UW News

September 29, 2020

Diplomacy on point: Anne Searcy’s book explores role of ballet in US-Soviet Cold War relations

UW News

A series of ballet tours between the United States and the then-Soviet Union from 1959 to 1962 sparked love of ballet on both sides, but also some misunderstanding, UW music assistant professor Anne Searcy writes in her new book, “Ballet in the Cold War: A Soviet-American Exchange.”

The cover to UW music professor Anne Searcy’s book on ballet and Soviet-U.S. relations in the Cold War. The Soviet dancer’s sideways leap captured from a 1959 performance, drew cheers from the Madison Square Garden audience.Oxford University Press

The tours by the Bolshoi Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet were popular, but as Searcy reports, the two audiences viewed ballet differently: “Americans loved Soviet dancers but believed that Soviet ballets were old-fashioned and vulgar. Soviet audiences and critics likewise appreciated American technique and innovation but saw American choreography as empty and dry,” Searcy writes.

Searcy is a new faculty member and expert on music history in the UW School of Music, arriving this fall from the University of Miami. Her research explores the connections between music, politics and dance. Searcy’s book was published this month by Oxford University Press.

In the book, Searcy draws on archival sources to study ballet as a Cold War cultural exchange and to suggest that “the separation between Soviet and American ballet lies less in how ballets look and sound, and more in the ways that Soviet and American viewers were trained to see and hear.”

UW Notebook asked Searcy some questions about this book at the nexus of dance and geopolitics.

Your story begins in 1959 at Madison Square Gardens: A Bolshoi Ballet dancer performs a dramatic sideways leap toward her partner — “arms flung out in front, feet pointed behind her” — bringing gasps, then cheers from the audience. What caused that reaction? And why did you choose to start there?

Anne Searcy: I started with that moment, even though it isn’t from a famous ballet, because it made such an impression on the audience. When I interviewed Judith Zinsser, who as a child was in the audience for that performance, this was the experience that she remembered very vividly. I’ve also seen tapes of Lapauri and Struchkova [the two Soviet dancers] performing that number, and it is astonishing. You just don’t believe that he’s going to catch her, and there’s a very visceral sense of relief when he does.

I wanted to begin with a moment of pure experience that was felt by everyone in the building together. But I also liked thinking about the extreme distance between the audience and the dancers. Zinsser also mentioned that she was so far away from the dancers she could barely see them, which makes sense given the size of Madison Square Garden.

When I was researching the project, I was constantly struck by the enormous gaps between audience members and performers. The performers and choreographers and composers thought they knew what to expect from audiences, but that was because they were used to their own audiences at home. The audience abroad saw and interpreted the performances very differently.

That happens to some degree in all performances: The audience members take their own experiences from it, but on the tours that effect was multiplied by the different expectations in the two countries. I liked this moment as a symbolic representation of that gap. So I liked both the immediacy and distance of this leap.

What was the dancers’ experience in these tours? Were the creative teams expected to act as ambassadors?

Anne Searcy

A.S.: It was a big mix. For a lot of the dancers, this was a very important moment in their careers, particularly for the American dancers traveling to the Soviet Union. They were heading to Russia, which was considered the center of the world in ballet, and so it was seen as a huge honor and responsibility.

For the Soviet dancers, it was still an honor, but not necessarily a greater honor than traveling to other places. The Bolshoi Ballet was on tour all the time. There was also the element of newness. The dancers had an opportunity to travel to a place that was almost entirely off limits to their fellow citizens. Maria Kondratieva, a Soviet dancer, told me in an interview that she and her fellow dancers enjoyed visiting American department stores like they were museums, not to buy anything but just to experience what they were like.

Dancers were expected to act as ambassadors; they had long sightseeing and glad-handing schedules that ran even beyond the already intense touring schedules. So they were often very excited to see a new place but also very tired from working so hard. It was incredibly hard work to carry out these tours. That all held double or triple for the few dancers of color in the American troupes, particularly for Arthur Mitchell, the only Black dancer working for New York City Ballet at the time of their Soviet tour in 1962. He was under incredible stress to serve as a representative not only of the U.S. but also of Black dancers and in some ways as a poster for the State Department to show that Black Americans could achieve success in the U.S.

Even in the 21st century, you write, “the lenses of the Cold War continue to define how American and Russian audiences experience ballet.” In what ways?

A.S.: Audiences still see a big distinction between Russian and American choreography, based on a difference between abstract and narrative styles. During the Cold War, American choreographers such as George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins emphasized the non-narrative aspects of their work. Balanchine and the critics who supported him argued that without a story, the choreography could put a greater emphasis on the music.

A reviewer’s comments on “Ballet in the Cold War: A Soviet-American Exchange”:
“Searcy’s research is invigorating. She guides us with a sure hand through the political thickets to a deeper appreciation of the art. Highly recommended.” — Danielle Fosler-Lussier, The Ohio State University

Even though Americans have gradually come to appreciate some contemporary narrative ballets in the last decade or so, it’s still very common to hear audiences or dancers or critics talk about a tension between story and music — when there is no logical reason for that tension to exist!

In Russia, there’s now a greater variety of ballet than during the Cold War, but there is still a sense in programming and discussions on ballet that there’s a difference between contemporary Western ballet and new Russian ballet. There’s still a distinctly Russian way of choreographing, which emphasizes longform storytelling, distinct from Western styles of choreography, which are still mostly short and abstract.

The overall effect of these cross-cultural tours on the realities of the Cold War, you write, is “open to debate.” What’s your view? 

A.S.: I think the tours did help ease tensions between the Soviet and American governments, and they made it easier for everyday Soviet citizens and everyday American citizens to see people on the other side of the Iron Curtain as humans.

I don’t think that the tours were a magical cure for the Cold War; at the time some Americans hoped that American culture would undermine the Soviet government, and I think in retrospect during the 1990s and early 2000s this became an even more popular way of understanding cultural exchange. People imagined that once Soviet citizens heard or saw any American culture, they suddenly believed that the U.S. was better. It’s a very seductive idea, but I don’t think it holds up.

But the tours did make it easier for the U.S. and Soviet Union to negotiate, to come to agreements, to ease the possibility of using nuclear weapons. It sounds a little boring and practical in comparison, but when you think about how difficult it was to make any diplomatic progress between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, it is actually pretty amazing.