Past Event

Martha Graham's Cold War

September 7, 2018
4:30 PM - 6:00 PM
4, rue de Chevreuse, 75006 Paris

As the Opéra de Paris (Garnier) is presenting ballets choreographed by Martha Graham, Victoria Phillips' forthcoming book: Martha Graham's Cold War: The Dance of American Diplomacy, examines Graham’s enduring influence as a female ambassador who performed American freedoms with modernism in dance on the global Cold War stage.

The postwar Western idealism promoted by Graham’s works would age with time; the promotion of the United States in the 1950s as a supremely modern country, and thus represented by the modern dance, metamorphosed over nearly four decades into the celebration of this dance as iconic, traditional, and then as representative of the conservative movement in the United States. And with Graham's denials of being political, a modernist, feminist, and missionary, comes the archival search through government documents, Graham's papers, memos saved by dancers, oral histories, and historical chases that led the author to Europe, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Washington D.C., and then right back to New York, the cultural Cold War capital.

“I am not a propagandist,” declared Martha Graham while on the first tour she and her company made abroad that was sponsored by the State Department. “My dances are not political.” Yet between 1955 and 1987, under every president from Dwight D. Eisenhower through Ronald Reagan, Graham and her troupe traveled under government auspices to upward of twenty-five countries. She was honored or feted at the White House by every Cold War president from Franklin D. Roosevelt through George H. W. Bush. From Eisenhower’s “domino nations” in 1955, through the Middle East, behind the “Iron Curtain,” to East Berlin in the early 1980s, Graham landed in Cold War hotspots where the United States sought to exert influence. That is why in 1962 the opera The Real Ambassadors - with two other leading artists deployed by the government for its programs abroad—Dave and Iola Brubeck, working with the composer Louis Armstrong—wrote the refrain “When they sensed internal mayhem / They sent out Martha Graham / That’s what we call cultural exchange.”

Nonetheless, Graham disavowed that she was a political figure. Indeed, saying what she was not was often a way in which Graham portrayed herself. Not political, she also disavowed herself as a modernist, American missionary, and feminist. Yet as an American women diplomat touring around the globe during the Cold War with her modern dance, she represented classic American freedoms, and thus defended and encouraged United States interests abroad. As a modernist she demonstrated freedom of speech, her works demonstrated freedom of religion; her multi-racial troupe demonstrated an unspoken and contested freedom posited in response to the communist dissemination of news about a racist America. She posited as uniquely American the ability to create an individualistic—and thus “free”—dance technique, at the same time that she viewed her dance and repertory as offering what I call “cultural convergences” that were paradoxically framed as universal, with Japanese techniques featured in Asia, the Old Testament in Israel, and the European in Europe.


Free and open to all

Event organized with: Columbia University Club of France and the Institute for Ideas and Imagination.