Through the medium of dance, twentieth-century American choreographers created dances that reflected the diverse spectrum of cultural expression. In addition to works made by choreographers Ted Shawn, Lester Horton, Martha Graham, and Alvin Ailey that celebrated America’s traditional music, folk and immigrant practices, and Native American rituals, choreographers were not afraid to craft political dances that protested injustices or advocated reform.
In 1927 Isadora Duncan declared “I See America Dancing”—a reference to Walt Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing”—envisioning dance as a powerful tool for cultural expression. Politics and the Dancing Body explores how American choreographers between World War I through the Cold War realized this vision—using dance to celebrate American culture, to voice social protest, and to raise social consciousness.
Many choreographers, including Isadora Duncan, Jane Dudley, and Sophie Maslow produced dances that commemorated the ideas of the communist “experiment” established by the newly created Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution of 1917. During the 1930s and 1940s choreographers Charles Weidman, Erick Hawkins, Daniel Nagrin, and members of the New Dance Group, to name a few, asserted their voices against the rise of fascism, the exploitation of workers, homelessness, wide-spread hunger, unemployment, and racism, among other themes.
In reaction to intensified fears about the spread of communism in the post-World War II, Cold War Era, the United States government sent numerous dance companies throughout the world as vehicles for cultural diplomacy and to counter anti-American sentiment. These tours, which included the American Ballet Theatre, the Martha Graham Dance Company, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the José Limón Company, continued until the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1987 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
This exhibition spotlights the rich dance, music, theater, and design collections of the Music Division of the Library of Congress, including the Aaron Copland Collection; Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation Collection; Daniel Nagrin Collection; Erick Hawkins Collection; Ethel Winter and Charles Hyman Collection; Federal Theatre Project Collection; Larry Warren Collection; Lester Horton Dance Theater Collection; Martha Graham Collection; Martha Graham Legacy Archive; Muriel Manings and William Korff Collection; New Dance Group Collection; Oliver Smith Collection; Sophie Maslow Collection; and Victoria Phillips Collection. Materials have also been obtained from the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division. By exploring these collections, Politics and the Dancing Body demonstrates how dance was integral to the twentieth-century American cultural and political landscape.