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How To Do Things with Dance

Performing Change in Postwar America

Rebekah J. J. Kowal

Publication Year: 2010

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. Concentrating on choreographers whose artistic work conceived dance in terms of action, Rebekah J. Kowal shows how specific choreographic projects demonstrated increasing awareness of the stage as a penetrable space, one on which socially suspect or marginalized modes of being could be performed with relative impunity and exerted in the real world. Artists covered include Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Anna Sokolow, Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Donald McKayle, Talley Beatty, and Anna Halprin.

Ebook Edition Note: All images have been redacted.

Published by: Wesleyan University Press


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pp. c-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xvi

Th is book would not exist without the help of numerous people. Th is project would never have begun if it had not been for my undergraduate work in Dance at Barnard College. Special acknowledgment goes to Cynthia Jean Cohen Bull, who embodied in her example how a dancer could wear many hats and who first taught me how to think about dance in political terms....

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Introduction Modern Dance and the Cultural Turn to Action

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pp. 1-18

This is a book about the history of dance modernism in the United States after World War II. It is also a cultural history of the postwar period seen through the lens of modern dance. “Doing something” is at the heart of this relation. In the pages that follow, I hope to illuminate cor relations between the gradual redefinition among choreographers of...

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[ 1 ] Setting the Stage: Modern Dance Universalism and the Culture of Containment

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pp. 19-51

In 1946, Martha Graham was invited by the Circle of International Artistic Exchanges to perform in an International Festival of Music, Theater and Dance in Paris at the Theatre des Champs- Elysées. Organizers planned the festival in conjunction with the opening session of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (unesco). Formed in...

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[ 2 ] Precursors to Action: Martha Graham and José Limón

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pp. 52-85

Chapter 1 examined ways in which universalism in modern dance harmonized with the national project of communist containment in the early cold war years. Coordination occurred within the context of the international touring program, funded under President Eisenhower’s Emergency Fund for International Affairs, aimed at “winning the minds...

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[ 3 ] Action Is Ordinary: Anna Sokolow

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pp. 86-116

A nna Sokolow’s Rooms (1955) was one of the most psychologically penetrating and visually arresting choreographic works of its time. It portrayed individuals who live in close proximity to one another and yet cannot make a connection, atomized subjects living amidst the masses in mid- century New York City, members of “the lonely crowd” in America....

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[ 4 ] Action Is Effective: Pearl Primus

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pp. 117-150

The preceding chapter details how choreographer Anna Sokolow’s post war work, in particular Rooms (1952), reframed the ordinary to bring out its inherent theatricality. In this, Sokolow both marked a departure from modern dance universalism, namely its epic proportions, and rendered instead the subjectivities of ordinary people by highlighting the...

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[ 5 ] Action Is Finding Subjectivity: Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor

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pp. 151-193

Characterizing the movement in the visual arts left in painter Jackson Pollock’s wake, critic Harold Rosenberg and artists Allan Kaprow and Robert Rauschenberg addressed the potential of art to spark change through the juxtaposition of the real and the imagined. They envisioned artistic action not as a means toward “suggestion” through representational...

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[ 6 ] The Uses of Action 1: Talley Beatty, Katherine Dunham, and Donald McKayle

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pp. 194-225

In 1959, Donald McKayle and his company performed Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder on national television. Th e piece portrayed the lives of black men on a chain gang, road builders who break up bedrock with their pickaxes in preparation for laying blacktop; men whose own road leads nowhere, only to more backbreaking labor. To words sung by Leon...

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[ 7 ] The Uses of Action 2: Anna Halprin

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pp. 226-256

After race riots in Detroit and Watts, in 1968 choreographer Anna Halprin1 began a piece she would later call Ceremony of Us. Halprin had been approached by James Wood, director of the Workshop at the Studio Watts School for the Arts, who “had recently seen a Dancers’ Workshop2 performance and felt something of the participation, freedom,...


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pp. 257-282


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pp. 283-312


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pp. 313-324

E-ISBN-13: 9780819571076
Print-ISBN-13: 9780819568977

Page Count: 348
Publication Year: 2010