Diplomats of Dance: U.S. Companies Step into Role as Cultural Representatives Abroad — Part 2

Editorial note: This is part 2 of the article. You may find part 1 here.

Renewing an American Legacy
Probably no American company has had more experience with danced diplomacy than the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Though the current U.S. government dance initiatives cannot fund tours by a company as large as Ailey, the State Department once played a major role in the Ailey company’s touring programs.

Judith Jamison has traveled on many international tours with the company, first as a dancer, and then as the company’s artistic director. But among all those experiences, she says government-sponsored tours stand out. “State Department tours are really special,” says Jamison, who retires as artistic director in 2011. “To represent our country—that’s always phenomenal to me. It takes on another meaning when you’re really ambassadors. You’re on the front line.”

The U.S. State Department began funding international dance tours in 1954 when President Dwight Eisenhower created the President’s Emergency Fund for International Activities, which funded dance, theater, music and sports tours. (Prior to 1954, other government entities, including the CIA, provided occasional support for dance companies’ international appearances.)

Music and dance tours were among the largest mid-century programs. The impact of State Department jazz tours, detailed in Penny Von Eschen’s book Satchmo Blows Up the World, was vast. The emphasis on jazz and other American music forms continues today in the State Department’s Rhythm Road program—a program Miner cited as an important influence on DanceMotion USA. But the memories of the large dance tours linger, too.

The Ailey company traveled on its first State Department tour in 1962, only four years after Alvin Ailey founded the ensemble. In 1966 and 1967, the Ailey company made two trips to Africa, performing in newly independent countries across the continent. In 1970, Ailey was the first American modern dance company to appear in the Soviet Union.

Jamison remembers those tours as having unique significance. She says the African tours “left an indelible impression” upon her, opening up a “non-Hollywoodized version of what the continent of Africa was like.”

State Department tours once offered entrée into the international dance scene for an entire generation of dancers. Many companies, including New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, as well as modern companies led by José Limón, Paul Taylor, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and many others won State Department support several times. Jamison also says all the miles logged as a dancer on international tours, many of them with government support, helped prepare her to lead the Ailey company. Experiencing the challenges as well as the payoffs of international touring first hand from a dancer’s perspective made Jamison aware of the potential artistic benefits and profile-raising aspects of international touring—important things to understand as Ailey’s artistic director since touring is central to the company’s mission.

Ailey Executive Director Sharon Luckman says the company strives to remain connected to its role as a representative of the U.S. Everywhere the company travels abroad they contact the local U.S. embassy to arrange receptions and invite local dignitaries to Ailey performances.

But being a representative doesn’t stop at the stage door. “Being a mostly African American company and traveling abroad is part of being an ambassador,” says Luckman. “Our dancers are noticeable, even when they’re just sitting in the coffee shop the day after the show. We’re bringing America in a positive light, which is always important, but sometimes more so.”

Cultural diplomacy does not directly engage politics—dancers aren’t negotiating policy during intermission. But the programs have often seen increased funding in response to global crisis. Eisenhower funded the first tours in 1954 with hopes of targeting Communist influence in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. A 2003 State Department program sent choreographers to countries with large Muslim populations in the wake of polls from the Pew Center and other organizations reporting global displeasure with American attitudes toward Muslims in the U.S. and abroad.

It’s difficult to measure how American dance performances abroad impact local audiences, but the performances do create a meeting ground and expose aspects of American culture not likely to be reported on the evening news. Ailey is proud of its contribution to such efforts.

Today most of the Ailey company’s promotional materials celebrate Ailey as a “Cultural Ambassador to the World.” Congress recognized Ailey’s contributions to cultural diplomacy in a 2008 Congressional resolution, as part of the company’s 50th anniversary. Jamison said official recognition is important. “It’s a feather in your cap when you get something in writing and you can say ‘We’re actually cultural ambassadors to the world, so says our Congress,’” says Jamison. “It adds a little more power to your ‘umph’ when it’s on the Congressional record.”

