Anne Searcy’s scholarly and highly readable book examines the impact of US – Soviet cultural exchanges during the Cold War through the lens of the Bolshoi Ballet’s 1959 and 1962 tours of the USA, and the tours by American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet of the Soviet Union in 1960 and 1962 respectively.  Searcy draws on an impressive array of Russian and English archival resources and contemporaneous reviews to reconstruct and understand the way in which these companies, their works, and their performances were received by audiences at the time.  She offers new material and a new view point focussed on the reception of the dance, rather than its presentation.

Searcy is clear that the purpose of these tours was political, even though the companies had artistic aims.  She tells a fascinating story as she takes us through the debates about repertoire, that show the desire of each side to lay claim to their dance heritage in the context of a shifting and volatile political situation, which was further complicated by the defection of Rudolf Nureyev in Paris in 1961.

Searcy’s thesis is that the audiences interpreted the dance in accordance with their own preconceived assumptions and beliefs.  To investigate this, she has to attempt the impossible and step outside her own mindset, and to some extent imagine why audiences responded as they did.  Her conclusions are always interesting, even if not fully proven.  Searcy attributes the disastrous reception in New York of Leonid Yakobson’s Spartacus to its excessive Hollywood-style blockbuster qualities, which were dismissed as tasteless by an audience that regarded ballet as an elite art.  However it may also have felt safer to write off the production as vulgar than to engage with the uncomfortable possibility that the Soviet Union could lay claim both to the ancient world and to such an evocative narrative of freedom.

This does not contradict Searcy’s overall argument that performance and reception is a two-way process, and that positive critical reception does not necessarily mean that a work has been perceived as was intended.  She convincingly makes the case that Americans understood Asaf Messerer’s Ballet School in terms of neo-classicism, while Soviet critics viewed Balanchine’s work in the context of choreographic symphonism.  Searcy is a musicologist, and she is generally on firmer ground discussing music than when describing dance.  Although her book does not include detailed choreographic analysis, the notes make clear that she has watched and compared dance footage from a range of sources.  Her claim that ‘the distinctions between Soviet and American ballet lie less in how the dancers move and more in how the viewers watch and listen’ (p.9) is certainly bold, and seems to disregard the ways in which training and repertoire shape the dancing body.  On the other hand, she later states that ‘Far from a universal language, ballet is an art form, with unique dialects all over the world’ (p.132).

In her Epilogue, Searcy notes that audiences today still view dance though the prism of local aesthetics and politics, and argues that the politics of the Cold War continue to shape the way in which Russians and Americans view ballet.  Ultimately, Soviet and American attempts at subversion via the medium of dance failed, because the experience of ‘transliterating’ each other’s works into a language to which they could relate convinced each side of the inherent superiority and value of their own culture.

Maggie Watson

3rd January 2021

Searcy, Anne (2020) Ballet in the Cold War: a Soviet-American Exchange Oxford University Press

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