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  • Victoria Phillips, PhD

"That's What They Call Cultural Exchange..."

Updated: May 6

(Quote from Dave and Iola Brubeck with Louis Armstrong, The Real Ambassadors)



Dance, like music, does not require a common verbal language and thus both became vital as Cold War “weapons.” Yet ironies in United States-Soviet exchange abound. In 1932, a delegation of American communist artists returned from Moscow and declared, “Art is a Weapon.” Ironically, after HUAC trials of artists in the 1940s led the way for the nation’s McCarthyism in the 1950s, the United States government used the arts to promote its interests abroad, and the arts became its own soft power cold war weapon to fight the Soviet threat.


Twists and turns abounded: following a congressional hearing on composer Aaron Copland’s support for “an alien ideology,” his Lincoln Portrait was pulled from the inaguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower; shortly thereafter, the Eisenhower administration’s Psychological Strategy Board particularly chose Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring for international export to represent American ideals, with its score by Aaron Copland. His “Americana” represented the state’s ideals on the global stage; he won the Pulitzer Prize for the score. As the Communist Party of the United States of America wrote in a 1930s cartoon, “If it’s bad art, its bad propaganda. If it’s good art, it’s good propaganda.” And Graham was good.


But back to governments: officials in the United States government called cultural exports ‘translational,’ meaning that if there were positive ideas about race or gender, truth, freedom, dignity, all expressed non-verbally in the cultural realm, that they would ‘translate’ into the political and economic arena. People would join Western democracies. In the early tours, the idea was to enact “trickle down diplomacy”; the elites, once brought to the Western side, would educate the people. Thus Graham was on the “cocktail circuit of diplomacy.” While ‘people-to-people exchange’ is a bit less Mad Men, this understanding of the power of meetings, of connections in-person, is something that we are losing in the Internet age. While extremely valuable as a tool to rally numbers, there is something to the handshake, the bow, the clinking glass - even filled with sparkling water.


Although it is not a popular or even politically appropriate concept at present, modernism and Graham’s dance art strove to express universal human essences, which I’m sure is what attracted me to this early modernism. From grief and fear to love, laughter, and joy, from the physical expression of terror or sorrow to the laugh – hearing a person weeping or a child laughing - dance can convey this to people across verbal and land boundaries. In Graham’s Lamentation or Diversion of Angels, Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table, I find pieces of myself.


This draws questions of ‘identity’ and identity politics into play, no doubt. But over decades and across geographic lines and economic zones, from high schoolers to early hospice, I have seen people rise to their feet in an explosion of applause for these works performed well, with dignity and honesty and passion. This is why they work: with words rendered useless, good dance art forges human connection. Then, our question is where to go from there.

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© 2019 by Victoria Phillips

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