Exploring National Roots
Twentieth-century American choreographers found inspiration in the expansive landscape of folk culture that included ballads, hymns, spirituals, and the rituals of Native American and African diaspora peoples. They built dances based on the bedrock of America, a nation founded on principles of revolution, protest, reform, and freedom of expression.
Believing in the power of American political reform, dancers protested social injustices between the world wars. During the Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal established the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935, under which was founded the Federal Theatre Project (FTP). The FTP included a dance unit that became a stand-alone project in 1936. Although the FTP was terminated in 1939, this was the first time the United States government had provided direct funding for the arts. Read more about Exploring National Roots »
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Finding a Political Voice
In response to the 1917 Russian Revolution, dancers began choreographing works that celebrated the new Marxist state led by Vladimir Lenin. Although many were politically naïve, these artists supported the Soviet Union’s communist “experiment.” In the same year, the United States entered World War I.
The lack of U.S. government action to address social and economic hardships during the early years of the Great Depression, and circulating communist propaganda that promised radical change and success for Americans, compelled a number of artists to join the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA). Others became “fellow travelers,” a term used for those who believed in Marxist principles, but did not join the Party.
As early as 1934, seven years before the U.S. entered World War II, these fellow-traveling choreographers protested the rise of fascism and the Nazi Party in Germany. After the Soviet Union agreed to a non-aggression pact with Germany in 1939, most dancers withdrew their support for communism, although they retained their beliefs in economic equality, the rights of workers, and racial justice. Read more about Finding a Political Voice »
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Turmoil at Home and Cold War Protest
Through the economic and global turmoil of the 1930s and World War II, choreographers continued to build on the American tradition of protest, expressing opposition to the exploitation of workers, homelessness, hunger, and racism.
However, the political climate changed during the post-World War II Cold War, due to escalating fears of the Soviet Union, communism, and espionage activities. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of Government Operations became forceful influences in domestic politics as they investigated potential Soviet spies. Read more about Turmoil at Home and Cold War Protest »
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Domestic Projects for Export
Although the Soviet Union and the U.S. were allies against the Axis powers during World War II, the Cold War led to a struggle between the two countries for global domination. Soviet propaganda portrayed the U.S. as a capitalist bastion of greed, racial inequality, and cheap culture.
In response to these accusations, the U.S. deployed an “informational” campaign, which included dance. As early as 1941, dance companies were sent to places that the U.S. feared might be influenced by enemy propaganda. Because the Soviet government had suppressed dance types other than ballet, American cutting-edge and high-art choreography served as a non-verbal assault on communism.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Cold War drew to a close. It firmly ended in 1991 when the Soviet Union disintegrated, forming a host of new and independent nation states. Read more about Domestic Projects for Export »
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