Cold War Ballet Battles The Arts of Diplomacy [VI]
“If there must be a cold war, we think that the best possible weapons are those of the arts (…) for we know, first-hand, the pleasure and the enlightenment to be gained from such exchanges.” (Joel, 1958)
From 1959 through 1962, a series of ballet exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union led to mutual admiration for the arts as well as some miscommunication. Both the public and the dance critics from the US and USSR (both being highly distrustful of each other’s actions) were undecided if what they were seeing deserved a series of standing ovations and curtain calls, or maybe no reaction at all.
The early years of the Cold War brought with them a new diplomatic tool that appeared to be harmless, simply a means of educating and introducing people on the subject of ballet – this theatrical, gentle and graceful art form. Little did the public know that the use of these cultural exchanges was to undermine the enemy and spread propaganda and ideas meant to influence their views and make them question what they believed: the Americans were supposed to switch from seeing Russians as uncultured, rigid and shut out from the world, while the Russians were supposed to gain further confirmation that their lifestyle was the norm and that the western world is not one they would like to live in.
The superpowers of dance
All of this was happening in the context of the 1958 Lacy-Zarubin Agreement on Cultural Exchange. William S. B. Lacy, the US special assistant on East-West exchanges and the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Georgy Zarubin signed this Agreement, which allowed for cultural, educational and scientific exchanges between the two superpowers. Someone in the Soviet propaganda office had the idea that portraying the capitalist United States of America as a vulgar, commercial society, denuded of culture, may disused the other nations in Europe and Middle East from forging alliances with it. Instead, these countries would undoubtedly prefer to be associated with the Soviet Union, a nation that would value and support their artistic heritage in the same way that it did with its own. In reality, the Russians would go on to use culture as a weapon, with the goal of promoting the correct Soviet image abroad. In response to this, the Americans applied the same tactics. The United States Information Agency (USIA) worked on tours together with the State Department, while other organizations, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), arranged and supervised tours as well. All of this became possible due to the $2 million dollars Emergency Fund for International Affairs allotted by President Eisenhower to support the arts (especially theater, dance and music). Dancers and choreographers were confronted with the question of how the two countries should be properly represented as they traveled on these tours, which conjoined at the convergence of nationalism, public policy and the arts, the strategy here was to counter whatever the other country would send with a similar genre (Croft, 2009). The Bolshoi, a world renowned company, would plié onto United States stages in 1959, followed by the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) who would pirouette onto Soviet arenas. (Spencer, 2021).
Bolshoi’s Ballet Spartacus, choreographed by Igor Moiseyev, tells the story of a gladiator who led a slaves’ rebellion against the Roman Empire, and follows the journey of a man while he finds love, freedom and the purpose of his mission – to overthrow a decadent ruling class (The Australian Ballet editors, 2018). He fights against the Empire even though the odds were never in his favor. This story consists of three acts (by comparison, Graham’s piece consists of only one), and it’s got it all: tragedy, sacrifice, courage, captivity, freedom, lust, love, and, most of all, hope.
Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring tells the story of a couple, a young pioneer husband and his future wife, on their wedding day, as they begin their life together on the American frontier just as the war in Europe was drawing to an end. What makes this play special is Graham’s technique which focuses mainly on opposing forces, feelings and desires, and on telling the stories from a woman’s perspective (Bodensteiner, 2019). Her interest in human behavior, her grace and powerful presence come together on stage to create an atmosphere that leaves the spectators in awe, after having a merry-go-round ride through the spectrum of emotions, with Graham herself describing the final moments of this exceptional piece: “The entire piece ends quite simply. It has the feeling of a town settling down for the night, the kind of thing that happens when one hears a call in the twilight, the voices of children in the distance, a dog barking, and then night.”
In her book, Ballet in the Cold War: A Soviet-American Exchange, Anne Searcy writes that the two audiences viewed ballet differently: Americans loved the Soviet dancers, but they thought their ballets were old-fashioned and vulgar, while the Soviets appreciated American technique and innovation but saw their choreography as dull and dry (Searcy, 2020). This separation between America and Russia’s ballet lies in the way viewers were trained to see – the company members were under the impression that they knew what to expect from the public, but because their perception was based on the audiences they used to have at home, they didn’t anticipate that viewers abroad would see and interpret the performances differently. The Americans had a very narrow understanding of what people living in the Soviet Union were like, most of them not comprehending that not all people in the USSR were Russians or that not all of them fit the narrative of the Communists as the American Media had them believe.
