A fresh view of 1950s dance
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University of Iowa Department of Dance faculty member Rebekah Kowal is the winner of the 2012 Congress on Research in Dance (CORD) Outstanding Publication award for her book How to Do Things With Dance: Performing Change in Postwar America, published by the Wesleyan University Press in 2010.
Taking a fresh view of modern dance in the 1950s, she portrays dance as an agent of social change in the Cold War era, including choreography by Martha Graham, José Limón, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and Anna Halprin.
As the book’s jacket introduction summarizes, “In postwar America, any assertion of difference from the mainstream anticommunist culture carried professional and personal risks. For this reason, modern dance artists left much of what they thought unsaid. Instead they expressed themselves in movement. How to Do Things With Dance positions modern dance as a vital critical discourse, and suggests that dances of the late 1940s and the 1950s can be seen as compelling agents of social change.”
In addition to the CORD recognition, the book has been enthusiastically received by critics and the dance history field, where it is now being used as a text in classes across the country. Claire Croft wrote in the Theatre Journal, "Kowal's claim that dance did not simply represent change taking place elsewhere but actually enacted change is a compelling argument that choreographers and dance scholars will want to invoke when challenging the marginalization of dance.”
Describe the research process that led to writing this book.
The research was a long project. It started out as my thesis research at NYU in American studies. For me, the ’50s have been a largely unexamined era in American modern dance, so it seemed like a no-brainer to focus in on the ’50s. But as I got deeper and deeper into the project and started talking with various players, it started to become apparent to me that the reason why nobody had really tackled that era was because it was so complicated.
It wasn’t as clear as modern dance in the ’60s, portraying dancers as avant-garde leaders of social change. Most of the people I was looking at did not see themselves as having any kind of political significance. In general the decade was very conservative and artists were somewhat restrained in their expression of any kind of political leanings, in part because they were responding to what happened in the 1930s and the very strong political statements that were made. They really didn’t want to go there in their work. They were interested in investigating other kinds of ideas.
And there were strong aesthetic shifts that happened in the ’50s as well, very much focused on the body in and of itself—thinking about the body less as representation and the dance really being grounded in the action.
I started to see the complications of dealing with era, and how I really needed to understand it in relation to the 1930s—socially, politically, and artistically—and also a kind of segue into the 1960s. So my argument developed over about 10 years time, to try to give as much due as I could to the particular feeling of the era, and also try to take what the artists said about their work seriously.
Most of the arguments about the 1950s have focused on a shift into abstraction and nonrepresentational art, and what I tried to say was that that was part of it, but not all of it, and that we might be able to come up with a bigger umbrella concept to understand it.
So your research led you to look far beyond dance itself?
Even though I knew I was making an argument that was going to be a little controversial, because it was new, I also really wanted to ground it in the primary sources, not only in dance but also through these socio-political layers. So I spent a lot of time in the archives, looking at women’s magazines, and newspaper, and different coverage of the war and the post-war period. I needed to look into the dimensions of race, gender, and sexuality that were organic to the process.
In the course of your argument you describe the movements, gestures, and relationship in dances in exquisite detail. Is the ’50s the first decade for which there is a much richer documentation of dance on film?
One reason for that was that dancers were going on television. Some of the footage I was finding was from those shows. That also creates a different audience for dance—a more incidental audience than the person who is going to pay to go to the theater. So you can see the interaction of the showing of a dance and a newscast, and how that can get layered into someone’s consciousness in a more immediately juxtaposed way than someone walking into the theater and having this “black box” experience that seems somewhat apart from everyday life.
Even though choreographers weren’t making overt statements about their political positions, I found it interesting that they tried to put ordinary life on stage so we could look at it again. Or to put a dance on TV and bring it into people’s homes and then, as a result, ask the audience to reckon with this in the scope of their everyday lives.
One fascinating aspect of the book: it reveals how the Cold War/McCarthy Era attitude affected dance, and which companies received funding for international tours.
Yes, for this dimension of my research, I drew from a previously published book by Naima Prevots, on the history of U.S. dance company touring under President Eisenhower's Emergency Fund, which sponsored foreign tours of American companies through the State Department beginning in the mid-1950s. I also examined declassified transcripts of Dance Panel discussions about who to send abroad and why, available through the Freedom of Information Act.
Whereas Prevots' research brings these discussions and information about the tours to the light of day, I tried to make a more culturally resonant argument about the correlations between the Dance Panel's selections and rejections for funding, and what I call an ideology of "universalism," which I found drove both U.S. postwar foreign relations and aesthetic prescriptions within the mainstream modern dance field.
Applied to both cases, I tried to show a paradox between a universalist stance—that in theory valued the elements of human life presumably common to all peoples, and held human equality in the highest esteem—and its Western white racist underbelly, which acknowledged cultures and specific forms of concert dance expression in as much as they upheld dominant assumptions about the world and/or ways of living.
With respect to artists denied funding by the Dance Panel because they were not seen to uphold a Dance Panel-endorsed view of "America," or whose work did not show American society in an entirely positive light, such judgments had significant impacts on careers and company longevity. From our perspective today, it is clear that racism, sexism, and homophobia formed the basis of many decisions.
You said that you knew the book might be controversial. Has it been?
Not as much as I expected. Because I knew it might be controversial, I was really careful to cross my t’s and dot my i’s. The scholarly journals were all positive, and the book is now being taught in a number of courses throughout the country, and has been released in a paperback second printing.
I also recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities summer stipend, which provided support for eight weeks of concentrated research on my next project. It makes me happy that people are paying attention to dance research.