Dance and the Cold War

Exports to Latin America

By Naima Prevots

It was November 1954 in the middle of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviets had been investing heavily in exporting their artists, and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was convinced we needed to compete in that arena.

In November 1954, the José Limón Dance Company was sent by the State Department to perform in Latin America, thus launching the first government-sponsored initiative in using performing arts as part of the Cold War effort. The choice of José Limón to launch the new arts export initiative had ramifications related to the quest for national identity and cultural projection. The Spanish-speaking, Mexican-born Limón had grown up in the United States. Implied in the message of sending Limón was the idea of diversity in America and possibly even the message that the United States is a country where immigrants have found a home. He was in his prime as choreographer, performer, teacher, and his work was wide ranging in its subject matter. His choreography was fully crafted, deeply expressive, and original. The works taken to Latin America showed a wide range: The Moor’s Pavane, based on OthelloLa Malinche, set in Mexico and the story of an Aztec princess torn between her love of country and love for a Spanish conquistador; and Vivaldi Concerto, an abstract piece. Also performed were dances choreographed by his mentor, Doris Humphrey: Night Journey, New Dance, Ritmo Jondo, Day on Earth, Ruins and Visions, and Story of Mankind.

Limón told audiences in Rio and Montevideo: “With all our crudities, we are Americans. We are not afraid to declare ourselves, and have done so in our dance. The academic dance from Europe is not adequate to express what we have to say. Hemingway and Faulkner write in English, but they write like Americans. In the same way, we are trying to find a new language for American dance.” Modern dance was not highly developed in Latin America, and his performances brought audiences a new language and form of expression. Here was also a message that the U.S. was a country not steeped in the past, but looking towards new ideas.

Earlier that year, in August, Congress had approved Eisenhower’s request for emergency funds to use cultural diplomacy in combating Soviet influence around the world and diminishing the spread of communism. The funding marked the first time in the history of U.S. public policy that choreographers, composers, playwrights were to be systematically exported, as a peaceful weapon in the service of foreign policy.

The basic concept was that art and politics could work hand in hand to reduce the allure of communism, thus influencing political decisions. The goal was to influence hearts and minds in other countries, and to show that military might and commercial interests were not the only things Americans valued.

Limón’s performances were timed to coincide with the conference of the Inter-American Economic and Social Council in Rio de Janeiro, and the UNESCO Conference in Montevideo. Limón was considered one of the most important American modern dance choreographers, and both he and his group were highly acclaimed performers. Government concerns regarding Latin America were made clear in a 1955 statement issued by the United States Information Agency (USIA):

The strategic importance of Latin America and the size of our stake in that area are well known. What is not so well known is that, first, a tremendous social and economic change, an upsurge, is taking place through Latin America; and, second, international communism is systematically exploiting the problems arising from that upsurge, seeking to foment hatred of the United States and establish footholds in the hemisphere. (Hearings before the Subcommittee of the (Committee on Appropriations)

The U.S. Embassy in Brazil sent a message to the State Department: “Limón Company top artistic and personal success. Even writer unfriendly United States praised highly.” One of the dancers, Alvin Shulman, published a report of the tour in the March 1955 Dance Observer: “The orchestra applauded us, after which the first violinist stood up and, in the best English at his command, stated that he and the rest of the members wanted us to know that it was their honor to be playing for a company of artists. We had won our first step towards accomplishing our mission.” The mission was to show Latin Americans there was freedom of expression for individual artists, and Americans did not live in a cultural void.

When the program began in 1954, the State Department signed a contract with a non-profit theatre group in New York, the American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA). Its mandate was to handle all the logistics of touring artists; it established peer panels in the various art disciplines to make artistic recommendations. In 1956, Congress transformed the Emergency Fund into permanent legislation, and through 1962, the arrangement with ANTA was maintained until the entire operation was transferred to the State Department in Washington.

Yet while art could go a long way, cultural diplomacy also has a fragile side, which the Limón export vividly illustrates. Officers in various American embassies are the key factors to linking the message and the mission. They must be knowledgeable about the arts in order to provide a linkage. Certainly in the 1950s there were U.S. officials in Montevideo who either had no knowledge of dance, or whose idea of cultural diplomacy was selective and racially biased. One of the great African-American dancer/choreographers, Katherine Dunham, was also performing in Montevideo in 1954, appearing as an independent artist with her company. Her manager had booked the government-sponsored Limón to open the same evening, and the U.S. Embassy hosted a cocktail party for Limón, but did not invite Dunham.

This story is rather complicated. Dunham was in fact considered for support in the Eisenhower program when her name came up in 1955 during the ANTA panel meetings. In 1954, the report of the Inter-Agency Committee notes the quick choice of Limón because of the imminent Latin American conferences following the approval of the Eisenhower funds. In fact, Limón was persuaded to cancel his other activities for this assignment, and various Embassy officers in Rio, Montevideo and São Paulo were enlisted to help find theaters at the last minute.

It is likely that the ANTA panel had no idea Dunham was planning to perform in Montevideo. She toured extensively on her own in the 1950s, and in 1954 had closed her school in New York because of financial difficulties. Thus, she was not very visible in the United States at that time. The dance historian Constance Valis Hill has suggested that a 1951 piece by Dunham was the cause of her being ignored by U.S. officials in Montevideo when Limón appeared. The piece was called Southland, was commissioned by the Symphony of Chile, and premiered in Santiago. It was an angry and confrontational ballet about lynching, and ended with a feeling of unresolved hatred and racism. Due to negative feedback from the U.S. Embassy in Santiago, the piece was only performed there once. In 1953, the last and only other performances of Southland took place in Paris as part of Dunham’s season. It is important to note that foreign service personnel only serve in given posts for two to three years, and are kept busy with government projects. They usually lack knowledge about dance, and it is highly likely they didn’t know who Dunham was, and possibly didn’t even care. She was an independent artist touring on her own, and they were given a rush assignment by the State Department. This in no way excuses their actions, or eliminates the possibility that racial prejudice could operate in their decisions, but in this case it seems highly unlikely that one performance in 1951 of someone probably unknown to them had any impact in their mandate to host Limon in the grand manner.

