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Modernist Dance and the Metapolitics of Cold War Culture


Catherine Gunther Kodat
Catherine Gunther Kodat

University of the Arts (Philadelphia) Provost Catherine Kodat read and discussed selections of her recently published book, Don’t Act, Just Dance: The Metapolitics of Cold War Culture on Feb. 17. Kodat taught at Hamilton College for 17 years, and headed the English department for some time. This book, she explained, was aimed at “interrogat[ing] the revisionist thesis of postwar American art.” While other art historians and experts have claimed that modern art was embraced in the post war period because of its inherently apolitical nature, Kodat argues that this is too simplistic, which she explains further in her book.

The focus of her discussion and her book was on the ballet “The Figure in the Carpet,” which premiered in New York City in 1960. The ballet is based on the novella of the same name, which was written by Henry James in 1896. The central idea revolves around Persian carpets, and the intricate art that is incorporated in them despite the fact that they are simply pieces of furniture. Further, Kodat discussed an early draft of the ballet that depicted a scene in which a woman had to hide her jewels in a Persian rug, but was stopped by several men who killed her and took the jewels. However, the beauty of the rug struck them. They then spurned both the woman and her jewels and bowed to the rug. This scene was eventually cut from the final version as it was decided to be too upsetting.

The ballet was unique in several ways. First, it was an early entrant in the American market, and was met by intense criticism for ballet’s inability to conform to typical ideas of gender roles and for how “inaccessible” it was to the average person. “The Figure in the Carpet” sought to change both of those perceptions, and was designed to be extremely spectacular, with fireworks and elaborate set designs and costumes.

Second, the choreographer, George Balanchine, and the director, Lincoln Kirstein, claimed to put on the show as a tribute to the Iranian Shah, but as the facts show, the Shah declined to offer financial support for the show after promising it and was wholly unaware of the extent to which the show was being marketed as a tribute to him. This shows how the production of the piece “engages in issues of royal patronage and diplomacy.” Kodat recognizes this point as important, seeing as the CIA involvement in the Iranian coup d’état was only seven years earlier, and this behavior seems to mark an important point in Iran-US relations.

Finally, there was an intention in this ballet to get rid of some narrative that is typical in such stage productions. In addition, while the costumes in the second half were quite elaborate, the costumes in the first half were generic and plain, making it difficult to tell who was a soloist and who was part of the corps. These factors both increased the overall “democratization” of the piece, as Kodat puts it, and created more of abstraction than a typical ballet would.

Ultimately, Kodat argues, this piece played an important role in shaping Cold War culture and attitudes toward art. In fact, despite hostile reactions during the mid 20th century to ballet, during the Cold War period ballet experienced a period of high public esteem and federal subsidies in the United States. It was also seen as a way to demonstrate “cultural superiority.” Kodat also stressed how inherently political a dance performance is, as it is essentially a group of people working together in small area, working toward a common goal. Different demonstrations and techniques of dance, then, can be interpreted to reflect different aspects of modern politics.

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