Luckman says that sense of energy affects the dancers, too. She says the most recent example of the mutual benefits derived from coupling dance and politics came in the company’s September appearance at the White House—an event hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama as a celebration of Jamison. “Being the ambassador is the ultimate imprimatur,” says Luckman. “You represent Ailey and America, and now you get to dance at the White House.”

Individual Artists Keep American Dance Alive
Attaining an official American imprimatur—at least for international touring—has been increasingly difficult over recent decades. But individual artists have turned small opportunities into long-term relationships. State Department support for the big tours that once benefitted companies like Ailey greatly diminished in the 1980s, and then stopped in the 1990s. The end of the Cold War and a series of bureaucratic re-organizations downsized the once substantial Cultural Presentations program. Support for artists continues through the Cultural Specialists program, which sends individual artists to work abroad, as well as the Performing Arts Initiative, which allows individual embassies to request funding for arts presentations.

After 9/11 interest in cultural diplomacy surged, resulting in a one-time 2003 program that blended the larger profiles of the Cold War era tours and the individual focus of the Cultural Specialists program. In 2003 Kwame Ross, Ruth Andrien, Loretta Livingston, Wendy Rogers, and Margaret Jenkins all worked abroad for one-month each, creating work and teaching in countries selected because of their large Muslim populations. Ross traveled to Egypt’ Andrien, Tunisia; Livingston, Turkey; Rogers, Malaysia; and Jenkins, India. (Dance/USA administered this program; based on its national initiative to support master choreographers on college campuses, the international program sought connections in schools and universities for these artists.)
The choreographers turned a small State Department investment into much more. Several of the artists forged long-term relationships. After the 2003 residency, Jenkins’ San Francisco-based company, the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, and Kolkata-based Tansuree Shankar Dance Company produced the collaborative work, “A Slipping Glimpse” over three years. The two companies worked together in a series of residencies and through email and FedEx. They toured “A Slipping Glimpse” in India, and then the United States. The State Department provided some support for the Indian part of the tour.

Jenkins notes that the State Department contribution to the overall project was small—her company had to fundraise privately and apply to the National Endowment for the Arts for the bulk of the needed money. But Jenkins says the necessity of the State Department was clear: without that 2003 program she never would have met Shankar and begun the collaboration.

The introduction produced much more than “Gates (Far Away Near),” another Jenkins’ piece—not a part of “A Slipping Glimpse”—that Jenkins and assistant Mary Carbonara staged in India in their 2003 residency. How people work together and acknowledge differences between their identities and cultures eventually became the central artistic question in “A Slipping Glimpse.”

Jenkins describes the piece by saying, “The work was about co-existing—how there might be some kind of union and still allow the two companies to co-exist in the same space with their own movement.”

Many dancers who’ve experienced cultural diplomacy projects say, like Jenkins, that the intercultural work spurs artistic developments. Jamison says tours in Southeast Asia introduced Alvin Ailey to Balinese dance, and the way Balinese dancers held their arms influenced the way he choreographed thereafter.
The tours affect non-American dancers, too. Former Kirov star Valery Panov writes in his autobiography that seeing New York City Ballet dance in the Soviet Union in 1962 meant that “the New York style would come to my mind every time I tried to work out a choreographic pattern.”

Cultural diplomacy allows artists to have experiences they might otherwise not and offers the American government an international platform removed from more partisan political arenas. Cultural diplomacy allows artists to have experiences they might
otherwise not and offers the American government an international
platform removed from more partisan political arenas. ODC dancer Smith reflects on the import of his work abroad in the spring of 2010, saying, “I learned a lot—in one way you learn that everything is greater than yourself. And on the other side, we are still so connected with each other.”

Clare Croft is a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Michigan’s Society of Fellows and an assistant professor in the Department of Dance. She is writing a book on U.S. State Department sponsorship of international dance tours as a form of cultural diplomacy. Croft’s writing about dance has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, and Dance Magazine, among other publications. Croft recently completed her PhD in the Performance as Public Practice program in the University of Texas-Austin’s Department of Theatre and Dance.


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