Return of the Swans: Envisioning and Defining the National and Cosmopolitan Characteristics of “British Ballet” after Diaghilev (1929-1956)
Developments in British Ballet during the Interwar Period, such as the rise of a British Ballet Movement after the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s death and the development of a taste community that privileged Imperial Russian Classics over his earlier form of market-driven modernism and nascent national creations, caused a noticeable aesthetic shift, if not a regression, in the art form of ballet in the twentieth century. Furthermore, developments in this era explain the Russification or “Nutcrackerization” of ballet in terms of the nineteenth-century aesthetics and gender imbalances witnessed in postwar modern ballet companies across the globe.
Monograph in Progress
Cosmopolitanism Transformed: The Impact of State-Funding of the Arts on Ballet
from the Fin-de-Siecle to the Cold War
Did state funding and political pressures actually transform the arts during the Cold War? Ballet is an internationally recognized high art form with transnational origins, and its use in Cold War cultural diplomacy exchanges requires that scholars interrogate more closely the question of what is meant by “national” or “state-representative” arts. I argue for the presence of an “interstate taste community” that dictated funding decisions and aesthetic directions for arts used as diplomatic tools. Because of this “interstate taste community,” the level of similarity in the actual content of repertoires and performance styles of state-representative ballet companies in Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union during the Cold War was not an accident. Instead, it was a product of the transformation of arts funding across the twentieth century. Certainly, there were distinctive features in each national ballet, but we must understand how and why forms of neoclassical ballet became the lingua franca of dance diplomacy exchanges in the 1950s and early 1960s.
By examining the content of “dance diplomacy” exchanges we can discern the formation of an “interstate taste community,” which complicates the dichotomous relationship between cultural internationalism and cultural nationalism. Whereas cultural internationalism frequently involved peaceful exchanges aimed at mutual understanding, my evidence suggests that international exchanges set within a competitive system of nation-states can create artistic preferences divorced from audience reception or the goals of artists. As sponsors of art and taste-makers in their own right, state agencies had a discernible influence on ballet as a transnational art form, and, over the course of the twentieth century, ballet transformed in relation to its funding.
There are major differences between the market-driven modernism and bold gender explorations of Diaghilev’s early productions and the ballets of the Cold War era, which returned to full-length symphonic scores and revived the choreography and more conservative gender performances of the nineteenth century. Although neoclassical ballet became a politically expedient and culturally acceptable form of modernism in the Cold War “interstate taste community,” it barely resembled the earlier innovations performed by the Ballets Russes—the company that provided so many choreographers and pedagogues for Cold War companies. Therefore, the legacy of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes is not cosmopolitanism. Instead, it is nationalist-infused competition resulting from state intervention in the arts, which dramatically transformed the politics and performance of ballet in the mid-twentieth century.
Below are two visual examples that demonstrate the effects of different forms of funding upon aesthetics. The roles that Vaslav Nijinsky performed for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes were often gender fluid and quite dynamic for male dancers of the period. In contrast, Britain's Royal Ballet was state-funded rather than market-driven, and there was a return to more stereotypical and heteronormative aesthetics. My research is obviously more complex than these contrasting examples, but this helps people visualize an answer to the question of "why does this matter?"
Nijinsky's Gender Fluid Performances
A page from the French women's magazine Femina, which frequently featured Vaslav Nijinsky in illustrations during Diaghilev's Saisons Russes in Paris before WWI. This image from 1913 displays Nijinsky, the premier danseur for the Ballets Russes, in plain clothes as a man as well as in his costume for Spectre de la Rose. In one edition of the magazine, he was even drawn in Tamara Karsavina's costume from The Firebird.
Heteronormativity at the Royal Ballet
Below is Margot Fonteyn, prima ballerina of the Sadler's Wells Ballet, with one of her WWII Era partners, Robert Helpmann. The Sadler's Wells Ballet transitioned into Britain's Royal Ballet with much help from John Maynard Keynes. The economist, ballet mistress Ninette de Valois, and regisseur Nikolai Sergeyev were instrumental in the revival of Imperial Russian classics in the 1930s-1950s. As such, they rolled back the clock on Diaghilev's modernist advances. The transition from avant-garde experiments to neoclassical revival corresponds to the rise of state funding of the arts in Britain by the Arts Council.
