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Martha Graham and the Legacy of Dance Diplomacy

Victoria Phillips’s book on Martha Graham was the subject of a discussion at the National Museum of American Diplomacy on March 5, 2020

The National Museum of American Diplomacy at the State Department arranged a “Diplomacy After Hours” discussion on March 5, 2020, that focused on a new book by Victoria Phillips, Martha Graham’s Cold War: The Dance of American Diplomacy. The event was hosted by Dr. Jane Carpenter-Rock, the Museum’s deputy director and the speaker at the May First Monday program on the projected presentation of Public Diplomacy at the museum. The respondents included PDAA member Ambassador Sally Grooms Cowal, who spoke about her encounter while CAO in Israel with Martha Graham.

According to its author, Martha Graham’s Cold War is the first book to frame the story of Martha Graham and her particular brand of dance modernism as pro-Western Cold War propaganda used by the United States government to promote American democracy.

“In her choreography, Graham recast the stories of the Western canon through female protagonists whom she captured as timeless, seemingly beyond current political and cultural values of the Free World. Centering on powerful yet not demonstrably American female characters, the stories Graham danced seduced and captured the imaginations of elite audiences without seeming to force a determinedly American agenda,” according to Phillips.

Recalling a Martha Graham Visit to Israel: Its Foreign Policy Objective Achieved

by Sally Grooms Cowal

Ambassador Sally Grooms Cowal

The Martha Graham Dance Company came to Israel as part of a tour to Egypt, Israel and Jordan shortly after the signing of the Peace Agreement between Israel and Egypt in 1979. The Agreement was brokered by President Jimmy Carter at Camp David. That was a major foreign policy accomplishment for the United States and remains, 40 years later, the only peace agreement achieved between Israel and an Arab nation. The foreign policy objective of the Martha Graham tour was part of a larger plan of cultural normalization, undertaken by the US, to create bridges of knowledge and understanding between Israel and the Arab world. I was the CAO in Israel at the time.

The foreign policy objective of the tour of the Graham Company was to illustrate that it was possible for performing arts groups to perform in Israel and in Arab countries on the same visit. Israel had been isolated by the Arab countries since its establishment. If you had an Israeli entry stamp in your passport, for example, no Arab country would permit entrance. There was no direct travel between Israel and any country in the region. To go from Tel Aviv to Cairo, for example, a flight of one hour, required an all-day trip. You went from Tel Aviv to Athens, had a several-hour layover in Athens, and then a flight from Athens to Cairo. It took about nine or 10 hours in total.

So we wanted to end that isolation and to show that Israel was in fact part of the region and should not be isolated and that there were decided advantages to be gained for all the countries if travel and tourism and business and cultural exchange between them became normal and routine. So, the plan was for the company to come to Israel directly from Egypt, showing that it was possible and normal to do so. It actually didn’t work out that way because we couldn’t get a commercial charter or scheduled airline to fly them from Egypt to Israel, so we had to call on the US Air Force to come to our rescue. Now, daily commercial flights exist from Tel Aviv to Cairo, to Amman, and perhaps to other Middle Eastern cities as well.

Other cultural normalization activities that the US Government pursued simultaneously included an expanded International Visitor Program, especially for travel and learning experiences that included both Israelis and Arabs in the same group of grantees. A regional IV program of, for example, water engineers from several European countries, would also include engineers from Israel and perhaps Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, so that they could meet as professionals with similar backgrounds on neutral grounds (the US), learning and experiencing together and beginning to break down the mutual fear, stigma, myths, and prejudices that had existed for generations.
Audiences in Israel were thrilled with the Martha Graham performances and for the tour being part of a larger Middle Eastern context. We hosted other US performing arts groups later, like the La Mama Theatre Company from NY and the Paul Taylor Dance Company, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra–all of which performed in Israel and then in other places in the Middle East.

But Martha was the first. She had a history in Israel, she had helped to start the Batsheva Dance Company, she and her company had performed there several times, so Israelis were familiar with her work and thrilled that her company was performing in Amman and Cairo as well as in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. From the point of view of the American Embassy, our foreign policy objective of gaining support for what we hoped would be a new day in the region, with peace treaties between Israel and many other Arab countries, was achieved.

Ambassador Cowal retired from the Foreign Service in 1995 after serving as Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago. She was a Career Minister and had also been Deputy Assistant Secretary for Latin America and the Caribbean. Ambassador Cowal’s assignments included Cultural Attaché at United States Embassy, Tel Aviv, 1978-1982, and Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs in Mexico. After retiring from the Foreign Service, she became the deputy director of the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) where she was responsible for heightening world awareness to the emerging HIV/AIDS crisis. From 1999 to 2001, Ambassador Cowal was the President of Youth For Understanding, and from 2001 to 02, she was President of the Cuba Policy Foundation. She curently serves as the American Cancer Society’s Senior Vice President for Global Health. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Diplomacy Center Foundation supporting the National Museum of American Diplomacy. Her most recent article for PDAA, Life After the Foreign Service, is available here.

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