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Choreographing the Age of Anxiety: Dancing Poetry at the New York City Ballet


Taking the New York City Ballet as its center, “Choreographing the Age of Anxiety” reconsiders the relationships between dance, specifically ballet, text, and politics in the United States during the Cold War (1948-1962). Working interdisciplinarily between literary studies, dance studies, and Cold War studies, this dissertation argues that the relationship between poetry and dance during this period reveals a political engagement overlooked in previous studies of American Cold War modernism. The first two chapters of the dissertation consider the relationships between New York School poet and dance critic Edwin Denby’s dance training, dance writings, and poetry to argue that both his conception of American ballet and his poetic aesthetics are linked to his own education in German modern dance practices. The middle two chapters consider ballets by choreographer Jerome Robbins—1950’s Age of Anxiety, based on W.H. Auden’s poem of the same name, and 1953’s Afternoon of a Faun, based on St�phane Mallarm�’s L’Apr�s-midi d’un faun—to argue that the ways in which these dances interact with their base texts articulate a Cold War modernism that emerges out of and responds to institutional anti-communism. The final two chapters work stereoscopically between the 1933 and 1958 versions of George Balanchine, Bertolt Brecht, and Kurt Weill’s ballet-cantata, The Seven Deadly Sins, to argue that this ballet’s late 1950s revival forces a reconsideration of the possibilities for political art at the height of the Cold War. Throughout, “Choreographing the Age of Anxiety” argues that these artists use the friction between dance and text both to navigate the political moment of the Cold War and to open up a space for political expression and critique.

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