Genevieve Ernst
31 May 2003
Humanities Core
Ballet in the Battle for Hearts and Minds:
The Positive and Negative Effects of Cold War Tension on American Ballet

Blacklisting and betrayals were the mark left on Hollywood by McCarthyism. Trials of "communists" in the 1950s by the House Un-American Activities Committee shattered the theater world, and Cold War sentiments restricted artistic freedom. As an art form developed considerably in Russia, ballet became a focus in the performing arts by an American government struggling with how to address cultural differences between the United States and the Soviet Union. While this attention to dance meant that repertoire was under scrutiny, it also led to an unprecedented increase in federal funding for American ballet. While Cold War sentiments were, in some ways, detrimental to the arts, newfound attention from the government led to advancement in American ballet during the 1950s.
Baryshnikov, Nureyev, Makarova, Balanchine; the best-known names in ballet have always been Russian. Russia, one of the global centers of ballet, was the source of many of the greatest figures in dance. American ballet was always far inferior to that of Russia or France; it was virtually nonexistent until the arrival of Russian immigrant Georgy Melitonovich Balanchivadze, who became the legendary George Balanchine. Balanchine was one of the first wave of ballet dancers to leave Russia. After being discouraged from choreography in school back in Russia, outside of his homeland, Balanchine began to choreograph, immediately developing a distinct new style. Balanchine ultimately settled in New York City, founding the School of American Ballet and the American Ballet Company in 1934. It was from this first company that New York City Ballet evolved, becoming Balanchine's palatte as he revolutionized ballet with an unprecedented neoclassicism that incorporated jazzy and contemporary movement into the vocabulary of classical ballet.
Balanchine was well known as a devout anti-communist. In fact, "while championing the proletariat and socialist realism in the arts, Soviet and American Communist Party criticism of so-called bourgeois formalism in dance would... include George Balanchine." If anything, Balanchine's strict anti-Soviet beliefs interfered with his company's success. He was reluctant to tour with his company to Russia, and when he agreed to go as a form of patriotic duty, he denied the role of the son returning home to Russia by criticizing the Russians and wearing distinctly American clothes; "with string ties and pearl-button vests...he someone out of Western Symphony," one of the American-themed ballets he brought to Russia. Balanchine even left the company to finish the tour without him, returning to New York prematurely after recurring nightmares about passport fiascos, imprisonment, and death.
Oddly, it was Balanchine's successor at New York City Ballet who, in the ballet world, most directly felt the negative effects of McCarthyism. Jerome Robbins, a communist in the 1930s, was involved in both ballet and Broadway, and was a "friendly" witness in his HUAC Testimony on May 5, 1953. He provided HUAC with the names of six of his colleagues after a mention by Edward Sullivan alerted HUAC to Robbins' past. Robbins reasons for becoming a communist are not known for sure, but speculations include the popularity of communism among Jews. New York Times Magazine author Jacob Weisburg asserts "'the reason Communism was attractive to many Jews seems clear: they thought they found in Marxist universalism both a response to persecution and a way out of the physical and psychic ghetto.'" His Jewish identity is only one potential reason for his communist involvement; it may also have been motivated by the idea that communist ties would help Robbins get ahead in the arts community. Many fellow artists, including acquaintance Aaron Copland, were visibly involved in the American Communist Party. Robbins' reasons for leaving the party are also uncertain. In his HUAC testimony, Robbins mentioned discontent with the "secrecy enforced by the Party's leadership," the artistic repression of Soviet artists, which he found "'intolerable,'" and one meeting he recalled in which a debate broke into chaotic dispute and "he saw the Communist Party as 'a disorganized flock of misinformed introverts.'"
