Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Julia L. Foulkes's "A Place for Us"

Julia Foulkes is the author of Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey (2002) and To the City: Urban Photographs of the New Deal (2011).

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, A Place for Us: West Side Story and New York, and reported the following:
West Side Story was a Cold War story. There were two superpowers on the block; an escalated arms race, from fists to rocks to knives; and there were explosions—made real in dance. “Cool” was the most physical expression of this. With a “rocket in your pocket,” Jets shoot straight up, tightening their bodies into coiled rods. Hands and legs dart out and up; tight turns end on the ground only for the dancers to spring up into action again. The dancing makes clear that cool masks hot and it also provided a meaningful analogy to the dangerous global politics of the moment. This became clear when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev visited the United Nations in New York in the fall of 1960. He burst into anger at various times when countries criticized the Soviet Union’s actions. In a speech, British prime minister Harold Macmillan, who had become a mediator between the USSR and the US, quoted the song’s lyrics, urging Khrushchev to “get cool, boy.”

Page 99 details how West Side Story became a battle in this larger war. Traveling Soviet dancers flocked to the show and pushed for it to tour their country. The producers sought State Department sponsorship, which the department denied year after year for fear that it would bolster negative views of the U.S. So the Soviets made their own version of the musical, heightening the social commentary to reveal the “immorality of American social culture.”

It’s not surprising that the Soviets revised West Side Story to serve their own ideological purposes; what may be more surprising is the number of places where there was no need for changes for the production to resonate. More on that in the book!
Visit Julia Foulkes's website.

--Marshal Zeringue