Dance and Politics

by Alexandra Kolb (Volume editor)
©2009 Edited Collection XX, 360 Pages


This is the first anthology to explore the fertile intersection of dance and political studies. It offers new perspectives on the connections of dance to governmental, state and party politics, war, nationalism, activism, terrorism, human rights, political ideologies and cultural policy. This cutting-edge book features previously unpublished work by leading scholars of dance, theatre, politics, and management, alongside renowned contemporary choreographers, who propose innovative ways of looking at twentieth- and twenty-first-century dance.
Topics covered range across the political spectrum: from dance tendencies under fascism to the use of choreography for revolutionary socialist ends; from the capacity of dance to reflect the modern market economy to its function in campaigns for peace and justice. The book also contains a comprehensive introduction to the relations between dance and politics.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • About this Book
  • 1 Cross-Currents of Dance and Politics: An Introduction
  • Part I Choreographing the Revolution
  • 2 The Death of the Choreographer
  • 3 ‘Theatre has to become political again…’ Interview by Alexandra Kolb
  • 4 Terror without End? Choreographing the Red Army Faction and Weather Underground
  • Part II Dance of Enemies
  • 5 Death and the Maiden: Mary Wigman in the Weimar Republic
  • 6 Dramaturgy and Form of the ‘German Ballet’: Examination of a National Socialist Genre
  • 7 Dancing the American Dream during World War II
  • Part III Dancers, Rights and Wrongs
  • 8 Dance and Human Rights
  • 9 About Not About Iraq
  • 10 Re-Presenting the Traumatic Real: Douglas Wright’s Black Milk
  • Part IV Dancing to Market Forces
  • 11 Performative Intervention and Political Affect: de Keersmaeker and Sehgal
  • 12 Politicizing Dance: Cultural Policy Discourses in the UK and Germany
  • 13 Class and Thatcherism in Billy Elliot
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

← viii | ix → List of Figures

Figure 1 Johann Kresnik. Photograph: Alexandra Kolb.

Figure 2 Linda Ryser (as Ulrike Meinhof), Daniela Greverath, Bibiana Jimenez, Pedro Malinowski, Sarka Vrastakova-Hildebrandt and Przemyslaw Kubicki (as terrorists) in Ulrike Meinhof (1990/2006) by Johann Kresnik. Theater Bonn. Photograph: Thilo Beu.

Figure 3 David Dorfman in the lunge position, in Underground (2006) by David Dorfman. Courtesy of DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.

Figure 4 Jane Dudley (standing), Sophie Maslow and William Bales in As poor Richard says – a Colonial charade (1945). Photograph: Valente, Courtesy of the New Dance Group Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Figure 5 José Limón rehearsing We Speak for Ourselves (1943), Camp Lee, Virginia. Photograph: US Army Signal Corps. Courtesy of Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundation.

Figure 6 Pape Ibrahima N’Diaye (Kaolack) in Fagaala (2004) by Germaine Acogny and Kota Yamazaki, JANT-BI Company. Photograph: Thomas Dorn. Courtesy of JANT-BI.

Figure 7 Phithsamay Linthahane in Not About Iraq (2007) by Victoria Marks. Photograph: Jeff Zucker.

Figure 8 Taisha Paggett in Not About Iraq (2007) by Victoria Marks. Photograph: Steve Gunther.

Figure 9 Black Milk (2006) by Douglas Wright. Wright recreates Abu Ghraib’s iconic pyramid offlesh and adds another form of imprisonment. Photograph: John Savage.

Figure 10 Black Milk (2006) by Douglas Wright. Wright inserts a quasi-religious figure into his Abu Ghraib inspired sequence. Photograph: John Savage. ← ix | x →

← x | xi → Acknowledgements

I should foremost like to express my thanks to the contributors to this book. The invaluable expertise, enthusiasm and patience they brought to this project have been instrumental in shaping this, in my view, much-needed collection on the relationship between dance and politics.

For financial support I offer thanks to the University of Otago whose research grant made this project possible in the first place. The School of Physical Education, the Dean Douglas Booth and my colleagues in the Dance Studies Programme have been very supportive.

For his advice and unwavering support at all stages of the work I thank Luke Purshouse. My appreciation also goes to Shanon O’Sullivan who has been my research assistant; her efforts to research, administer and facilitate parts of the project were marvellous. Thanks must also go to August Obermayer who provided the translations of the German texts and whose expert advice on matters German has been much appreciated. I should not forget to mention my colleague Glenn Braid’s gracious general and editorial assistance.

I would also like to express gratitude to the artists who have allowed me to interview them: notably David Dorfman, Johann Kresnik and Steve Paxton. Thanks also to the various scholars who have offered comments or advice on earlier drafts of contributions and who are named in individual chapters. I am grateful to Graham Speake from Peter Lang for his very professional help in bringing the book together.