Despite such harsh criticisms taken from testimony for HUAC and the FBI, it seems that a quest to reassert his American identity by helping destroy the Communist Party may not have been Robbins' motivation for naming names before HUAC. As a documentable former communist, Robbins most likely feared for his flourishing career if he took a stance against McCarthyism. Furthermore, Robbins also knew that, as a homosexual, he needed to be cooperative so as not to provoke excessive questioning or potential blackmailing. Having rehearsed with an attorney beforehand, Robbins knew how to tell the Committee what they wanted to hear. In his testimony, Robbins claimed of his decision to testify, "'I've examined myself. I think I made a great mistake before in entering the Communist Party, and I feel that I am doing the right thing as an American." Merely reiterating the list of already named communists would clearly not be enough to take the pressure off of Robbins either; by the time of his testimony, HUAC was interested only in new names, which Robbins could easily provide. The fact that Robbins named only six names, despite knowing numerous other communists, indicates that Robbins' interactions with HUAC were driven by fear of losing his own career, not fear of "the Reds" or malice. Even Jerome Chodorov, who, along with his brother, Edward, was named by Robbins before HUAC later said of the incident "'I never was bitter about Jerry, because I figured in those days a homosexual was very vulnerable...Jerry was a weakling, but he was a very talented weakling. And I don't think he did it out of viciousness. He did it out of fear. That's my personal feeling. He didn't want to hurt anybody. He certainly didn't want to hurt himself.'"
While Chodorov was obviously sympathetic to Robbins and understood his motivation for the action, Robbins was faced with criticism from colleagues, friends and family for the betrayal of his peers. While, as he had hoped, Robbins career remained successful despite the testimony-he received acclaim for his directorship and choreography for New York City and two Academy Awards for his work on West Side Story-Robbins was haunted by his experience with HUAC. Contrary to a press statement after the testimony in which he said "'I did it according to my conscience'" of his decision to name names, the remainder of his life was plagued with guilt. The memory of Robbins' betrayal also affected his work in musical theater especially. "Though lingering anger over the HUAC testimony didn't keep [actor] Zero Mostel from working with Robbins, he made Jerry's life hell-both on and off the stage." While Robbins avoided blacklisting with his testimony, his career was nevertheless affected by his involvement with HUAC. On a more personal front, it took the death of their mother for Robbins' sister to forgive her brother's actions. "Sonia [Robbins] recalled, 'I wrote to Jerry before she died and Jerry said it was the best letter he ever received. I wrote out of my understanding [his predicament with HUAC] and coming to the conclusion I could not be the judge of his actions and thinking how would I do in that situation.'' It is apparent that, while betraying his peers may have rescued Robbins' own career for the most part, this action still took its toll on Robbins; he faced strained relationships with both family and friends for the remainder of his life and career.
HUAC was not the only context in which the United States government took note of artists in the 1950s; the paranoia of McCarthyism and the Cold War also brought beneficial attention to the dance community. The Cold War between the U.S.S.R and U.S.A. was more than just an arms race. Politicians were quick to recognize that the battle between communism and capitalism was, in essence, a "battle for the hearts and minds of men" in an effort to curb the spread of communism. As a part of this effort, President Dwight D. Eisenhower began a program of international cultural exchange.
In a letter written on 27 July 1954 to the House Committee on Appropriations, President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced: "I consider it essential that we take immediate and vigorous action to demonstrate the superiority of the products and cultural values of our system of free enterprise." He requested five million dollars "to stimulate the presentation abroad by private firms and groups of the best American industrial and cultural achievements, in order to demonstrate the dedication of the United States to peace and human well-being [and] to offset worldwide Communist propaganda charges that the United States has no culture..."
As a realm in which the Russians were traditionally very strong, ballet became a venue not only for cultural exchange, but also for competition between the two nations. Balanchine himself saw his return to Russia as part of his "duty" as an American; despite a strong desire to stay away from the U.S.S.R., "whatever the American Embassy asked of him, he did." Between all of the performing arts, Eisenhower's funding for cultural exchange totaled to an unprecedented $2,250,000 between the years of 1954 and 1955. For the first time in American history, government money was specifically allotted for dance touring throughout the world. This view of international touring by dance companies brought a sense of national pride to the practice. As New York City Ballet embarked on a government-sponsored three-week tour of the Soviet Union, excitement was expressed in the American media. "'The Russian ballet world will certainly be startled,' wrote the Times. 'One hopes it will also be enchanted, for America, and perhaps the western world, is sending what is probably its strongest cultural ambassador.'" As the Times indicates, there was no contact between Russian and American culture, and ballet was seen as a wonderful means of re-connecting the eastern and western worlds.