Not at all dirty dancing
I believe one of the reasons for this was the lack of communication between countries at a more personal level, not just politics and misunderstandings or differences of their leader’s opinion, especially the lack of any real and meaningful contact between the two cultures. In America, tours were a success and got people fascinated with the Russian dancers, up to the point they would seek out to see how their day-to-day experiences could be similar to theirs. Newspapers were flooded with articles about what the Russians liked or disliked, what was like living a day in their life outside of ballet, their behavior, where they shopped or what they wore. Diplomacy in the form of the Bolshoi Ballet did wonders for the artistic branch by bringing together people from opposing countries, views and ideologies through a mutual appreciation of the arts.
Aldo initially considered suitable only to the elites and associated with power, romanticism and refinery, the non-verbal character of ballet meant it was accessible to all spectators despite their opposing tastes in styles (classical versus modern). This characteristic made it an ideal diplomatic tool often described as “artful warfare” (McDaniel, 2015). Dancers turned into cultural ambassadors for the countries they represented, and their performances were meant not only to please the public but also to lessen differences in political and ideological beliefs, influencing perceptions on what each country stands for. For example, the Russians were hoping that these tours would make Americans forget all the negative aspects of Communism and instead associate positive ones with the Soviet Union, winning their support, even if Soviet performers wouldn’t be completely sheltered from western principles (McDaniel, 2015). In turn, American statesmen knew that these tours were nothing more than a power move and critics, especially the people from The New York Times, were suspicious of the results these performances might bring, going as far as saying that “a profound national humiliation might result if the American Ballet disappointed the people back home” (Spencer, 2021). But the audience was unsuspecting of these covert aspects and while attending productions, they would put aside their differences and see the things in front of them for what they were: exceptional performances and outstanding professionals.
When the “dancing duels” ended, everyone was left with the same question: Which country was the winner? In reality, none of them were. Their efforts to influence perceptions and all the propaganda were in vain as it proved unsuccessful to the level they were looking to achieve. However, while the two superpowers continued arguing like two people that have opposing views on how to raise their kid, said “child” (the public) gained respect and a much better understanding of ballet as an universal art form meant to awaken feelings in any member, of any nation (Spencer, 2021). Decades down the line, these cultural exchanges led to a phenomenon called “parallel thinking” – for example, a Soviet dancer stated that “Bad art is bad propaganda, and good art is good propaganda”, while a CIA memo read “If a work is to be good propaganda it should also be good art” (Phillips Geduld, 2008).
The effect of these cultural tools is still open to debate, as experts in the field are studying these Cold War events today. I believe that these programs helped ease tensions between the two countries and put in people’s minds the ideas that both Americans and Russians were human beings, regardless of whose side they’re on and, as humans, they can have mutual interests, separate the artist from its country and enjoy performances meant to make them feel something. An universally agreed upon opinion is that these tours were never a magical cure for the Cold War, but they did make it easier for the United States and Soviet Union to negotiate agreements and to lessen the possibility of using nuclear weapons while contributing to the diplomatic progress (Kelley, 2020).
Bodensteiner, K. (2019). Martha Graham + Appalachian Spring. The Kennedy Center. Available at: https://www.kennedy-center.org/education/resources-for-educators/classroom-resources/media-and-interactives/media/dance/martha-graham--appalachian-spring/.
Croft, C. (2009). Ballet nations: The New York City Ballet’s 1962 US State Department–Sponsored Tour of the Soviet Union. Theatre Journal, 61(3), pp. 421-442. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1353/tj.0.0199.
Kelley, P. (2020). Diplomacy on Point: Anne Searcy’s Book Explores Role of Ballet in US-Soviet Cold War Relations. UW News. Available at: https://www.washington.edu/news/2020/09/29/diplomacy-on-point-anne-searcys-book-explores-role-of-ballet-in-us-soviet-cold-war-relations/.
McDaniel, C.P. (2015). American-Soviet Cultural Diplomacy: The Bolshoi Ballet’s American premiere. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Phillips Geduld, V. (2008). Performing Communism in the American Dance: Culture, Politics and the New Dance Group. American Communist History, 7(1), pp. 39–65. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/14743890802121886.
Searcy, A. (2020) Ballet in the Cold War: A Soviet-American Exchange. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Spencer, G. (2021). Cold War Era Ballet Tours Were High-Stakes Artistic Displays. UW Magazine. Available at: https://magazine.washington.edu/cold-war-era-ballet-tours-were-high-stakes-artistic-displays/.
The Australian Ballet (2018). Spartacus. Available at: https://australianballet.com.au/performances/spartacus.
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.