Dance For Export: Cultural Diplomacy and the Cold War
By Naima Prevots
Book review by Mary Louise Hill
Baskent University, Ankara, Turkey
"Dance for Export" tells the story of Eisenhower's Emergency Fund, which was developed in 1954 "to counteract the impression of life in America as shown in the motion pictures" (51). In her fascinating account of dance's particular role in this project, Naima Prevots explores the role of the arts as "cultural diplomat" during the Cold War as well as how the United States government took steps during the 1950s and 1960s to develop a national consciousness about the arts.
Within this story, Prevots argues that despite the obvious political and strategical implications of sending artists abroad in these decades, the dance companies that did go were chosen primarily because of artistic excellence. Readers may opt to form a slightly different conclusion, given the unabashed bluntness with which Prevots describes the panel's first choice of sending the José Limón Company to South America. One stated reason for sending companies abroad was to improve the international opinion of the United States, especially in the wake of McCarthyism, thus leading the reader to wonder how influential Limón's Mexican background was on the decision to export his company. Prevots argues that this was but one rationale for supporting him; the most important was his excellence as a dancer and choreographer. Similarly, she points to the government's concern over international criticism regarding "the conflict between democratic ideals and racial iniquities" (15) and later tells the tale of sending Alvin Ailey to Asia in 1962 as part of an entire chapter on African American artists' involvement with the program. The book narrates a relatively unknown story but also attempts to integrate into that story an argument about political support of the arts in general. Often, the narration takes precedence over the argument.
Within this schema Prevots details several fascinating undertakings. Sending dance companies to the Soviet Union, for example, was a high-stakes endeavor. After the successful 1956 US tour by the Moiseyev Dance Company, the government felt the need to support a similar American tour in the USSR; American Ballet Theatre was chosen due to the breadth of its program and quality of its dancers and choreographers. The debate over their program alone (How much contemporary dance? Traditional? Which pieces best characterize dance art in America without being "decadent?") indicates the value placed upon dance itself as a significant means of expressing American power during the Cold War.
The task of choosing artistically excellent groups while also meeting political needs is a difficult one. Prevots credits the Dance Panel, made up of expert members such as Lucia Chase, Doris Humphrey, Lincoln Kirstein, and Martha Hill with successfully [End Page 555] meeting this complex challenge. (There were also Music and Drama Panels. All were organized by the American National Theater and Academy, ANTA, a professional administrative agency contracted by the government.) Disagreements occurred within the Dance Panel, especially regarding when and where to send abroad more avant-garde choreographers such as Merce Cunningham. The fear that the international community would not fully understand this work, with its minimal narrative and strong technical emphasis, may actually reveal more about the Dance Panel's impressions about other cultures' sophistication than about their assessments of the dancers themselves. The Panel's gradual warming to Cunningham also highlights how impressions of what constitutes the finest of American dance art developed and changed between 1954 and 1963.
In nearly every case, when Prevots documents a tale of a company going abroad, it ends with a resounding success and a documented critique by the target culture expressing how America is far more refined than expected. A case in point would be the Burmese Prime Minister U Nu's statement about Martha Graham's 1955 visit: "Of one thing I am sure, Miss Martha Graham's performance will find enthusiastic audiences here as I understand that her theatre is very close to the classical Greek theatre which has many similar features to the Burmese theatre. . . . Artistes like Miss Graham can very effectively contribute towards international goodwill and therefore they are a potent force for peace" (50). With artists cast as heroes, the bad guys are no doubt the US government officials who, as early as 1955, both opposed "government funding of artistic activity as well as questioned the value of overseas exchange" (28).
In many respects, Prevots leaves it up to the reader to determine who has finally won in this conflict. Her conclusion advocates the diplomatic power of the arts; yet the story of the Dance Panel and the dancers emerges as the book's primary emphasis. She ends her study in 1963, when the government decided to terminate its ANTA contract and to shift the task of artistic cultural exchange to the State Department. At that time, too, the NEA was formed, with one purpose being to develop further a national pride and awareness of the arts.
Including this larger story of how the work of the Emergency Fund coincided with the development of programs such as USIA (United States Information Agency) and its international manifestation, USIS (United States Information Service), as well as how it foreshadowed the NEA, makes this book a valuable cultural history, which anyone involved with the arts should read. As an American living and teaching abroad, I sympathize with Prevots's desire to remind us of the arts' ability to bridge cultural differences. In my role as a teacher of American culture and literature, I have been greatly handicapped by governmental cuts to USIS as well as by the curtailment of government sponsored artistic tours. The face that the United States presents to the international community today is a cold and distant one characterized primarily by commercially manufactured popular culture exports. Prevots's book stands as a potent reminder of how government sponsorship of the arts can contribute to producing peaceful exchange and learning, both within and beyond America's borders.
This review of Dance for Export originally appeared in Theatre Journal 55:3 (2003), 555-556. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Reproduced with permission of The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Dance For Export: Cultural Diplomacy And The Cold War. By Naima Prevots. Introduction by Eric Foner. Middle-town, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2001; pp. 174. $40.00 cloth; $19.95 paper. ISBN: 0819564648
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