As ballet became an integral part of cultural exchange between the United States and Russia, attention was paid to the types of ballets being presented by American companies. The repertoire a company took on tour through Eisenhower's program-especially when traveling to Russia-was thoughtfully considered as it was serving as American propaganda. "The two countries were divided by the symbolic Iron Curtain; propaganda on both sides led to distrust, misinformation, hatred, fear, and paranoia"(69). Facing such cultural dysfunction, a very specific message was crucial in building the desired reputation for the United States.
Because of government involvement in the tour, the repertoire that American Ballet Theatre-the first American ballet company to go-brought to Russia was composed of a careful mix of classical and contemporary choreography. Performing the classics that all of the Russian ballet-goers were accustomed to seeing was very much a matter of pride for the United States; they had to prove that they, too, could handle these ballets. Both traditional and new works were performed though because "if only newer works were performed, some [dance exchange] panelists argued, the Soviets would assume that the important classics were beyond our reach technically and artistically. On the other hand, if we brought only Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty, how would we show what was special about or view of dance?" The United States prided itself in such choreographers as George Balanchine who were receiving worldwide acclaim for their innovative works, and were eager to show them off to the Russians as an indication of their cultural originality and superiority.
New works that were selected by the Dance Panel in charge of exporting ballets-which included many company directors, including Jerome Robbins-to be sent to the U.S.S.R. included such pieces as Agnes de Mille's Rodeo and Balanchine's Western Symphony and Fancy Free. Ironically, Rodeo, an "all-American" ballet which was based on-and glorified-the lives of cowboys, was set to the music of Aaron Copland, who himself was called before HUAC in the same year as Robbins. Western Symphony, which New York City Ballet performed for the Soviets was "set on a rugged Old West street populated by cowboys and dance hall girls... the steps Balanchine uses from the traditional ballet vocabulary allude to the steps, formations, and gestures of American folk dancing. The ballet is a striking example of Balanchine's fascination with American themes." The choice of Western Symphony, based on the dance of American-not Russian-tradition, as a touring piece reflects the Dance Panel's goal of sharing unmistakably American culture with the Soviets. Similarly, Fancy Free was an uplifting ballet celebrating the American spirit, but instead of cowboys, it focused on the experiences of sailors. Originally premiered in 1944 with Jerome Robbins himself dancing in the ballet, which he also choreographed, this war-time ballet's flattering portrayal of three sailors soon became "useful" to the American government as both an example of innovative American choreography and a celebration of the happy and-as the title suggests-free, American way of life.
The ballets the United States chose to send to Russia with both American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet were not the only form of propaganda involved in the cultural exchange of dance with the Soviet Union. When the U.S.S.R. was brought to the United States on tour, people flocked to the theaters to catch a glimpse of the Russians-and their ballet greatness. It can be presumed that the Russians were also very conscious of the repertoire they sent overseas and that it was intended to serve as propaganda. American media, however, turned the spectacle of the Russian touring groups into capitalist propaganda for the American public. Journalists for such publications as Dance News and the more widely read Newsweek and Life magazines wrote reviews of the famed Bolshoi (meaning "big" in Russian) Ballet Company, drawing parallels between dancing styles and life styles, and drawing attention to dance.
Anatole Chujoy was a well-known dance critic in the 1950s, writing for numerous dance publications including Dance News. It is obvious from Chujoy's articles that the Cold War mentality effectively took over his thoughts as a writer; he continually used dance to parallel the economic and cultural distinctions between the United States and Soviet Union. One of Chujoy's articles in Dance News was "Ballet Behind the Iron Curtain: A refugee ballerina talks about ballet in the Soviet Union and in the United States," a March 1954 article based on an interview with dancer Nora Kovach. The aim of Chujoy's article is to expose the contrasts between the American and Soviet ballet worlds by interviewing Kovach, a ballerina who defected from Russia to the United States. He concludes that the old fashioned, lagging state of Russian ballet is attributable to the fact that "neither students nor dancers are ever permitted to leave Russia, to see dancers of other countries. Their horizon is very limited and they have no criterion for comparison." This argument portrays the ballet world as a microcosm of the greater Soviet Union, whose isolating Communist regime was doing them harm. The implication being that with free world capitalism, even artistic exchange is facilitated, hence the superiority of American ballet.
