by Toba Singer
January 3, 2003
“Is a Rockette a little rock? Or, is it a little rocket? Is it little?…
The foregoing quotation, attributed to James Waring, opens the chapter entitled “The Ballet-versus-Modern Wars as Ideology,” in Mark Franko’s “The Work of Dance: labor, movement, and identity in the 1930s.” Franko is Professor of Dance and Performance Studies at The University of California, Santa Cruz, and danced with the Paul Sanasardo Dance Company.
This is a book pitched to a remnant of the dance generation that was molded in the heat of those wars, as well as dance historians and certain academics. Others may find it difficult to comprehend. Franko articulates modalities intended to sort out dance expression in terms of the Communist Party’s forays into culture in the period of the thirties, when the U.S. working class was gathering the steam required to act on its own behalf and in its own name. The culture wars reflected the political upheavals—or so it has always seemed. Franko’s thesis, predicated on the idea that dance originated in play, places dance at the epicenter of the proletarian upsurges of the 1930s.
How dance “originated” is difficult to pinpoint, as movement in individual humans begins with the quickening of the fetus. In primitive, pre-class societies, the stewardship of that movement and its social expression could have begun as a function of labor, recreation, ritual or reproduction. In such societies, distinctions between those elements of human activity were in no way as clearly drawn as they ultimately became with the decline of nomadism and the rise of social classes. Whether you accept Franko’s view or not, it is clear that he adduces serious and prodigious scholarship in an effort to reconcile the accounts of the labor movement with those of the dance “radicals” who emerged in the era under discussion.
Though the models Franko analyzes are few, the scope of the scrutiny is broad. This work is at its best when it is concrete: combing through the works and words of Jane Dudley, Martha Graham and others, and offering a perspective on the populist agenda of the impresario, Lincoln Kirstein.
There are a few self-imposed delimiters in Franko’s otherwise open-ended inquiry. While Franko seems to operate outside of the political criteria imposed by socialist realist ideologues, his framework uncritically admits the standard of “political correctness” dictated by the cultural commissars of the Communist Party (CP) of the 1930s. He leans on the scholar Alan Wald to navigate the relevant ideological self-serving precepts of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Another problem surfaces in the historical integrity of certain of Franko’s assertions.
For example, it seems wholly credible, if not apparent, that precision dancing was charged with reflecting back to its audiences the regimentation associated with assembly-line production tendered under capitalist expansion. Still, wouldn’t it be important to mention that pre-capitalist folk traditions have also encumbered precision dancing’s precursors to show something of life under the feudal conditions of class society? It is in the association of categories that Franko’s methodology suffers, causing him to arrive at certain reductionist conclusions. For example, he identifies communism with mechanization; capitalism with commodification; and fascism with metallization, in their respective cultural manifestations. The problem is that communism and capitalism are economic systems and fascism is a political system that can exist only under capitalism, and so the identities are rendered asymmetrical.
Does Franko mean to compare bourgeois democratic capitalism with fascist capitalism? If so, do his identities still remain valid? By “communism,” does he mean the primitive communism of pre-class society? Does he mean the counterrevolutionary Stalinism associated with the former Soviet Union after 1923 that is deliberately confused with communism by its opponents (as well as by detractors from the Marxist and Leninist models). Or does Franko mean the revolutionary communism associated with the former Soviet Union between 1917 and 1923—the model of communism Cuba holds up as a goal yet to be realized? They are each of them quite different. In some cases, they are even diametric opposites. In other instances, their goals, according to the Marxist yardstick, remain a temptation that as yet has not been met.
Similar problems occur with the use of the word “radical.” By “radical,” does Franko mean the radical communist, anarchist, Stalinist, libertarian, or fascist? All are deemed “radical” currents by mainstream labelers. Though neither a fan of Nietzsche nor Marx, Martha Graham used “radical” terms like the "dialectic of opposites" to describe the movement she choreographed. While Graham embraced certain nationalist and obscurantist ideas, her rebellion against aristocratic, court-inflected ballet gesturing objectively represented a materialist, not an idealist, revolutionary development in dance. In the early days of the Russian Revolution, Lenin and Lunacharsky acted to completely reorganize the Maryinsky Theater so that choreographers could offer classical ballet to the masses of Soviet workers and peasants. That done, it became possible to bring to the stage interpretations of affect and emotion that reflected the lives of social classes apart from the aristocracy, affect and emotion that is to this day absent in much of modern dance. These are contradictions for which there is no safe haven in the socialist realist school; yet, they are what makes the dance world go ‘round.
In Franko’s book, the discussion of labor and dance is primarily New York City-centered, presuming New York to be the hub of both the labor movement and radical dance. Furthermore, Franko advances the opinion that those who were radical in both spheres were mostly dancers of Jewish origin. It is true that New York City’s New Dance Group was the site of a lively, thriving, (albeit heavily CP-encoded) modern dance culture, and perhaps a disproportionate number of those who were attracted to New Dance Group were Jewish. What the significance of this bit of demography is to Franko’s overall thesis is unclear. However, it is clear that the hypothesis that NDG exponents were an emotional vanguard at the crossroads of the class struggle and modern dance is unproven by Franko’s presentation.
While New York was the undisputed ideological center for left-wing politics in the United States, in no way could it be said that it was the center of labor activism in the United States in the thirties. Far more militant labor activity took place outside of New York City. Specifically, there were three major strikes in 1934 that led to the formation of the CIO. There was the strike of the over-the-road drivers in Minneapolis/St. Paul, leading to the formation of a farm-labor political party there. There was the radicalization of the autoworkers in Detroit and Toledo that burst its bindings in the Toledo Autolite strike. There were the longshore strikes in the San Francisco Bay Area at a time when San Francisco boasted the only ballet company in the United States, and California was contributing dancers to a number of East Coast modern dance companies.
Then there were the West Virginia coal miners. By the thirties, they were known far and wide for having challenged the United States National Guard in pitched battle in an organizing march across Blair Mountain. The dance tradition most favored by coal miners is clogging. This Celtic-style folk survival comprises elements of precision dancing and tap.
None of the above is intended to detract from the pre-eminent dance work and labor organizing that took place in New York in the thirties. Nonetheless, I would have found it interesting to know about the connection (or absence thereof) between dance works and labor activism in other parts of the United States. The United States of the 1930s was, after all, a capitalist nation fighting for the political and economic hegemony that drove it to enter World War II. The spoils of that war for the United States imperialists were the military bases that now circle the world as the launching pads for World War III. Was there no registration whatsoever of the conflicts leading to these developments among proletarian activists outside of New York City?
Taking these problems into account, dance historians are still left with a rich slice of the thirties New York dance world to savor in Franko’s book. Layered in this work is an array of valuable materiel often not available in a single source. Included are photos from New York University’s Tamiment Institute labor library and the fascinating testimonies of dancers and other performers of the period related to their work and ideas. In this regard, Franko has conferred heft onto a period in U.S. dance history that is frequently portrayed as frivolous, self-indulgent, fractious, and divorced from its ties to the political stirrings that helped to birth it.
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