identically-dressed “Kens” mimicking Monroe’s doting back-up dancers. This all culminated into a not-so-subtle poke at both Ken’s masculine and “blonde” fragility.

Poster for the stage musical Oklahoma!, N.Y.C. : printed by Artcraft Litho. & Ptg. Co. Inc., [194-]. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
However, De Mille was famous for her choreography long before “Gentlemen” went to stage, having gained acclaim from the premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “Oklahoma!”–another key bit of “Ken-spiration.” Set in an Indiana farm town in the old west, “Oklahoma!” features a lengthy dream sequence in ballet form, complete with cowboy dancers. In the Oscars performance, the Kens wear cowboy hats and express their rugged American masculinity through movements inspired by this dream ballet, strutting, lassoing, and galloping on stage.

Photo from American Ballet Theater Production of “Rodeo,” undated. American Ballet Theatre Collection, Music Division. Dance Notation for “Rodeo” by Agnes de Mille, 1976. Dance Notation Collection, Music Division.

 

De Mille originally developed this dance vocabulary while choreographing Aaron Copland’s ballet, “Rodeo.” The picture above shows a photo from an American Ballet Theater production of “Rodeo” alongside de Mille’s dance notation, which calls for roping and holding the fists loosely as if “holding the reins of your horse.” By juxtaposing the hyper-femininity of Monroe’s performance with the cowboys in “Oklahoma!” and “Rodeo,” Mandy Moore effectively drew upon de Mille’s works to comedically represent Ken’s struggle with his own masculinity, while subverting gender stereotypes.

Did de Mille ever think her choreography would be used in this manner? In a 1979 interview with Sylvia Fine Kaye (1913-1991) for “Musical Comedy Tonight,” de Mille cheekily describes the creation of the sultry saloon girls in the dream ballet of “Oklahoma!,” who seem to have quite a bit in common with Monroe and Gosling in their performances:

“Now how does a nice girl imagine bad girls? Well, wicked, glamorous, bedazzled with bare bosoms…How absolutely forbidden!…How welcome.”

It seems safe to say that Agnes de Mille knew what “Ken-ergy,” in all its many and various forms, was all about.

 

Resources

Dance Research at the Library of Congress

Ballet Theatre Archive

Dance Notation Collection

 

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