Part of being an educator and academic is the love of life-long learning and investigating. My interests in cultural history, gender and sexuality, and public history present numerous opportunities for new explorations. Below are some of my developing projects.
Transcending the Madness: Nijinsky’s Diary and Antiwar Sentiment Contextualized
After researching ballet for a decade, I have become incredibly familiar with the life of Vaslav Nijinsky—the premier danseur of the Ballets Russes. In the closing months of WWI, the dancer and his young family settled in Switzerland, where he began a diary and feverishly created art-work. Nijinsky’s diary has been examined by dance scholars largely focused on pinpointing his ambiguous sexuality as well as psychologists because of the onset of his schizophrenia, but I will use historical methods to place the diary in the broader context of cultural opposition to the Great War. Certainly, the dancer suffered from mental illness, but his reactions to the war and peace process were not ill-informed and should not be divorced from the broader anti-war sentiment of the Interwar Period because of his schizophrenia.
"Pain of the Planet:" A Russian Guru, the Roosevelt Administration, and the Rise of World Heritage Preservation
Although Nicholas Roerich is more famous today for his popularization of yoga and devotion to Eastern religions, he was an early advocate for cultural resources management and historic preservation in early-twentieth-century Russia, India, and Tibet. As a developing artist, Roerich was greatly affected by the raging cultural debate between cosmopolitan Westernizers and Slavophiles in the waning decades of the Russian Empire, and he was directly impacted by the outbreak of World War I and Russian Revolution(s). The cataclysmic destruction of these wars inspired him to propose international cultural heritage protections to prevent future wars from destroying key cultural artifacts. Roerich bridged the gap between the amateur preservation work of nineteenth-century archaeology clubs and antiquarian societies and the development of historic preservation trusts and state agencies in the mid-twentieth century with his transnational push for cultural diplomacy, cultural resources management, historic preservation of sites, and international heritage protection laws. His actions not only culminated in the signing of the Roerich Pact in 1935 but also the rise of UNESCO and World Heritage designations. This Russian artist was highly successful internationally in part because of the backing he received from US Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Thus, a Russian artist’s personal passion not only influenced American domestic policies but also resulted in international agreements about the importance of history and culture.
Public History Projects
Exploring the Local. Linking the Global.
Globalizing the Black Patch Tobacco Wars:
A Comparison of Resistance and Rhetoric
At the turn of the 20th Century, tobacco farmers in Western Kentucky and Central Tennessee waged a fierce guerrilla war against the Duke tobacco monopoly, which was expanding globally and also experiencing resistance in China. This ongoing project explores the links between the Boxer Rebellion in China and the Black Patch Tobacco Wars that garnered national attention here. I am especially interested in the shared fiery rhetoric of encroachment on the local way of life by outside forces.
Preserving a Periwinkle-Covered Past: Recognizing Racial Violence against Black Property Owners during the Black Patch Wars
Race relations during the Black Patch Tobacco Wars were incredibly complex. Night Riders in Lyon County, KY split into 2 camps: a racially-integrated group of farmers concerned with the economic impact of Duke's tobacco monopoly on their lives versus a smaller faction of Shirt-Tail Night Riders who committed racial violence. The internment of Kentucky Lake in the 1960s covered the site of their worst atrocity, but in the past few years volunteers have searched periwinkle-covered land for the homesites and lost cemetery of black Lyon Countians who were violently forced from their homes between 1908-1912. The small farming community near Eddy Creek was a rare example of racial integration after the Civil War, and the descendants of the original freed slaves and Union Army Veterans banded together to preserve their livelihood against the Duke family, but they came under attack by their racist counterparts.
Feel free to reach out for more information on these projects.