Dancing the World Smaller: Staging Globalism in Mid-Century America

Dancing the World Smaller: Staging Globalism in Mid-Century America. Rebekah J. Kowal. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020; Pp. 295.

Rebekah J. Kowal’s Dancing the World Smaller: Staging Globalism in Mid-Century America emerged out of photos of “ethnic dance” that she stumbled upon in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Dance Collection. By researching archives of this “lost chapter of American dance history” (19), Kowal investigates what it meant to put globalism into practice through “dancing the world smaller” in mid-century America.

Kowal zooms in on the dance scene of New York City—the most heterogeneous city in America that emerged as the global cultural capital—as central to what she calls postwar America’s “globalist projects.” Throughout, she examines complications that existed in the staging of international dance as an important means of imagining both the United States as a new global superpower and a world with the US at the center. She compellingly reveals how mid-century universalist approaches to diversity and cross-cultural embodiment were characterized by “dueling impulses” towards “openness, multiculturalism, and multilateralism” on one hand, and “nationalism, containment, homogeneity, … and racist American cultural heritages,” on the other (8). Notably, she recognizes the contributions of dance artists whose work was produced in New York City, framing those underrepresented in dance history scholarship as indispensable to the formation of American modern dance as well as American globalism.

Kowal presents rich archival research, analyzed through a close reading of materials ranging from programs, calendars, and contracts to interviews, letters, and autobiographical essays. Her writing weaves these materials together, bringing readers in. Equally impressive is her dexterity with explaining the political and historical contexts of mid-Century America that are all intermeshed. Consequently, the volume speaks to multiple fields of studies, from interculturalism and postcolonial studies to Cold War history and immigration studies, as it pursues dance history.

Each of the book’s four chapters revolves around the work of an individual artist or a set of performances. While each chapter functions as a case study, they also interconnect, culminating in her discussion of the International Dance Festival in 1948 for New York City’s Golden Jubilee. (The fiftieth anniversary celebrated the unification of the city’s five boroughs to form the Greater City of New York).

Chapter one, “Staging Integration,” focuses on Around the World with Dance and Song, a dance program at the American Museum of Natural History from 1943 to 1952. The series presented dance performances from forty-four countries, unparalleled for “its diverse offerings and expansive definition of international dance” (37). As Kowal shows, the series reflected mid-century globalist thinking and efforts to “put the city on the international map as a global center for international dance production and performance.” Set against the backdrop of the US entry into World War II and increased expectations that museums be “useful to society,” the program was ended because it was deemed not “serious and scholarly” enough (34). Guiding her readers through the innovative project’s arc, Kowal demonstrates that even though its efficacy in staging globalism can best be seen “as a substitution for or simulacrum of experience” or “armchair travel,” the program still made two important achievements: it contributed to a redefinition of ethnic dance in the mid-twentieth century and it “prompt[ed] Americans to look outward” (71).

Chapter two, “Staging Ethnologic Dance,” centers on the work of La Meri, one of the most accomplished concert dancers of her time, named “the highest authority on ethnological dances” (74). The co-founder with Ruth St. Denis of the School of Natya, later renamed the Ethnologic Dance Center, La Meri was an “ambassador of dance,” widely considered an “intercultural mediator” (117). Kowal takes Homi Bhabha’s theory of mimicry to analyze La Meri’s eclectic dance practices that illuminate ambivalence at work (74). One important focus of the chapter is the dancer’s fraught relationship with St. Denis, with whom she was often compared. Kowal explores the complicated case of La Meri, who was at the intersection of enjoying cultural privileges as a white dance artist, given the benefit of doubt in terms of her work’s authenticity on one hand, and cast outside the mainstream as an ethnic dance artist, whose work was dismissed as “recreative” rather than “creative” on the other (102).

Chapter three, “Staging Diaspora,” aligns Arthur A. Schomburg’s advocacy of vindicationist politics in early Black history and Michel de Certeau’s ideas about “the necessity for disenfranchised peoples to be their own historians.” Here, Kowal focuses on African dance festivals directed by Asadata Dafora, a Sierra Leonean-born dancer who became “the first African to put an African show [in] the American Theatre and concert halls” (123). Dafora worked under the auspices of the African Academy of Arts and Research in the 1930s and ‘40s, a significant era of African American concert dance, which afforded increased opportunities to artists of the African diaspora (124). Framing mixed critical receptions of Dafora’s work and its authenticity by writers including Zora Neale Hurston and John Martin, Kowal demonstrates how Dafora registered as a “transnational subject” whose ambassadorial work “[spoke] for Africa,” building bridges between African and American cultures (144). Both chapters two and three research liminal subjects—La Meri and Dafora—who moved both within and outside of the mainstream, invariably engaged in debates over cultural authority and authenticity.

The fourth and last chapter, “Staging Diversity/Staging Containment,” circles back to the case study of the 1948 International Dance Festival. Kowal examines critical discourses surrounding three different companies that performed for the festival: the Paris Opera Ballet, Ram Gopal and his Hindu Ballet, and Charles Weidman. As Kowal reveals, the festival’s grand plan aimed to celebrate multicultural aspects of the city by showcasing a sampler of global dances. However, “much to [the organizer’s] chagrin,” only three out of the fourteen invited countries—one among them being America—responded to invitations (168). Juxtaposing Weidman’s success against the two “others”—Paris Opera Ballet’s director Serge Lifar, who was labeled as a “Queerographer,” and Ram Gopal, who played the role of a “foreign exotic,” Kowal asserts that the festival “crystalized ideals and contradictions of mid-century globalism” (199). In other words, the festival, promoting diversity and opposing differences simultaneously, exemplified the difficulties and complexities of staging globalism in America in the early Cold War years.

Thematically, Kowal’s book revolves around dance’s intercultural potential—its ability to bring people together and bridge cultural differences. While demonstrating the contradictory political gestures at work in mid-century American globalism through her compelling case studies, this monograph encourages readers to understand how “dancing the world smaller” might become possible. Dancing the World Smaller is a valuable addition to global studies as well as dance studies, seeking to understand globalism from the perspectives of dance and performance as a practice, a performance, and as lived experience.

Dahye Lee
City University of New York

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 35, Number 1 (Fall 2022)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2022 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center