Conference Objects

Dancing the Cold War: An International Symposium

Garafola, Lynn

Lynn Garafola

Thank you, Kim, for that wonderfully concise – and incisive – overview, the perfect start to a symposium that seeks to explore the role of dance in the many global theaters of the Cold War. David Caute, in "The Dancer Defects," a wide-ranging volume about the Cold War struggle for supremacy in many realms of cultural activity, devotes his one chapter on dance to the high-profile defections that, beginning with Rudolf Nureyev’s “leap to freedom” in 1961, captured so many headlines. But as we will see in the next two days, there was more – far more – to the story than defections and far more even than ballet, although ballet certainly played a big part in Cold War battles for supremacy. Musicals like "West Side Story" and dances like the Twist belonged as much to the Cold War imaginary as events at the Bolshoi or the old Met that began with the playing of national anthems and even, on occasion, the display of national flags. Movie theaters and television were also battlegrounds, with millions of Americans tuning in to the Ed Sullivan Show for their first glimpse of real Russian dancers.

Although the United States and the USSR were the main protagonists of the Cold War, they were not its only ones. The ideological struggle that was said to pit capitalist freedom against communist oppression took place on many fronts and involved allies, clients, and surrogates of those countries in different parts of the world. The two powers dueled at festivals in Africa, Western Europe, and the Middle East. Master teachers and choreographers were dispatched, and students sent to metropoles. Companies large and small embarked on long tours, spreading the gospel of dance along with a dose of ideology, earning foreign currency for their governments or budget relief for themselves, and contributing to the international visibility of the dance boom. Many breathed a sigh of relief when they returned home, but over the years the exposure to other repertories and other training regimes could be felt in the globalization of works, performance styles, and techniques.

In the Cold War struggle for hearts and minds, people outside the corridors of power played a huge part. When the Moiseyev Dance Ensemble first toured the United States, the dancers were mobbed when they bought teddy bears for their children; Americans invited them home, believing that people-to-people diplomacy was the way to peace. Dancers were diplomats; in their dresses and pumps they met artists and dignitaries. They performed in opera houses and on improvised stages, giving full-scale performances and lecture-demonstrations – sometimes to people who had never glimpsed ballet or modern dance before, or witnessed performances by a company of African- American virtuosi. At a time before mass air travel, they traversed oceans and continents, encountered strange foods, languages, and customs. They became members of a global dance culture.

The cultural Cold War has become a minor cottage industry. But when Naima Prevots published "Dance for Export: Cultural Diplomacy and the Cold War" in 1998, it was the first book to examine the phenomenon with respect to dance. Since then a number of scholars have followed in her footsteps, and several will be giving papers on their work at this symposium. "Dancing the Cold War" had its inception two years ago when the late and sorely missed Catharine Nepomnyashchy and I curated a symposium on Russian movement cultures of the 1920s and 1930s. The event was multidisciplinary in that it prominently featured both visual iconography and film. This time, in addition to film, photographs, and memorabilia, we will be hearing from dancers from ten US companies who took part in multiple Cold War tours, as well as Soviet-trained artists who have pursued post-Cold War careers outside Russia. We are also fortunate in being able to share Cold War images from the remarkable collection of Robert Greskovic and to show a film of Balanchine’s "Western Symphony," specially loaned to us by the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, which was made in Paris in 1956 with Cold War dollars.

Tonight we begin with another Cold War film, "Plisetskaya Dances," about the legendary Bolshoi ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya. It was made in 1964 by Moscow’s Central Documentary Film Studio and introduces us to the star who blazed so brightly over the international dance firmament. In Moscow she danced "Swan Lake" for innumerable foreign leaders, including Fidel Castro (shown on the symposium program and poster after a performance). Abroad she danced it to ecstatic crowds. We know from her memoir, "I, Maya Plisetskaya," that her path was not easy. Her father was killed in the late 1930s, and she danced her first "Dying Swan" (or something that approximated it) at an outdoor concert in the city of Chimkent before an audience of political exiles, including her mother. She was denied permission to take part in the Bolshoi’s 1956 tour of London because one of her father’s brothers had settled in New York, had children, and grown prosperous. None of this appears in the film, of course. What you see instead is the magnificent Bolshoi ballerina, with her outsized temperament and splendid jumps, a dancer who had scaled the heights of international fame but remained at heart deeply Russian.


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Harriman Institute
The Harriman Institute, Columbia University
Published Here
May 6, 2021