A Dance World Mystery Spurs a Contest for Choreographers

Posted September 19, 2018 10:42 p.m. EDT

The letter was closed with a gold wax seal that said “Agnes.” A note was stapled to the envelope.

It read: “Please file it unopened, with the date carefully noted. It is the outline for a play, and I have no means of copyrighting it except this way. The material is eminently stealable and I’m discussing the matter with people of similar ambitions.”

It’s a ready-made mystery for dance sleuths. The postmark shows it was 1963, and the return address that of the choreographer Agnes de Mille, celebrated for her pioneering use of American subjects both on Broadway and in her ballets and for the way she brought popular dance idioms into theatrical settings.

The letter lay undiscovered for decades in the files of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, of which de Mille had been a founding member, until a clear-out in 2015 brought it to light.

“There was a lot of buzz around the office, and some people who said, open it now!” said Laura Penn, executive director of the SDC. “But it felt like something that should be honored and not treated lightly.”

Since the discovery, the unopened letter has resided in a safe. To mark the society’s 60th anniversary next year, the executive committee has decided to keep the letter sealed but select five member choreographers to create short pieces imagining what de Mille’s idea might be.

Applications will be accepted through Oct. 18, and the five who are chosen will have their works performed at the organization’s “Mr. Abbott” Award ceremony on March 25. Each will each receive a $3,000 commissioning fee as well as 12 hours of rehearsal space, a budget for a musical director and costumes and airfare and lodging for those who live outside of New York.

“The letter was written at an incredibly tumultuous time in our country,” said Sam Pinkleton, who choreographed “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” on Broadway and is a member of the committee that will select the winners. “De Mille was at the height of her powers, the most famous choreographer in America.” He added, “I think she was keenly aware of what it is to have a microphone.”

Pinkleton described commissions as an opportunity for the SDC to celebrate the choreographers in its roster. “There is an incredibly diverse range of age, race, gender and ethnicity which isn’t always represented,” he said, “and this is an opportunity to elevate choreographers of diverse backgrounds and experience levels.”

Of course, the big question remains: Will the letter ever be opened? Penn offered no answer. “There is no agreement about this,” she said. “You will have to stay tuned.”