Dance as Diplomacy: Cultural Exchange During the Cold War

During the Cold War, art was often a source of tension. Dancers and choreographers, however, performed freely. In a unique cultural exchange, dancers set the stage for Cold War diplomacy.

Mar 26, 2022By Sebrena Williamson, BFA in Dance
cold war dance


Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, and Dalton Trumbo: these were but a few celebrities blacklisted for communist ties during the Cold War. Meanwhile, dancers and choreographers had unique freedoms. On both sides of the Cold War, dance companies were commissioned to perform in enemy territory – by their own government.


Dance is not typically associated with diplomacy, but it was a primary form of cultural exchange during the Cold War. Why? Dance doesn’t rely on spoken language, so it can be readily understood by multiple international audiences. Consequently, it can be a covert vehicle for cultural values, messaging, and the occasional propaganda. If we examine the cultural exchange during the Cold War, we can see the power of dance in play; whether for propaganda, a simple show of power, or unification.


The Cold War & Art: An Advantageous Revolution

alexander lapauri raisa struchkova bolshoi cold war performance
Alexander Lapauri and Raisa Struchhova of The Bolshoi Ballet perform on the stage in 1959, via University of Washington Magazine


The Cold War set a unique stage for art, performance, and culture. Moving into the conflict, the world had only just survived the Great Depression and the World Wars. In addition, technology and culture were continually evolving and globalizing. These events profoundly impacted our modern world and can still be felt today.


To match the tumultuous landscape, art revolutionized on a global level. Modernism, postmodernism, and their various sub-branches dominated this era. In other words, experimentation, innovation, and abstraction were the artistic order of the day. Like most technological revolutions during the Cold War, the arts revolution also became a tool. As artistic movements began to diversify, they also became bound by cultural context. Eventually, various artistic mediums became fixed channels for political messaging.


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The arts represented political ideology, combated opposing views, and embodied threats. For instance, American music genres like jazz and rock n roll were outlawed by the Soviet Union. Conversely, The CIA promoted American abstract expressionism to subvert the influence of Soviet Realism.


Similarly, dance became a source of international tension. Dance in the two countries had developed quite differently; it naturally became adversarial to either side. However, unlike jazz and rock n roll, dance was not banned. Despite the tension, dance was imported and exported quite freely.


Setting the Cold War Stage: Competition & Collaboration

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Balanchine photographed by Nancy Laselle, 1940-1960, via The New Yorker


In the years leading up to the Cold War, dance transformed. “Modern” dancers formed a new school of dance, rejecting ballet principles, rules, and techniques. These dancers and choreographers flourished, particularly in the West. Modern dance was exciting, with a plethora of new subgenres.


Yet, ballet wasn’t gone; it was revolutionizing as well. In fact, it was still quite popular. In both countries, ballet was experiencing a revitalization. Sergei Diaghilev, known for commissioning the choreography of the infamous Rite of Spring, experimented with music, timing, and themes. Diaghilev’s work redefined ballet and inspired many, including Balanchine. In 1935, Russian-born George Balanchine began to break genre norms at the New York City Ballet, redefining ballet in America.


At the same time, many modern dance choreographers like Isadora Duncan, Katherine Dunham, and Martha Graham were branching away from ballet completely. In comparison to ballet, modern dance was abstract, freeform movement; so, they believed ballet restricted the dancer’s body and overall expression.


The United States was the center of the modern dance world, whereas Russia was the center of the ballet world. Soviet dance forms evolved mainly from ballet and folk dance, but American modern dance evolved from breaking ballet conventions. Consequently, either side had beliefs about artistic superiority preceding the diplomatic dance of the Cold War.


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Katherine Dunham in a photograph of Barrelhouse, 1950s, via The Library of Congress, Washington, DC


However, other precedents had been set as well. Choreographers like Duncan and Balanchine had worked under or collaborated with Soviet artists, and Duncan even publicly identified as a communist. Even within the opposing genres of modern and ballet, there was much collaboration and commonality during the Cold War. Reportedly, ballet master Diaghilev was inspired by modern choreographer Isadora Duncan. While competition certainly set the stage, collaboration did as well. Moving into the Cold War, these dynamics would become central.


The Cultural Exchange


Roughly ten years into the Cold War, dancers began their work as diplomats. In the 1958 Lacy-Zarubin Agreement, the US and Russia agreed to cultural and educational exchanges. Immediately after, the Moiseyev Dance Company toured the US. In return, the US sent American Ballet Theater to the Soviet Union. However, these two tours were only the beginning.


As time went on, cultural diplomacy through dance continued. From the beginning of the Cold War to the fall of the Berlin Wall, dancers performed in enemy lands. Many American companies and choreographers, including Jose Limon, Alvin Ailey, and Martha Graham, performed in the Soviet Union and contested areas. Their purpose? To develop the US’ artistic and cultural integrity abroad.


