Theses Doctoral

Mass Performance and the Dancing Chorus Between the Wars, 1918-1939

Waller, Anna Louise

My dissertation examines mass movement and dancing choruses as forms that proliferated across national, political, and artistic boundaries during the interwar period. Bringing together diverse professional and amateur dance practices such as German movement choirs, American and Soviet pageantry, Busby Berkeley films, and early Martha Graham, I analyze how concepts of unity, precision, and futurity operated within the shared mass movement aesthetics but divergent politics of the United States, Germany, and Soviet Russia.

While these forms have been examined by dance scholars as individual phenomena or in their national settings, there has been no full-length comparative study that encompasses this range of forms of dance and national and political ideologies. I argue that form does not predetermine a politics; rather, forms gain political significance through use and interpretation by artists and spectators with political and ideological perspectives—sometimes overt, sometimes implicit. Furthermore, the relationship among the individuals within a group and whether and how they relate to a leader is indicative of how the group participates in politics. I examine the development of German movement choirs and their association with political movements in Weimar and Nazi Germany; I pay special attention to the leftist movement choir activity of Martin Gleisner and Jenny Gertz, figures not well-known in English-language scholarship.

I compare Soviet mass spectacles and American leftist dance, both of which were influenced by the Pageantry Movement, and argue that the artists’ political relation to the state impacted what kinds of futurity they could imagine. To argue that the precision chorus line was a site that produced and contested ideals of American womanhood, I bring together the Radio City Rockettes, the chorus in the all-Black film Harlem is Heaven (1932), and Busby Berkeley’s Dames (1934). Finally, I analyze Martha Graham’s all-female 1930s company alongside her political work Chronicle (1936) to discover connections between the company’s social visions and how the choreographed work implicated spectators in a collective future.

My project contributes to the dance historical field by bringing together a broad range of artistic and cultural phenomena that are more often found within their national or genre boundaries. By connecting these sites of inquiry through archival research and analysis of textual and visual materials, I show that the political identity of a mass or chorus develops from the particular way that the individuals within the group relate to one another, to any leader present or imagined, and to the constituted outside of the group. In making these arguments, I seek to make dance history part of a larger social history of aesthetics and politics.


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2025-08-01.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Worthen, Hana
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 2, 2023