Missionaries Dancing for Democracy


In 1965, as Congress battled over whether the country needed an arts endowment, two congressmen reportedly pranced down the corridors, arms around each other’s waists, chanting, “Hooray! I’m a Performing Art!” The U.S. has a history of considering the arts both frivolous and sin-begetting. It’s illuminating to read Naima Prevots’s Dance for Export in the light of our historic ambivalence about the theater. In 1954, the new President’s Emergency Fund for International Affairs acknowledged that “cultural achievements” could be a weapon in what was grandly termed the “battle for the minds and hearts of men.” Did America’s people care only about fast cars, hot dogs, chewing gum, and a washing machine in every pot? Perish the thought! Ironically, as historian Eric Foner points out in his cogent introduction, the picture of American culture the State Department promoted overseas was one “not universally accepted at home.”

This slim book is the latest in the fine series Studies in Dance History, produced under Lynn Garafola’s editorship. Prevots doesn’t probe the issues much, but she has unearthed fascinating information from documents classified until now. The American National Theater and Academy (ANTA), which served as the State Department’s professional administrative agent until 1962, relied on peer panels to choose emissaries of American culture. Dance panel members included Lucia Chase, Agnes de Mille, Martha Hill, Doris Humphrey, Lincoln Kirstein, and critics Walter Terry and Emily Coleman. Their debates make interesting reading. They based choices not simply on artistic merit, but on the image of America a company might present. So, yes, send the José Limón company to tour South America in 1954; he was born in Mexico and spoke Spanish, but was also a good advertisement for assimilation—a major “American” artist in his prime. Martha Graham, too, proved to be a valuable cultural ambassador during her company’s Far East tour of 1955–56, when the defeat of the French colonial regime in Vietnam had ignited fears that Asian countries would topple into communism. How pleased the congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs must have been to learn that after the Graham company opening night in Rangoon, the Burmese government bought 1000 tickets for each subsequent performance!

Decisions often involved protracted infighting. Were Merce Cunningham and John Cage too controversial to represent American dance? Yes, it was decided, after a debate that simmered for most of 1955. Because of the uncertain Cold War climate, the panels were given a startling degree of power. When the Carmen de Lavallade–Alvin Ailey American Dance Company was approved for a Far Eastern tour in 1962, panelists vetted the programs, making decisions about repertory. (They nixed Lester Horton’s To José Clemente Orozco. Downtrodden Mexican peasants? A choreographer who’d been accused of leftist politics?) When American Ballet Theatre became the first classical company sent to the Soviet Union, Martha Hill moved that major dancers not even under contract to ABT (Maria Tallchief, for one) be invited to join the tour.

Panelists made some smart decisions. They also fumbled a few. Casting around for black artists to sponsor abroad, they overlooked tap dancers, and when they finally decided to risk tarnishing the highbrow image of American culture they’d built up, they fussed into existence “Rod Alexander’s Dance Jubilee,” whose Middle and Far East tour program included an example of minstrel show dances. Go figure.

ANTA representatives had to account for every penny of “taxpayers’ money” to a congressional subcommittee with little idea of how dance companies were run. The budget the Limón company submitted after the triumphant 1954 tour included $410 to clean costumes and assemble scenery; John J. Rooney of New York wanted to know what happened to the costumes and scenery after the tour: “Whose property were they by then?”

It’s worth remembering an important by-product of the early success of American artists abroad: it shamed the government into funding them on home turf. The vocal conservative minority currently bent on destroying the NEA should read this book.

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