We see further parallels to the struggle between communism and capitalism when Chujoy contrasts the massive Russian company structure, where dancers are very specialized, to the smaller American companies. He says that, in Russia, different specialists will be called onstage for each different kind of step. "In America, on the other hand, all dancers have to be able to do everything; hence their development is fuller than their Russian colleagues." This article shows how Cold War hysteria was brought into every aspect of culture; Americans felt it necessary to demonstrate the "superiority" of their own ways in comparison with even the Russians' ballet company structure. The Also, even dance magazine captions echoed propaganda statements, like the caption "Nora Kovach and Istvan Rabovsky: the escaped from behind the Iron Curtain" for a photo of the beaming couple, apparently delighted and relieved to be in a free country (figure 1). Words such as "escape" and "Iron Curtain" were used to describe defections to the United States in order to emphasize that Russia did not want to give up these artists; the Americans were "winning" in a sense by attracting Russian dancers who were willing to take the risk of breaking free from Soviet oppression by escaping to the US.
As journalists wrote propaganda in dance periodicals, they were also aware of Russian propaganda in the form of so-called communist ballets. In another Dance News article, "Soviet Ballet at Crossroads: Is Survival Possible?" from June 1952, Anatole Chujoy looks at ballet in Russia as being made into Communist propaganda. He cites a number of specific works that he claims are "ballet on propaganda themes." Chujoy consistently asserts that Soviet ballet is suffering because of its isolation from the rest of the ballet world. He even points out a number of "'white' Russians who had no desire to work under the Communist regime" -such as Balanchine who, as a "white Russian" in the United States, ultimately revolutionized ballet. "Their reforms in ballet, their discoveries and inventions which have enriched ballet the world over did not penetrate the Iron Curtain;" even the work of their fellow countrymen in other countries has not helped in their progress, according to Chujoy. He makes an interesting association that it is freedom in America and parts of Europe that allows for artistic progress, as choreographers can address any theme, not just antiquated fairy tales, as the Russians allegedly did.
We see a contrast in how the cultural exchange was seen by the Cold War superpowers in two Newsweek articles on the Bolshoi Ballet's 1959 U.S. tour. While the United States focused on the tension of bringing Soviet propaganda ballets to America, the Soviets highlighted the opportunity for cultural exchange. In "How Great the Bolshoi?" an American journalist shows the touring of the Bolshoi Ballet to the United States as plagued by the typical tension involved in any U.S.-Soviet interactions. The author also says "Adored by Muscovites themselves, used by the U.S.S.R. as its most effective weapon of cultural propaganda, the company has been building its reputation here and abroad, ever since the end of World War II," again emphasizing the government's use of ballet, a culturally significant institution, for propaganda. Georgi Orvid, the director of the Bolshoi Ballet, however, was quoted in "Direct from Moscow: Russia's Best" as saying "We hope this will extend cultural and friendly ties between America and the Soviet Union" emphasizing the political aspect of ballet at the time of the 1959 tour of the United States. It is hard to tell if this contrast is misleading, or if McCarthy had really brainwashed Americans to be the more paranoid country in the Cold War. We can presume, however, that Orvid was under strict Soviet watch as the director of one of their great propaganda machines.
The significance of such primary source articles written in the 1950s is not only their ability to demonstrate the ubiquity of Cold War paranoia bred in part by McCarthyism, but also in how the everyday American citizen was learning about dance as an allegory for a struggle between nations and how, in turn, dancers were learning about the politics of a country integral in the development of their art form. Such parallels brought attention to the dance world, as the American public developed a fascination with the full-page color photo spreads of Russian dancers in Newsweek and other popular magazines.
While politically charged, and therefore severely regulated, government-sponsored tours by Russian and American ballet companies served the artistic community as well as the government's propaganda campaigns. George Balanchine's immigration to the United States serves as an example of how artistic exchange will forever be a part of artistic creation. The funding of dance touring has never neared Cold War spending on that form of cultural interaction. Relying solely on private sponsorship and revenue to fund tours prevents frequent touring by companies, therefore limiting their interactions and what they can learn from each other. While Cold War restrictions on touring and repertoire and the effect of McCarthyism on individuals must be taken into consideration, we can still see the cultural exchange programs of the 1950s as beneficial to American ballet as a greater institution, increasing both its popularity and its legacy as an American art form.


Figure 1: "NORA KOVACH and ISTVAN RABOVSKY: they escaped from behind the Iron Curtain (Dance News Photo)."

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