Although the Soviet Union and the U.S. were allies against the Axis powers during World War II, the Cold War led to a struggle between the two countries for global domination. Soviet propaganda portrayed the U.S. as a capitalist bastion of greed, racial inequality, and cheap culture.

In response to these accusations, the U.S. deployed an “informational” campaign, which included dance. As early as 1941, dance companies were sent to places that the U.S. feared might be influenced by enemy propaganda. Because the Soviet government had suppressed dance types other than ballet, American cutting-edge and high-art choreography served as a non-verbal assault on communism.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Cold War drew to a close. It firmly ended in 1991 when the Soviet Union disintegrated, forming a host of new and independent nation states.

Lew Christensen's Filling Station

Anti-American sentiment began to build in Latin America during the 1930s, encouraged by the Communists and Axis powers. In response, President Roosevelt appointed Nelson A. Rockefeller as the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs. In 1941, Rockefeller engaged Lincoln Kirstein to develop a ballet company to represent the best of U.S. dance. American Ballet Caravan toured South America in a repertory that included highbrow ballets, such as George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco (1941), as well as ballets that represented Americana themes, including Filling Station (1938) an interpretation of the jobs of ordinary people choreographed by Lew Christensen.

George Platt Lynes, photographer. Detail graphic of Lew Christensen in his 1938 work Filling Station, choreographed for Ballet Caravan, n.d. Erick Hawkins Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (039.00.00) © Estate of George Platt Lynes

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Oliver Smith's Set Design for Rodeo

After World War II, the U.S. State Department needed propaganda to help combat anti-Americanism and the spread of communism. In 1950, under the auspices of President Harry Truman, Ballet Theatre, traveling as the American National Ballet Theatre, was deployed abroad to perform works ranging from the classically based Les Sylphides to a tale of the western frontier, Rodeo. They appeared in Germany, a European “hot spot” of the Cold War, and in Latin America, where widespread poverty raised U.S. fears that socialism and communism might become popular.

Oliver Smith. Corral backdrop design for Rodeo, set designed by Oliver Smith, choreographed by Agnes de Mille for Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, 1942. Oliver Smith Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (040.00.00) Works of Oliver Smith © Rosaria Sinisi

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José Limón

Mexican-born José Limón (1908–1972) is acknowledged to have been one of modern dance’s greatest male dancers and choreographers. In 1954 the Limón Company was the first company to be dispatched to Latin America under President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Emergency Fund.” The U.S. developed an aggressive strategy against any threats, including covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operations, such as the overthrow in 1954 of the democratically elected President of Guatemala, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. Dance company tours often followed CIA operations.

Walter Strate Studio. José Limón and Betty Jones in Limón’s 1949 work The Moor’s Pavane, n.d. Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (041.00.00)

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Martha Graham Abroad

Between 1955 and 1962, the U.S. State Department sent dance companies to many of the Cold War’s contested regions, and, in October 1955, the Martha Graham Dance Company went to Burma, India, Pakistan, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaya, and Ceylon, believed to be countries that would create a “domino effect” if “lost” to communism. The tour ended in Iran in 1956 after the CIA-British led coup that deposed Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh's civilian government in 1953. This was the first of many State Department-sponsored tours undertaken by Graham.

Poster of Martha Graham Dance Company’s performances in Japan, 1955. Ethel Winter and Charles Hyman Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (042.00.00)

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Graham's Appalachian Spring

The 1955 Hindusthan (India) Standard reported that Graham’s tale of the frontier “ ‘Appalachian Spring’ is the best representative of the country Miss Graham comes from . . . it brilliantly brings back a chapter of American history, those pioneering days—a much needed corrective to be set against the picture of the fat, well-fed, cigar-smoking American.” In 1974, the Graham Company again performed Appalachian Spring in American-occupied Saigon, Vietnam, less than a year before the North Vietnamese entered the city.

Martha Graham and Stuart Hodes in Appalachian Spring, ca. 1955. Martha Graham Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (043.00.00)

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American Ballet Theater in Soviet Union

The Cold War heated up with the successful launch in 1957 of the Soviet satellite Sputnik and the 1959 Cuban Revolution, which led to the leadership of Marxist Fidel Castro, providing communists with a foothold in the Western Hemisphere. On the cultural front, the Soviet Union’s Moiseyev Dance Company took the U.S. by storm in 1956. The State Department responded by sending the American Ballet Theater to the Soviet Union in 1960.

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Alvin Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade as Cultural Ambassadors

During the Cold War, racism in the U.S. created a daunting foreign relations problem. The Soviet Union exploited racial injustice to expand its anti-American propaganda. A government report noted, “We cannot escape the fact that our civil rights record has been an issue in world politics.” In response, the State Department sent African American artists abroad. In 1962, Alvin Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade embarked on a tour of Australia, Burma, Vietnam, Malaya, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Formosa (Taiwan), Japan, and Korea.

Eric Smith, photographer. Carmen de Lavallade and Alvin Ailey in Glen Tetley’s 1962 work Mountainway Chant, performed on the De Lavallade-Ailey State Department-sponsored tour, 1962. Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (045.00.00)

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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Tours Russia

Although the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, racial tensions rose after the assassination of Malcolm X. Riots plagued urban America, resulting in deaths and the destruction of property. Internationally, President Lyndon Baines Johnson ordered bombing raids over North Vietnam, leading to domestic protest. Soviet propaganda connected urban violence with the war in Vietnam. In 1970, five years before the end of the Vietnam War, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was sent to the Soviet Union—the first American modern dance company to perform there.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Leningrad, 1970. Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (046.00.00)

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Graham's Frontier Performed in Berlin

As the Cold War drew to a close in 1987, Martha Graham and President Ronald Reagan each travelled to Berlin to celebrate the city’s 750th anniversary. The Graham Company performances in East Berlin included Frontier (1935), a work Graham had performed at the White House under President Roosevelt fifty years earlier. She described “the hold the frontier had always had on me as an American, as a symbol of a journey into the unknown.” During the year-long celebrations, President Ronald Reagan demanded “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The Cold War officially ended in December 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the U.S.S.R. and the Council of Republics of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R. acknowledged the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

David A. Fullard, Ph.D., photographer. Thea Narissa Barnes in Martha Graham’s work Frontier, 1987. Martha Graham Legacy Archive, Music Division, Library of Congress (047.00.00) By permission of David A. Fullard, Ph.D.

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