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  • How To Do Things with Dance: Performing Change in Postwar America
  • Kate Elswit (bio)
How To Do Things with Dance: Performing Change in Postwar America. By Rebekah J. Kowal. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2010; 340 pp. $40.00 cloth.

In referencing the famous J.L. Austin book, Rebekah Kowal's title encapsulates her underlying argument: that there are cases in which dancing is doing, not just movement, but social movement or action. As a result, Kowal proposes, postwar American modern dance may not have been as isolated from the contemporaneous social and political reforms as the historical designation "objectivism," which privileges medium over meaning, would have us believe. Danced action, as modeled in the chapter on Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor, thus deals with how movement could have functioned beyond representation and yet remained connected to the world. The work of How To Do Things with Dance is to revisit several well-known choreographers of the postwar period to map a series of possible political configurations between dance and postwar America.

The premise of the book is fascinating. Kowal argues that the artistic disavowal of political efficacy in postwar dance should not actually be aligned with cultural irrelevance. Instead there is something about the "impunity" of dance stages — the underlying presumption that dance was ambiguous and isolated — that qualified them as spaces where action could function as (at least a rehearsal for) doing in the world. In other words, in an era of communist containment, dance was capable of actualizing other ways of being by performing them onstage, precisely because few people were capable of recognizing them as anything but ambiguous. What strikes me in reading Kowal's study is how dance's capacity for social and political import was thus directly proportionate to assumptions of its incapacity.

Starting from this basis, the chapters chart various relationships between action on dance stages and action on social stages, modeling multiple modes in which dance and politics shared preoccupations, impacted one another, or otherwise participated in a relation of mutual unveiling. The first two chapters, for example, offer two takes on the relationship between universalism and power dynamics. In chapter one (what might be called the "is" chapter), Kowal shows how the policies of inclusion and exclusion on the part of the American National Theatre and Academy's Dance Advisory Panel regarding who to send abroad as representative of "universal dance" aligned with the Cold War strategy of communist containment at home. The second chapter (the "as" chapter), by contrast, returns to this domestic culture of containment, but uses an analogy of passing to argue that the ambiguity that lent dance its universalism also acted as a cover for moments that critiqued the forces of normalization, recognizable in hindsight. Here retrospective views on Martha Graham and Jóse Limón, established as "standard-bearers" by the previous chapter, are used to show how dances might have preserved the idea of gender normalcy on the surface through staged scenes that upheld heterosexual matrimony, while in fact, as Kowal suggests of a piece by Limón, simply "keeping up appearances" (52, 75).

Subsequent chapters offer other possible configurations for dance's "real political significance" (225). The chapter on Anna Sokolow shows the Jewish choreographer responding in dance to the same questions of alienation that were prompting re-evaluation in the social sciences. The chapter on Pearl Primus situates her ethnographic trip to Africa between the predominant articulation of civil rights in terms of diasporic discourses and the problem of authenticity for black artists in America. The chapter on Cunningham and Taylor uses their interests in "foundness" to argue that, when movement became the subject of their dance, its stylization covered the emergence of a counternormative subjectivity that resonated with studies on the mutability of identity. The final two chapters deal most directly with ideas of embodiment and efficacy: the choreographies by Donald McKayle and others point toward a trend of using bodily forms to mobilize publics, and Anna Halprin's attempts to transform consciousness [End Page 192] through the experience of art are situated within '60s activist thinking about the reorganization of social experience and the defamiliarization of the habitual.



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pp. 192-193
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