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Border Crossings

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ current exhibition is a dance epic. Full of tragedy and triumph spanning centuries and the globe, “Border Crossings: Exile and American Modern Dance 1900 – 1955” recenters the story of modern dance around historically marginalized artists often left out of the modern dance canon.

“This show is about re-reading modernism through trauma and alienation, and to understand modernism not as this unified canonical narrative, but in fact a constant series of breakages, resistances, ruptures, and traumas,” Dr. Bruce Robertson said. Robertson is co-curator of “Border Crossings” with colleague Dr. Ninotchka Bennahum.

“Border Crossings: Exile and American Modern Dance 1900 – 1955” at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Photograph courtesy of NYPL

This is the second major dance exhibit for which Robertson and Bennahum, both professors at the University of California, Santa Barbara, have partnered. Their exhibit “Radical Bodies” about post-moderns Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer, curated alongside Wendy Perron, was also featured at the NYPL in 2017. According to Bennahum, tracing back in time to the start of modernism with “Border Crossings” seemed like a natural next step. 

“There’s an exilic thread here of the lived experience of the artist, of how the artist lives a history that then translates into choreography,” Bennahum said of the connection between the two exhibits. This begs the question, “what does it mean to be an exile, a refugee of war, as well as an exile within the United States due to Jim Crow and other racial systems?” 

While highlighting the mid-twentieth century, “Border Crossings” begins centuries earlier with photography and footage of Los Matachines dances of the Native Pueblo people of the American southwest. A traditional dance with mythic and religious themes, Los Matachines is itself a product of border crossings: roots can be traced to European Spanish colonists, Moorish dances, and Aztec culture from present-day Mexico.  

Native American culture has been widely recognized as influential to early modern dance pioneers, such as Martha Graham, who famously travelled to Mexico and the American southwest for inspiration (the exhibit features a photo of Graham standing blissfully atop the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacán, Mexico). The specific dances and people from whom Graham and others drew inspiration, however, has largely been disregarded. This, according to “Border Crossings,” is both an oversight and an injustice.  

Janet Collins in Chain Gang. Photo by Walter E. Owen. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

José Limón in “Revalucionario” from Danzas Mexicanas. Photo by John Lindquist. © Houghton Library, Harvard University. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

“As modern dance and ballet became more abstract, overt references to [cultural dances] largely vanished,” an exhibit note reads in a section titled “Trespassing and Cultural Appropriation.” “The embodied movements learned from these dances, however, did not.” 

“Cultural identification is as important to dance modernism as aesthetic philosophy,” Bennahum said, noting that this idea, central to the exhibit, is a challenge to traditional definitions of modernism. 

Adjacent to the Indo-Hispano and Pueblo dances is a section on jazz modernism. Featuring early footage of the cakewalk, this section emphasizes the significant African American contribution to the development of modernism. 

A large printed mural of Aida Overton Walker, prolific performer of the early twentieth century dubbed “The Queen of the Cakewalk,” presides over the section. Walker was a star dancer and choreographer who toured the US on vaudeville. Though she died at only 34 years old of kidney failure in 1914, she is credited for having laid the foundation for many female solo dancers and chorus choreographers of the American stage. 

“Border Crossings” is full of these biographical anecdotes. A section on war features a photo of dancer Sono Osato with Isamu Noguchi, who stands next to a bust of Osato which he sculpted. Osato danced with the Ballet Russes, American Ballet Theatre, and was the original Miss Turnstiles in On the Town. Like Noguchi, she was an American whose father was Japanese, and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Osato’s father was interned under Japanese-American Internment. Osato, herself, was barred from any tours to Mexico and California. 

Jane Dudley in Song of Protest, 1937. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Si-Lan Chen. Photo by Eliot Elisofon. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

“Osato couldn’t travel west of the Mississippi during World War II without being interned under Executive Order 1066. What is that experience, then how does the dance bear witness to that history?” Bennahum asked. 

For Osato, global war meant a prohibition of border crossing. Many others had the opposite experience: Fleeing the Spanish Civil War, legendary Roma flamenco dancer Carmen Amaya travelled to Portugal then sailed on a refugee ship to South America where she stayed until the end of the Second World War.  

Another dancer, Si-Lan Chen, who was of Afro-Caribbean and Chinese ancestry, worked in the United States but travelled constantly due to visa complications resulting from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which wasn’t repealed until 1943. 

 “She had to leave the US every six months for her visa. How was her choreography influenced by that?” Bennahum said.  

For one thing, Chen’s experience contributed to an extensive multi-cultural identity. 

“She’s Trinidadian and Chinese, trained in London, goes to Moscow, does ethnographic research. And so, she performs for Chinese relief organizations, does Caribbean dances, does labor dances—how do you pin her down? You can’t pin her down,” Robertson said.  

While Chen demonstrates a singular embodiment of blended cultures, the exhibit also captures moments where transferring of cultures occurred through dialogue: Uday Shankar was one of the first Indian dancers to tour the US; Vincente Escudero, was a celebrated Spanish flamenco dancer. The exhibit features a photo of them dressed in suits, shaking hands. 

Katherine Dunham, c. 1949. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Cross-culturalism has yet another path through dancers who were also anthropologists, such as Pearl Primus and Katherine Dunham. Primus and Dunham’s research played vital roles in the dissemination and understanding of cultural dances, specifically of the African diaspora. Each has her own dedicated section in the exhibit. 

“Katherine Dunham is one of the most important dancers of mid-century,” Robertson said. “The exhibit really began when Ninotchka and I were sitting in the NYPL reading room looking at the [Carmine] Schiavone photographs of Katherine Dunham in Cuba and going, holy cow! These are astonishing.” 

Dunham’s complete archive is in St. Louis, not at the NYPL, but Robertson and Bennahum were able to access it. Other archives were more difficult to access, or even nonexistent, the curators said. According to them, this contributed greatly to whom could be represented, not just for this exhibit, but in general. 

“Part of [who is represented in] the show is about resources. Having a place to perform, managing to get an audience. We saw over and over, if you didn’t have the resources, or you died young, whatever you did just started evaporating,” Robertson said. “This is a first offer. It’s full of gaps. But, if we provoke people to do more, we’ve done our job.”

“Lack of an archive has served to underrepresent, especially women of color,” Bennahum said, “and racism has everything to do with it. The people who controlled the narrative, who were white, regardless of intention, left everybody else out. 

“But then, you have people who overcame whatever was thrown at them.” 

Bennahum alluded to a large picture of Carmen Amaya, Katherine Dunham, Dolores Del Rio, and Tamara Toumanova sunbathing side by side on a lawn in Mexico. 

“Why would those four disparate careers—four disparate women—be meeting in Mexico? How did they know each other? Dunham bought a home there to escape the virulence of American racism. The US government was after her. Yet, she really survived,” Bennahum said.  

“These women—these people—were brilliant! It doesn’t mean they didn’t suffer. I think it was just pure grit.” 

“Border Crossings” remains on view in New York through March 2024, and will later travel to the West Coast.  

Cecilia Whalen


Cecilia Whalen is a writer and dancer from Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and holds a bachelor's degree in French. Currently, Cecilia is studying composition at the Martha Graham School for Contemporary Dance in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.

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