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  • Inevitable Designs:Embodied Ideology in Anna Sokolow’s Proletarian Dances
  • Hannah Kosstrin (bio)

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Anna Sokolow’s choreography in Strange American Funeral (1935) and Case History No.—(1937) created what New Masses dance critic Stanley Burnshaw (1936) described as inevitable designs: it inscribed indelible etchings in space that spoke truth to power through proletarian ideology. The themes of these dances resonated with Depression-era New York leftist audiences aligned with socialist, Communist, and working-class ideals, while Sokolow’s melding of form and content answered the prescripts of both revolutionary and modern dance. Reviewers’ detailed descriptions of the pieces—in publications including the leftist New Masses, Daily Worker, and New Theatre; the broad-based New York Times and Boston Herald; and Louis Horst’s dance-specific Dance Observer—make clear that the work’s politics resonated with working-class audiences while its modernist aesthetic similarly attracted a wide range of concert dance-goers. This acclaim afforded Sokolow (1910–2000)—a young, working-class, left-wing Jewish choreographer—the freedom to move among political and artistic circles that a single label of either “revolutionary” or “modern” would have denied her. Her ability to thus cross critical divides speaks to her larger ability to navigate between working-class and elite representative spheres, and between being marked as a revolutionary Jewish Communist and being otherwise unmarked as a universal modern dance choreographer.1

Through her portrayal of bodies that were not specifically gendered male or female, her biting commentary, her reputation in performance as a Martha Graham soloist, and in leadership as a Workers Dance League founder, Sokolow transgressed established structures and became a voice of the leftist dance movement. The reception of Sokolow’s work, and its discernible traces in photographs, reviews, and dancers’ memories, evidences this prominence. As Susan Manning has shown, spectators view a performance in relation to their own social positioning, and engage in “cross-viewing” when “[catching] glimpses of subjectivities from social locations that differ from their own” (2004, xvi). Manning and Susan Leigh Foster have further demonstrated that various aspects of performance production, from venue to genre to critical reception, also contextualize or frame a [End Page 5] performance (Foster 1986, 59–65; Manning 2004, xviii–xix). During the 1930s, as Manning details, audiences and critics attending and reviewing dance on the concert stage represented a wide spectrum of political, aesthetic, raced, and gendered subjectivities. Sokolow’s 1930s critical reception and varied performance venues thus reveal how her work spoke to a hybrid audience. Had Sokolow’s content appeared as too bourgeois or not fully proletarian, the leftists would have rejected her. Conversely, if her work had not subscribed to modernist compositional norms, the then-emerging modern dance establishment would have ignored her. It is because Sokolow successfully negotiated a space for herself between these interests that she garnered recognition not only within the New York dance scene, but also internationally by attracting the attention of the post-revolutionary socialist Mexican government.

While Sokolow drew this focus by exposing the plight of the working class through choreographic representations of oppressive authoritarian power or the neglected poor, her refusal to offer solutions to these problems engenders broader implications than if her work was simply dogmatic. In a 1967 interview, Sokolow explained her practice, expounding, “I never gave an answer to what I did. They used to say ‘you must finish it’ and I would say ‘well, who knows what the finish is?’ I still don’t finish anything because I don’t feel that anything ever ends” (quoted in “Talking to Dance and Dancers” 1967, 18). Yet, critic Clive Barnes’ 1968 bestowal upon Sokolow of the moniker “prophet of doom” is as apt in the 1930s as the 1960s (54). With choreography perceived as universal but also open-ended, Sokolow’s work has a foretelling quality while remaining rooted in the present’s urgency and her characters’ real-ness. Performed by the ten women of Sokolow’s Dance Unit, Strange American Funeral portrayed the gruesome death of an immigrant steel worker who fell into a vat of molten ore after a guardrail failed.2 Through dancers’ movements that displayed...


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