This dissertation investigates Jewishness, radicalism, and modernism, and the interplay and connections among these ideas, in selected dances by Anna Sokolow (1910-2000) between 1927-1961. As an American choreographer of Russian Jewish heritage known for her leftist leadership and socially conscious dances, whose early work was highly representational of working-class and Jewish identity, Sokolow could have been labeled as “ethnic” low art. Instead, she came to be embraced by influential mainstream dance critics, such as John Martin, Walter Terry, Louis Horst, and Doris Hering. I ask how Sokolow’s work came to be regarded as “modernist,” thus transcending racial and class markers to become “American” in the 1950s, and I analyze the change over time in how her work was regarded. I examine Sokolow’s work within the historical arc of 20th-century concert dance while using it as a point of departure for important discussions in 20th- and 21st-century dance, Jewish, and gender studies.
I show that all of Sokolow’s work—not solely those dances labeled Jewish by critics and historians—was informed by her heritage, and is, in effect, Jewish. I argue that Sokolow intended to respond to the political zeitgeist through her choreography; her Jewishness and her politics were contingent upon one another. Finally, I demonstrate how the development of Sokolow’s choreographic aesthetic and the change in the way U.S. critics reviewed her work in the 1930s-1960s, from being integral to the workers movement, to making dances with overtly Jewish themes during the Holocaust, to reflecting postwar alienation, to directly addressing the Holocaust’s atrocities during the Cold War, reflects the assimilation of her generation of Jews into American society.
I frame this study within discourses of radicalism, modernism, Jewishness, race, gender, representation and the body, identity politics, and performativity. I use these ideas as lenses through which to conduct a textual analysis of Sokolow’s dances through movement description and Laban Movement Analysis, and a consideration of the work within a wider cultural and historical context. Sources include photographs, film, live performances, Labanotation scores, critical reviews from the mainstream, leftist, and Jewish/Yiddish presses, in the United States, Mexico, and Israel, and dancers’ recollections, through interviews, of their experiences performing the work. Additional archival sources include correspondence, clippings, and performance programs. Sokolow’s actions in Mexico City and Israel fed the international Jewish and radical currents integral to her work and representation; as such, the geographical foci for this study are the U.S. (primarily New York and Boston), Mexico City, and Israel.
Implications of this study include fitting Sokolow, her work for social change, and her Jewish identity into the changing American socio-political landscape. The study not only illuminates an historical moment connecting social politics, American Judaism, and the arts, but it brings to light many aspects of Sokolow’s life and work that have yet to receive critical attention. Sokolow portrayed her political ideals, which were intertwined with her Jewish identity and modernist aesthetic, in her work that both reflected and reacted to the time in which she made it.