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Political Expression

Library of Congress Exhibit Highlights Intersection of the Dancing Body and Politics

There is no greater form of political speech than how one covers, marks, nourishes, medicates, shelters and moves one’s body.

The recent outburst over birth control and religious liberty is only the latest example of how profound a political medium the body can be.

The body is not only a physical space to be fought over, but it is also a tool through which each of us can declare where we belong, what we believe and how we chose to live our lives. It grounds each of us in our socioeconomic, professional, racial and gender identity.

As citizens, our bodies, and how we choose to use them, are perhaps the most political canvases we have at our disposal.

The latest exhibit at the Library of Congress, “Politics and the Dancing Body,” considers the effect of dance — and by extension the body — on politics and how the political world shaped and inspired American dance.

The exhibit studies the dancers and choreographers working from World War I through the Cold War.

What is clear as the visitor moves through the exhibit is that dance in the hands of these Americans became a tool of reform and revolution. It was visceral and immediate for these artists to grapple with the nation’s history while telling the story of the nation almost in real time.

The exhibit exposes American dance as a profoundly political form.

“The exhibition does [a couple of] things,” Exhibition Director Cynthia Wayne explained. “One is to explore the use of dance as a means to convey political messages or messages of social protests and to explore that within this particular range in American history.”

The exhibition is also an opportunity for the Library of Congress to highlight the depth and range of its collections. It includes works from the Aaron Copland Collection, Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation Collection, Federal Theatre Project Collection, Lester Horton Dance Theater Collection and Martha Graham Legacy Archive.

“What we’ve done here is break down this topic, which is actually quite expansive,” Wayne said. “This is a small gallery, so what we learn with this type of topic is that it deserves a much larger space.

“We had to select from a broad, original grouping of over 100 pieces to 48,” she explained. “Even so, it is still a little tight.”

“Politics and the Dancing Body” is in the small gallery adjoining the Music Division. It is a small, dimly lit room, but the close, intimate nature of the exhibit provides the visitor with the environment to consider each piece on display.

Political Speech in Motion

The curators have chosen to overlay the history of American dance with the country’s political history over the past century. It is chronologically displayed, but what quickly becomes clear is how closely the themes the choreographers studied in their work paralleled the issues occurring in the country more broadly.

For example, after World War I and as the Great Depression took root, Americans turned inward,
becoming increasingly isolationist. Choreographers — many sponsored by the New Deal’s Federal Theatre Project, an offshoot of the Works Progress Administration — also turned a contemplative eye inward on America’s richly woven folk history.

These artists used the “ballads, hymns, spirituals, and the rituals of Native American and African diaspora” in their work.

“They built dances based on the bedrock of America, a nation founded on principles of revolution, protest, reform, and freedom of expression,” the exhibit’s website explains.

Choreographers from the period include Lester Horton, a prolific California dancer whose work meditated on America’s difficult relationship with race, its indigenous peoples and the country’s complex relationship with Mexico.

“If dancers would only make an effort to preserve this beauty, which exists literally at our back doors, something magnificent might be born,” Horton is quoted as saying. “A dance can be built upon these art forms that would be truly representative of this great country, something new and fundamental.”

“Politics and the Dancing Body” showcases America’s rich history of racial and ethnic diversity. For example, the exhibit includes a 1946 publicity photo of the Sierra Leone-born musician, choreographer and dancer Asadata Dafora in his piece “A Tale of Old Africa.”

According to the contemporary New York Herald Tribune review of the work, Dafora’s piece “not only provided memories for those who knew the rich continent and its richly gifted peoples, but it also provided others with a glimpse of a culture alien to some of us but worthy of our interest and our fostering.”

Further along in the exhibit, there is another press photo from 1946. It features the dancer Yuriko Kikuchi in her work “Shut Not Your Doors.” Kikuchi, who eventually danced with Martha Graham and was a Broadway star in her own right, was among the Japanese-Americans who were interned in camps during World War II.

“Shut Not Your Doors,” Kikuchi explained, gave voice to “the emotional struggles of a bewildered woman — one among millions unjustly uprooted — to regain her place in society.”

When her physical freedom was restored, so was her dignity, she said.

One of the first photographs on display in the exhibit is a photographic contact sheet of Jane Dudley’s “Harmonica Breakdown,” choreographed in 1938. There is a video installation that includes an interview with Dudley and part of the “Harmonica Breakdown” performance.

Dudley’s piece is impressive in its physicality. The dance remains fresh, exciting and modern, while simultaneously referring to American folk traditions. Dudley set the piece, which tells the story of the African-American sharecropper experience, to the music of bluesman Sonny Terry.

“I think of it as a dance of misery — and defiance rising out of it,” Dudley is quoted in the exhibit as saying.

“Politics and the Dancing Body” will be on display at the Library of Congress through July 28.

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