Finally, I thank those who have not been directly implicated in the book project per se but who have sustained me with their intellectual discussions, affection and hospitality: my friends in Dunedin and various locations around the world. They definitely made the time working on this book more enjoyable. Without them, it would have been completed sooner. ← xi | xii →

← xii | xiii → About this Book

Dance and Politics is the first collection to investigate the intricate relationships between dance and politics across a range of topics. It examines crises such as wars and revolutions as choreographic subject matter, and explores artistic activism and the portrayal of nationalism and class. It addresses the compatibility of, and choreographic perspectives on, dance and terrorism, and looks at the ramifications of cultural policy on dance production. The multi-layered crosscurrents of dance and politics raise further questions: Are civil and human rights fostered or denied through dance? How are ideologies at both ends of the political spectrum expressed in and through dance, for instance fascism and communism? How do choreographers express their protest against such ideologies? Is a dance which does not make explicit political statements consequently apolitical? These are just some elements of a rich kaleidoscope that illuminate the mutuality of dance and dance studies on one hand, and political thought and action, on the other.

Having researched, taught and published on topics related to dance and politics for several years, I was aware that a book addressing the various facets of these connections was much needed. This book fills an obvious gap in existing literature, and working on it has been an exciting process for all involved. The articles in this volume are original, previously unpublished texts in the English language.

Obvious choices had to be made concerning what to include. Clearly, there are other political implications of dance well worth exploring, such as gender, race and disability. Many of them constitute significant fields of enquiry in their own right and have recently been well researched. As is obvious from the above list, this book concerns the implications of dance in the explicitly political realm (though admittedly, it is difficult to attempt a definition of ‘politics’ given its fluid boundaries, as I address in my introductory Chapter 1 below). The collection centres predominantly ← xiii | xiv → on twentieth- and early twenty-first-century Western stage dance, although some articles allude to developments outside and beyond it. Maintaining this primary focus for the anthology has, I believe, helped make it a meaningful and coherent entity.

This book is structured as follows. The individual contributions are preceded by an introduction which gives an overview of current thinking about dance and politics and an outline of attempts by choreographers to tackle a wide range of political subject matters. I initially agonised over whether to merge the synthesis of the research chapters and the introduction, but ultimately decided to keep them as separate sections so that each could be read independently. The remainder of the book is divided into four sections, each comprising three contributions linked by overlapping themes.

Part I – Choreographing the Revolution – is broadly focused on the capacity of dance, and dance analysis, to communicate political ideas of a left-wing or anti-establishment character.

Roger Copeland’s controversial ‘state-of-the-art’ critique of recent developments in dance studies draws heavily on both literary theory and twentieth-century ideological developments. He takes issue with current tendencies in dance research to promote works created through collective endeavour – often in community contexts – at the expense of individually choreographed pieces and to view notions of artistic or authorial ‘genius’ with suspicion. As Copeland argues, these trends are the products of a misguided association of individual authorship with the economic individualism of post-industrial Western societies and even with the values of new-right conservatism. Defending the capacity of modernist sole-authored choreography to deliver social criticism of a progressive or anti-establishment nature, Copeland demonstrates how some folk and traditional dance styles can be employed to reactionary ends, casting further doubt on their privileged status in recent dance theory. He combines these arguments with a more general broadside against the alleged ‘academicising’ of politics by a liberal intelligentsia which has, on Copeland’s account, supplanted genuine activism and protest with introspection, symbolism and gesture.

← xiv | xv → In 2008 I interviewed the Marxist Austrian choreographer Johann Kresnik, who in this discussion details his involvement in the left-wing activist circles of 1960s West Germany, and explains how this background helped shape his development as a creative artist. He comments on a range of political issues addressed in his choreographies, from American global dominance to the former communist regime in East Germany; and discusses the personalities his works have depicted, such as the anarchist Red Army Faction campaigner Ulrike Meinhof and the conservative German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Touching on the controversy aroused by some of his more incendiary pieces, Kresnik’s remarks articulate his view that dance – and art in general – is duty-bound to engage with real-world issues and address matters of social relevance, rather than retreating into a formalism which over-emphasises surface appearance and technique. He concludes with an outlook on prospects for the European dance scene, speculating on possible themes for future choreographic treatment.

My own article uses one of Kresnik’s most famous pieces – Ulrike Meinhof (1990) – alongside the American artist David Dorfman’s Underground (2006) to examine how these choreographers tackle the highly contentious subject of anti-state terrorism. Taking recourse to Frankfurt-school theorists who question the boundaries between the aesthetic and political, I suggest that just as terrorist acts may have theatrical properties, so certain theatre dance works aim to shock and frighten their audiences into greater awareness of social and political reality. While Kresnik openly sympathises with the aims of his protagonist and offers a grotesque and harrowing depiction of the capitalist society that Meinhof sought to undermine, Dorfman’s portrayal of historical events is more opaque – although his discourse against political apathy is clearly expressed through speech as well as bodily movement and other visual media. Moreover, while both works are ostensibly about the far-left movements of the 1960s and 1970s – the German RAF and US Weathermen respectively – both artists allude to more recent developments in their countries, namely, German re-unification and American neo-conservatism under George W. Bush.

