Through the economic and global turmoil of the 1930s and World War II, choreographers continued to build on the American tradition of protest, expressing opposition to the exploitation of workers, homelessness, hunger, and racism.
However, the political climate changed during the post-World War II Cold War, due to escalating fears of the Soviet Union, communism, and espionage activities. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of Government Operations became forceful influences in domestic politics as they investigated potential Soviet spies.
Lester Horton's The Mine
Lester Horton created The Mine (1935), based on newspaper reports of a local mining disaster in California. Horton’s work is divided into three sections titled “Dependents,” “Women Waiting,” and “Strike.” The American Dancer described the dance: “A group of women waiting at a mine shaft after a disaster; with a modicum of motion and no facial expression the terrific emotional strain was clearly transferred to the audience.”
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John Brown Sees the Glory
Choreographers responded to persistent racial injustice in America with works about the abolition movement and radical abolitionist John Brown (1800–1859). In his desire to abolish slavery, Brown and a group of followers attacked Virginia’s Harpers Ferry Armory in October 1859. Brown was caught and tried for treason, murder, and for inciting the insurrection of slaves and was hung in December 1859.
In 1933, Ted Shawn created a solo, John Brown Sees the Glory. Shawn called it “the white abolitionist’s ‘fanatic biography’ through a visionary encounter with God.” In 1945, modern dancer and choreographer Erick Hawkins (1909–1994) performed his work, John Brown, in a program that included the New York premiere of Martha Graham’s iconic and uplifting work Appalachian Spring.
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Lincoln Kirstein's Memorial Day: Dances for Democracy in Crisis
In the late 1930s, Lincoln Kirstein (1907–1996), noted impresario and later cofounder of the New York City Ballet (1948), conceived a large-scale ballet called Memorial Day: Dances for Democracy in Crisis that included a section on John Brown. Although the work was never completed, Aaron Copland was to have written the score, and Erick Hawkins would have been one of the choreographers.
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Daniel Nagrin’ Landscape with Three Figures
Daniel Nagrin (1917–2008), who was married to dancer-choreographer Helen Tamiris, choreographed a work about John Brown, called Landscape with Three Figures: 1859. The work, which premiered in 1944, was set to music by Genevieve Pitot (1901–1980), a composer who began her career creating musical arrangements for Works Projects Administration (WPA) projects during the 1930s. In 1945, Tamiris and Nagrin met with representatives of Hollywood producer Michael Todd to propose a reworking of Nagrin’s work for consideration on a program of dance and music being planned by Todd. The program, considered too politically sensitive for further consideration, was never realized.
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Lester Horton Addresses Racism in Chronicle
Although the U.S. Congress passed various bills outlawing lynching in the 1920s and 1930s, the federal government did not take action against mob violence until passage of the 1968 Civil Rights Act. In 1937, Lester Horton created Chronicle, an evening-length work that ended with, “the vicious incitation reminiscent of the unlawful Klan.” A Los Angeles dance critic described “Red-robed Ku Klux Klan-like figures and a tortured victim,” adding that they “danced telling a terrible moment of our history.”
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Charles Wiedman's "Lynchtown"
Charles Weidman (1901–1975), a dancer and choreographer who maintained a long association with dancer/choreographer Doris Humphrey (1895–1958), created a three-part work titled Atavisms (1936). The third section, “Lynchtown,” was often performed as a stand-alone work. The New York Times described “The twisted minds of bigots symbolized by twisted bodies. Dancers doubled up with rage and when the lynch mob finally dragged in its victim, they gathered about his body as if they were vultures.”
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Daniel Nagrin's Not Me But Him
Other noted choreographers who protested racism included Katherine Dunham (Southland, 1950) and Daniel Nagrin, who examined the position of a man caught in a racially driven society in Not Me But Him (1965).
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Pearl Primus in The Negro Speaks of Rivers
Pearl Primus (1919–1994) came to the New Dance Group from a WPA unit, and in 1944 choreographed The Negro Speaks of Rivers, which premiered on Broadway. Based on the 1921 poem by Langston Hughes (1902–1967), a renowned poet who embraced leftist politics, the work traces the heritage of the African American community to four great rivers in the Middle East, Africa, and America. The work explores and protests racial injustice and traces the depths of grief, followed by renewal.
Barbara Morgan, photographer. Pearl Primus in her work The Negro Speaks of Rivers, 1944. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (034.00.00) © Barbara Morgan, The Barbara Morgan Archive
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Horton Addresses Racism in Los Angeles
In response to a newspaper report of police brutality toward Mexican Americans in Los Angeles, Lester Horton choreographed The Park (1949), set to street sounds and a dialogue by Sonia Browne. At the end of Browne’s script, she noted “I feel there should be no epilogue. If the audience does not understand without further explanation, they will never understand!”
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Yuriko Kikuchi in Shut Not Your Doors
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor (1941), the U.S. government forced Japanese and Japanese American citizens to live in “War Relocation Camps.” Yuriko Kikuchi (b. 1920), who would become a dancer with Martha Graham, a star on Broadway, and a choreographer, lived in a relocation camp. After her release, she noted that her choreography expressed “the emotional struggles of a bewildered woman—one among millions unjustly uprooted—to regain her place in society” and ended with “her rediscovery of human freedom and dignity.”
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Donald McKayle’s Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder
Homelessness, hunger, and worker oppression did not discriminate according to racial, gender, and ethnic lines, and were social issues that continued to plague many Americans even after the end of the Great Depression. In 1956, Donald McKayle (b. 1930) created Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder set to spirituals. It depicted a chain gang and demonstrated the oppression of workers and inhuman prison practices. According to McKayle, “The songs that accompany their arduous labor are rich in polyphony and tell a bitter, sardonic, and tragic story.”
Johan Elbers, photographer. Elbert Watson, Melvin Jones, Michihiko Oka, and Ulysses Dove in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s production of Donald McKayle’s 1956 work Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder, introduced into the Ailey repertory in 1972, n.d. Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (037.00.00)
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The Devil in Massachusetts
The growing fear of communism after World War II was fueled by the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), formed in 1938 for the purpose of investigating alleged un-American and seditious activities, and the communist “witch hunts” led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his Senate Committee on Government Operations in the 1950s. Many individuals in the arts were targeted and blacklisted.
Despite fear of blacklisting, NDG member Mary Anthony (b. 1916) choreographed The Devil in Massachusetts (1952), the story of the Salem witch trials in colonial America. Anthony called the work “a parable of our time,” adding “When men live by fear instead of trust, the devil will have his way.”
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Jane Dudley's FBI File
By 1936 the FBI had begun to target the personal and political activities of U.S. citizens considered to be subversive, including some dancers. Sophie Maslow had her appearance on national television cancelled, and her brother was fired from a government plant. Pearl Primus and Anna Sokolow had their passports confiscated. Jane Dudley was followed by the FBI, and her husband Leo Hurwitz (1901–1991), an award winning documentary filmmaker, was blacklisted.
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