"Too Sexy for Export?" Martha Graham and the US Department of State
In 1963, modern dance became a hot topic in Congressional debate. At the center of the debate was American modern dance matriarch Martha Graham’s provocative dance piece, Phaedra (1962). Based on the Greek myth that tracks a woman’s (Phaedra’s) sexual entanglement with her stepson, the Graham work grapples with the staging of female sexual desire and, to the dismay of Congress people, does so in a setting populated with barely clad male dancers and onstage choreographed depictions of sexual encounters. My presentation charts the Congressional controversy that ensued after the Graham company performed Phaedra on a tour sponsored by the US State Department. I argue, through close readings of Congressional hearings, popular press accounts, and choreographic material, that the debate centered on a negotiation of Cold War gender norms— Cold War gender norms that Graham, onstage and as a public persona, skillfully transgressed by enacting what cultural theorist Lauren Berlant terms “diva citizenship.” Specifically I consider if white privilege might have buoyed Graham’s diva status, allowing her to remain the sole female choreographer frequently funded by the State Department during the Cold War.
Clare Croft is Assistant Professor of Dance at the University of Michigan. A scholar in the fields of dance studies and performance studies, she has interests in the intersections of dance and cultural policy, 20th and 21st century American performance, feminist and queer theory, dramaturgy and critical race theory. She is currently at work on a book project titled Funding Footprints: US State Department Sponsorship of International Dance Tours. Her writing has been published in the academic journals Theatre Topics and Theatre Journal and in newspapers and magazines, including The Washington Post, The Austin American-Statesman, The Baltimore Sun, and Dance Magazine, among others. In 2010, Croft's article, “Ballet Nations: The New York City Ballet’s 1962 US State Department-Sponsored Tour of the Soviet Union,” received the American Society of Theatre Research’s Biennial Sally Banes Publication Prize, which recognizes the publication that best explores the intersections of theatre and dance/movement. Croft received her Ph.D. in Performance as Public Practice from the University of Texas-Austin and an M.A. in Performance Studies from NYU. Croft is a former employee of the dance and media programs at the National Endowment for the Arts. She is also an active dramaturg and has recently collaborated on creative projects with choreographers Rachel Murray and Andee Scott.