Part II of the book – Dance of Enemies – comprises three articles which relate dance to the major conflict of twentieth-century ideologies which ← xv | xvi → culminated in World War II. Two of them concern dance developments in Weimar and Nazi Germany; the third in wartime America.

Marion Kant’s contribution offers a political perspective on the leading German Modern Dance exponent, Mary Wigman. She shows how Wigman eschewed any explicit political references in her writings or choreography, often holding her status as an artist to be ‘beyond’ the political realm and preferring to engage with questions of a spiritual or meta-personal nature. However, Kant also demonstrates how we might detect definite right-wing or indeed fascist sympathies in her approach to group dynamics, which espoused a collective ‘choric’ identity bound together under strong leadership; and even more so in her nationalist yearning for a renewal of German culture, to which end she used dance as a medium. During the period of the Third Reich, moreover, Wigman willingly collaborated with the Nazi regime, even sympathising to some extent with its anti-semitic principles. Kant argues that despite her profession of an apolitical artistic œuvre, Wigman in fact adhered to ‘an ideology based on Nietzschean categories and ideas’ in a life ‘permeated’ by political influences.

Gunhild Oberzaucher-Schüller has pieced together a detailed account, based on little-known primary sources, of National Socialist (i.e. Nazi) policies towards dance, in particular its stage varieties. She outlines the efforts of the Hitler regime to co-ordinate the diverse range of pre-existing dance practices under a single administrative and ideological framework. Viewing dance as ‘a manifestation of a healthy expression of the people’ with potential to express the German character, the Nazis condemned both the individualism of many expressive choreographers and the international flavour of traditional ballet. Schüller explains how a new genre known as ‘German ballet’ emerged under fascist rule, focusing on easy accessibility and the incorporation of folk or popular cultural elements. Strict stipulations were imposed regarding plot, music and movement vocabulary, aimed at ensuring conformity with the party’s ideological precepts, for instance with respect to leadership, nationalism and the division of gender roles. Collating an array of reviews and commentaries on relevant works, Schüller concludes by noting a marked continuity between the repertoires performed during the Nazi period and thereafter, particularly in eastern Germany.

← xvi | xvii → Turning to the Allied side of World War II, Stacey Prickett presents a politically based analysis of dance developments in early 1940s America. Her principal theme is the tendency among left-wing US artists, who in other contexts might have criticised their government or followed anti-war agendas, to lend active support to the country’s fight against fascism. The examples Prickett discusses include social dance activities organised for soldiers and civilians and the socially affirmative and patriotic wartime choreographies of the Dudley-Maslow-Bales Trio and José Limón, who when conscripted by the army arranged dance shows for and involving military personnel. These dancers’ celebrations of American values of freedom and democracy at a time of national crisis – driven largely, no doubt, by their overriding antipathy to the Nazi enemy – contrasts notably with the socially critical deployment of dance during other periods in the US and elsewhere (as addressed by other contributors to this book).

Part III – Dancers, Rights and Wrongs – addresses recent political concerns around notions of human rights and more specifically the ‘war on terror’ prosecuted by the US after 9/11. These topics are conceptually linked insofar as the latter raised questions about the legitimacy of state-sponsored violence, the (mis)treatment of ‘enemy’ combatants and the trade-off between national security and the protection of civil liberties.

Naomi M. Jackson’s paper theorises and illustrates a wide range of connections between dance and human rights. She begins with the right to dance itself, analysing ethical and legal grounds for its protection and considering several instances of its restriction by national governments. Notwithstanding that dance is often associated with the free expression of the individual self, Jackson notes how its potential has been exploited by autocratic regimes seeking to strengthen their grip on power. Subsequent discussions focus on the use of dance as therapy for those suffering from the impact of human rights abuses and its more explicitly political function of protesting against oppressive policies and regimes. Jackson’s conclusion that dance has an ambivalent status in respect to rights – figuring in different contexts as either their advocate or their opponent – is backed by a plethora of examples rooted in diverse cultures and periods of history: from nineteenth-century Canada, via twentieth-century Chile and Zaire, to present-day Iran.


XX, 360
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (May)
20 and 21st century dance dance and politics Nazi Germany
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2009. XX, 360 pp., num. ill., 1 table

Biographical notes

Alexandra Kolb (Volume editor)

Alexandra Kolb is Senior Lecturer and Chair of Dance Studies at Otago University. She is the author of Performing Femininity: Dance and Literature in German Modernism (Peter Lang: 2009) and a regular contributor to international dance and arts journals.


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