Martha Graham, in particular, was a fundamental asset to the US, performing and traveling abroad at the government’s behest throughout the Cold War. Over the years, she performed in several locations across Asia and Europe, and even in East Berlin. In Saigon, Graham performed her original work Appalachian Spring less than a year before the North entered the city.


martha graham performs iran anti communist
Martha Graham Poster in Iran, 1956, via the National Archives Catalog, Washington DC.


Meanwhile, the Soviet Union sent dancers as well. Performing folk dance, The Moiseyev Dance Company frequently toured around the US. Over the years, they performed in New York, Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, and more. The Bolshoi Ballet also toured the US and other Western hubs like London. Despite cultural taboos at the time, the average American and Soviet citizen could access each other through dance. In many ways, dance performances were a rare chance to see past the Iron Curtain. But, could they really?


Behind the Performances: Subtle Messaging


Because Soviet and American dance used different techniques, each form had different aesthetics. Soviet ballet, for example, prioritized ballet technique, strength, and aesthetic organization; modern dance prioritized free movement, social dance, and contracted positions.


On top of this difference, thematic material also varied between the two; Soviet dance often emphasized setting, linear narrative, and the multiculturalism of the Soviet Union. In the US, choreographers often emphasized abstraction (or no narrative) and centered on the emotional experience. Thus, cultural values were being shared and interpreted through aesthetics; the free-flowing movement of modern dance was thought to represent the liberty of the US, and the virtuosity of Soviet dancers was thought to show the fruits of collectivism.


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Ekaterina Maximova’s “Mazurka,” photographed by Leonid Zhdanov, via The Library of Congress, Washington, DC


These cultural values, moreover, were also deliberately shared through concept and plot. On either side of the war, there were many nuanced attempts to promote political ideology. When touring America, the Bolshoi Ballet performed Spartacus, a ballet about a slave uprising. The ballet paralleled racial inequality within the US and also promoted communist ideas. More specifically, Spartacus promoted a proletariat revolution, a central tenet of Marxist and communist ideology.


Promoting the opposite was Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring, performed in Vietnam in the 1950s. Still performed today, Appalachian Spring features a couple living on the frontier. Romanticizing America’s frontier heritage, Appalachian Spring pushes self-reliance, rugged individualism, and American toughness. When it premiered in Vietnam, Americans had an international reputation of being lazy. So, Appalachian Spring helped to reimagine America as rough pioneers instead. Simultaneously, it pushed many tenets of capitalist ideology.


Specific companies were even sent for specific purposes. The Moiseyev Dance Company was sent, in part, to highlight the multicultural harmony of Soviet Russia. Conversely, because the Soviet Union frequently pointed out the very real racial oppression in the US, the US government sent Alvin Ailey to perform in Soviet Russia.


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Alvin Ailey Co., photographed by Bernard Gotfryd, 1981, via The Library of Congress, Washington DC.


In both countries, the aesthetic values and content of the performances were interpreted by audiences and critics freely and sometimes incorrectly. Although the performances were often channels for propaganda, the intended messages did not always land. Instead, the performances had genuine, positive repercussions for citizens abroad.


Cultural Exchange In the Cold War: Past the Iron Curtain


Though the dance tours were partially meant to relay superiority, they usually did not. The dancers, choreographers, and audience all had varying perspectives. Some performances were not understood, and some were. Mostly, audiences were interested in the people behind the stage or (Iron) curtain.


Whatever the government’s intention was, this sort of cultural exchange was a crucial moment for unification. Although it’s speculated that Martha Graham was sent to promote the US government, she didn’t see herself that way. After the Berlin Wall fell, she stated:


“I saw it go up and now I have seen it come down. It makes me feel tri­umphant to think that noth­ing lasts but the spir­it of man and the union of man. Peo­ple cross the bor­der from East to West to shake the hands of those they have not seen before. In a way, they have become each other’s fron­tier.”
Martha Graham


martha graham appalachian spring cold war era
Martha Graham and ? in Appalachian Spring, via the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.


As for the everyday citizens, they were confused, amazed, and genuinely interested. In both countries, the tours were widely popular. The cultural exchange created respect for all dance artists and made dance and ballet an international export. Americans were excited to see Soviet dancers as real people, “happy, dancing, and waving.” Soviet peoples had similar reactions, even seeing some artistic similarities in Balanchine’s 1958 tour. Overall, the dance tours of the Cold War truly helped ease tensions when a nuclear apocalypse might happen any day. This reminds us not only of diplomatic power but also the power of art.


Further Watching and Reading


Appalachian Spring by Martha Graham:

The Moiseyev Dance Company:

Revelations by Alvin Ailey:

Spartacus by The Bolshoi Ballet:

Author Image

By Sebrena WilliamsonBFA in DanceSebrena Williamson is a choreographer and writer with a passion for dance research, dance history, and artistic collaboration. She holds a BFA in Dance, a minor in English, and a minor in Appalachian Studies from Radford University. In her work, Williamson has mainly focused on how dance has historically affected and represented cultures at large, and how the artform can now be used to address societal issues and global phenomena. Her choreographic works, research, and dance films have been presented both nationally and internationally. She loves to work in many narrative genres, and has published films, theatre pieces, and poetry.