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Dance and Dialectics: Historical Materialist Studies of Modern/Postmodern Dance in San Francisco, 1935-1985


This study of twentieth-century modern/postmodern dance in the San Francisco Bay Area investigates the relationship of concert dance to its political economic context through an examination of three dances: Carol Beals’ Waterfront - 1934 (1936-1937), Anna Halprin’s Parades and Changes (1965-1967), and the Wallflower Order’s Journeys: Undoing the Distances (1982-1983). Expanding beyond the current interpretive methods within dance history, I offer a Marxist interpretative framework that foregrounds the material relations that condition and enable works of concert dance. Inspired by what dance scholar and sociologist Randy Martin refers to as overreading dance, I argue that the contradictions and antagonisms of capitalism appear immanently within these three works. The dialectical forces of economic history are also operative within concert dance. Rethinking the purview of what counts as ‘context’ within dance history, I employ a four part analysis for a political economic interpretation of these dances, which considers a) the choreography, b) the process of making the piece, c) the material conditions that enabled the choreographer to create the work, and d) its political economic period. The case studies of the dissertation allow me to map concert dance onto shifts within capitalism over the course of the twentieth-century, from the Great Depression of the 1930s to the Fordist post-war boom to the aftermath of the 1973 economic crisis. In developing a mode of interpretation adequate to each period, the chapters focus on a single political economic category and the contradictions dwelling within it: capital during the 1930s, labor during the 1960s, and social reproduction during the 1980s. The dissertation contributes to the historiography of modern dance in California by rethinking a canonical figure (Anna Halprin) and offering accounts of choreographers who have not received significant dance historical attention (Carol Beals and the Wallflower Order). Together, the studies of Beals, Halprin, and the Wallflower Order chart the relationship of their dances to the economic contradictions of their period. Political economic methods can rethink the study of dance beyond discrete stage performances by entangling works of concert dance with their economic context.

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