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These books bring to mind words that Hallie Flanagan, director of the Federal Theatre Project, wrote in 1936: “It is of no value whatever to stimulate theatre-going unless, once inside our doors, our audience sees something which has some vital connection with their own lives and their own immediate problems” (1936:6). All three books focus on 1930s performances that were vitally connected to the lives of working-class Americans.
In Stepping Left, Ellen Graff evokes New York City at a time when the hardships of the Great Depression and idealistic views of the Soviet Union converged to create a heyday of cultural activism. In her fascinating study, Graff traces modern dance’s movement first towards and then away from working-class culture, restoring a formerly suppressed chapter of U.S. modern dance history within a leftist tradition. Graff articulates both similarities and differences between traditional modern dance and leftist modern dance. They both took anti-academy, anti-elitist stances—yet modern dance emphasized personal, mystical, and formal considerations while leftist dance emphasized immediate and collective responses to social issues. Graff so clearly captures the intertwining of aesthetics and politics in the 1930s that the reader can fully appreciate the words of the nation’s first dance critic, John Martin of the New York Times, writing in 1933: “To use art as a weapon, it is essential to see that first of all you have caught your art” (10).
The relationship between new dance and the workers’ movement was in a state of flux. In the late 1920s/early ’30s, following the model of Soviet mass spectacle, participatory dance got working-class people involved in revolutionary ideas. Unions were the primary venues for such programs, which were preceded and followed by political discussion. Communal movement and enactment of demonstrations were intended to raise consciousness and function as rehearsals for activism. By the mid-1930s, however, modern labor-oriented dance moved out of worker venues and onto proscenium stages, where “the elements that had made their work vital to other workers—clarity and ideology—were suddenly criticized as crude and obvious” (45).
Graff uses her historical evidence to tease out the theoretical issues imbedded in her material. She challenges the notion of a great divide between bourgeois choreographers—third and fourth generation Americans such as Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey—and champions of the working class, mostly children of immigrants, including Anna Sokolow and Sophie Maslow. Graff favors an examination of the complexity of allegiance. Humphrey, for example, was inspired by a utopian class-free vision. And in 1938, shaken by fascist policies in Europe and World War II, Graham’s American Document reflected “moral fervor, pageantry […] a sociability and a dialogue between herself and the audience that had not existed before” (129). Graff also cites Agnes de Mille’s pithy remark: “Martha’s protest was for the individual versus an unthinking society, and never versus a class or social order” (106). [End Page 182]
Tracing the depoliticization of the new dance, Graff analyzes the ideological implications of the burgeoning folk movement. She explores Sophie Maslow’s Dust Bowl Ballads, choreographed to songs by Woodie Guthrie. She attests that folk music, on the margins of an economy of consumption, anonymous and ownership-free, read very differently on the professional stage. While Guthrie’s presence brought “the people” into the spotlight alongside professionals, the “abrasive voice and body of the striking worker was replaced by country banter. The real presence of the people on stage was replaced by an artistic representation of ‘the people.’ The ‘International’ was replaced by folk...