The bigger question relates to choices made in developing programs for cultural diplomacy regarding who represents the United States, who makes the decisions, and what kind of national identity is being represented. In December 1954, under the auspices of Eisenhower’s Emergency Fund, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess began a three month tour that took the production to Zagreb, Belgrade, Alexandria, Cairo, Naples, Milan, Athens, Tel Aviv, Casablanca and Barcelona. It was not until 1961 that the ANTA Dance Panel recommended sending Alvin Ailey overseas, and in 1962 the Carmen de Lavallade-Alvin Ailey American Dance Company toured the Far East.

Dance as a tool of cultural diplomacy in Latin America was used sporadically during the 1950s. Only two major companies toured during that time: American Ballet Theatre (1955) and San Francisco Ballet (1958). In 1960 and 1962, the Limón Company was sent again. In the final year of the ANTA contract and the existence of the Dance Panel in New York, there was an unusual and controversial decision to send the Berea Folk Dancers on a summer tour of Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador. The issue of creating a representative U.S. folk dance group had surfaced since 1954 at Dance Panel meetings. Several times a suggestion was made to send young people instead of professionals. Neither one of these ideas made any headway until an application was received from the Berea college group. Some objected that the young dancers’ repertory focused mainly on one aspect of American folk heritage: dances of English descent and tradition. Others were concerned about a lack of high-level performance experience. Members of the panel insisted on going to Kentucky to judge the group, and returned with positive feedback.

There are no comments in the Dance Panel minutes that related to political conditions in Latin America when the Berea group was recommended and sent abroad. It is clear however, that there must have been some discussions with the State Department about the felt need for an American presence providing an image of wholesome good will and energy. The Berea dancers performed with very positive reaction in theaters and non-theatrical settings such as gymnasiums, patios and cafeterias, and they usually invited audience participation at the end of performances. Eight-five percent of the audience was middle-class or made up of high school or university students. Admission was charged to only five of 38 performances. In Colombia, a group of folk dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet, present at the same time as the U.S. group, charged high admission prices. The report was that the Berea dancers had an audience of 20,000, compared with 1,000 for the Russian troupe.

A report from Robert F. Jordan, Cultural Affairs Officer of the U.S. Embassy in Honduras noted: “The presentation of the Berea College Folk Dancers in Tegucigalpa is considered one of the highlights of the Cultural Exchange Program. Not only did the dancers perform splendidly but they were also equally effective onstage with their pleasant personalities, interest in meeting Honduran students, and their desire to learn about Honduran folklore dances and songs. “

In January 1963 the State Department decided to terminate the contract with ANTA and take over administration of the performing arts program initiated by Eisenhower. Research needs to be done as to changes in the program after 1963, and how cultural diplomacy in dance changed, as this author’s research focused on the years 1954-1962. Conceptually and practically, the panel system that ANTA developed was brilliant; it ensured professional standards of assessment and minimized government control and censorship. The amount of money allocated for the international exchange program in 1954 was $2,250,000, and this amount remained constant for all performing arts export.

Touring is very expensive, and the money mandated only a few dance companies could tour. In a country as large and diverse as the United States, this becomes a serious issue in the selection process.

The ANTA Dance Panel often discussed who their target audiences were, whether exports were designed for the elite, or for the masses, or for those somewhere in between.

In terms of Latin America, the first Limón tour served an elite audience, and it is not clear from the records whether his performances in theaters were widely advertised and attracted a broader range of people. It is likely that the tours of American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, and those of Limón later on were designed to attract the normal theatergoing audience. The Berea College dancers had quite a different target group, and one that was controversial within the Dance Panel.

Probably the most serious questions raised in general about cultural diplomacy have to do with the nature of propaganda and the goals of national identity. These issues often become translated by critics into imperialist and post-colonial goals, with the United States imposing values and a way of life. The ANTA Dance Panel focused primarily on their notion of excellence in dance, not on political considerations in terms of sending a specific message about America. Naturally, their aesthetic decisions were influenced by their view in those years of what constituted excellence, and this related to the society in which they grew up and which had shaped them.

None of this negates the power of the arts, and the importance of having others in the world experience the great creations of U.S. choreographers, and the stunning performances of U.S. dancers. More of this kind of endeavor could overcome the negative media reporting that exists about our country. Audiences get to see performances they love and enjoy, and they have respect for the artists. The dancers appear as flesh and blood, and the choreography proclaims that beauty, imagination, and the spiritual components of life are strong values. If some choreographers and groups carry a specific message in terms of their creative direction, that is the function of their personal vision, and not the function of a State Department directive. It was true in 1954 and it is true today, that the power of images on the stages of the world may not be quantifiable, but have enormous power in conveying the message that the United States has exports that have nothing to do with soldiers and guns.

Naima Prevots is Professor Emerita, American University. She has been the recipient of Fulbright and NEH fellowships, and has authored three books, numerous monographs and articles. She has been performer, choreographer, educator, administrator, and currently writes criticism for www.danceviewtimes.org. She contributed to the recent book published on Alwin Nikolais.