Why did the US State Department sponsor international dance tours during the Cold War? An official government narrative was sanctioned and framed by the US State Department and its partner organization, the United States Information Agency (USIA—and USIS abroad). However, the tours countered that narrative.
The State Department fed the notion that modern dance was quintessentially “American,” even as the tours themselves offered evidence of modern dance roots and influence from across the globe—notably German modern dance traditions and the importance of African diasporic arts movements to modern dance. While the USIA foreground the role of white male leaders, dancers such as Alvin Ailey explicitly countered this depiction. in his work Revelations, black Americans performed their struggle and their celebrations in dance works. The tours also accentuated the relationship among African anti-colonial movements and African American civil rights protests. Martha Graham had a pre-eminent role in touring for the State Department, who discussed how she was not “too sexy for export” but was rather just sexy enough.
But dance-in-diplomacy is not restricted to the Cold War era. The US State Department has begun funding tours again in the wake of the post 9/11. This return to cultural diplomacy more recently undertook a “collaborative turn,” foregrounding Americans and non-Americans working together, rather than only funding performances by American companies. The following slideshow depicts the contradictions in these narratives of dancers as diplomats.
American choreographers José Limón and Doris Humphrey
In this photo of
American choreographers José Limón and Doris Humphrey dine with German modern dance matriarch Mary Wigman in Berlin during the Limón company appearances at the 1957 Berlin Festival, one of many instances the Limón company appeared abroad under the auspices of the US State Department. The dinner, a formal one, was likely one of many occasions of dinners and receptions organized to introduce visiting American artists to locals, although this meeting did not bring together strangers, but instead luminaries of the transatlantic modern dance community.
Photograph courtesy of Charles Tomlinson, Pauline Lawrence Personal Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
When the American national anthem played before a New York City Ballet performance of George Balanchine’s Serenade in Moscow in 1962 (during the Cuban Missile Crisis), the dancers rested their hands on their hearts, moved to the pose depicted above, and once again rested their hands on their hearts.
From left to right, first row front to back: Diana Adams, Niema Zweili, Carole Fields; Second row: Janet Greschler Villella; Third row: Victoria Simon, Una Kai, Francia Russell, Marlene Mesavage; Fourth row: Diane Conossuer, Joan Van Orden.
Photograph by Fred Fehl courtesy of Gabriel Pinski. Choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust
President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act
From the inside cover of the USIA/USIS pamphlet, The Dignity of Man: President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act (with Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders who stood around Johnson at the moment of signing cropped from the photo).
Courtesy of the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum.
Alvin Ailey’s Revelations
The full Ailey company in the early 1970s in the final joyous movement of Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. Photo by Johan Elbers.
Courtesy of the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc.
Alvin Ailey kneels before Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta, one of the best-known leaders of decolonization in Africa and the first president of Kenya. Mbiyu Koinage, Kenyan Minister of State, sits to Kenyatta’s right and Mama Ngina Kenyatta, Kenyatta’s wife, sits to his left.
Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Arkansas.
Martha Graham’s Phaedra
This photograph is one of two photographs from Martha Graham’s Phaedra that appeared in LIFE Magazine in 1963 under the headline, “Is Martha Too Sexy for Export?”
From left to right: Bertram Ross as Hippolytus and Martha Graham as Phaedra.
Photograph © 2014 Jack Mitchell.
In this photo, Bennalldra Williams, Urban Bush Women dancer, leaps in Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Walking with Pearl: Africa Diaries, one of the works performed on DanceMotion, USA’s first set of tours in 2010.
Photograph by Rose Eichenbaum.
Members of the Trey McIntyre Project and the Korea National Contemporary Dance Company
This photograph features members of the Trey McIntyre Project (TMP) and the Korea National Contemporary Dance Company (KNCDC) rehearsing McIntyre’s “The Unkindness of Ravens”.
From left to right: Chang An-Lee, Ryan Redmond, Lee So-Jin, Brett Perry, Kim Tae-Hee.
Photograph by Kyle Morck.
Headline Image: Ballet. Dancer. CC0 via Pixabay