Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Political Affair

For over seventy years, artists of national acclaim have graced the stage in the East Room of the White House. Who knew that politics and the arts had such a close relationship? Heads of state have been entertained by performers from every genre of dance and received numerous awards of recognition. Everything from classical ballet, contemporary modern dance, jazz, tap, and even Broadway have been showcased. The fact that talent of such high caliber was brought in highlights how supportive the government has been toward the arts. So here it goes, I am going to try and harmoniously marry my two passions – politics and dance.

Historically, The Martha Graham Dance Company was the first troupe to perform at the White House. Invited by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1938, Martha created a special work called American Document that was about Abraham Lincoln and pride of American Independence. She would continue to perform for seven other presidents, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Gerald Ford in 1976 (fun fact: the President’s wife, Betty Ford, was part of the Graham company prior to their marriage). At that same time, President Ford announced the provision of 12 million dollars in funding for the Cultural Challenge Grant program. These grants allowed for an additional $200 million to be generated for the arts. How cool?

Jose Limon was also no stranger to the White House. He was a guest of President Kennedy in 1962 and later performed there in 1967 for a White House state dinner under Lyndon Johnson’s administration. His modern company performed a piece called The Moor’s Pavane, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. More recently, in 2006, Arthur Mitchell was invited to the White House to be honored for his work with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. This award was part of a televised event called “In Performance at the White House” and celebrated the work of numerous artists. The Dance Theatre of Harlem performed and brought awareness to their “community outreach programs that bring arts education to people all across America and around the world.”

Baryshnikov had all the bases covered for classical ballet. His 1979 pas de deux with New York City ballerina Patricia McBride was a splash. He was invited by President and Mrs. Carter and performed several more times after that. Baryshnikov also received Kennedy Center Honors in 2000 from President Clinton, an award that “celebrates a lifetime of achievement in the arts.” Also, the American Ballet Theatre performed the Nutcracker in December of 2005, at the invitation of Laura Bush. Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie hosted this event for children of overseas troops. A plethora of Jerome Robbins’ ballets have also been performed at the White House.

Even tap has been a well recognized art form at the White House! Savion Glover, world famous tapper, put on a special performance for President Clinton in his program called “Savion Glover’s Stomp, Slide and Swing.” This 1998 presentation was aired on PBS as well as the Variety Arts Theater in New York City. Glover was called “the best tap dancer that ever lived…a genius” by tap great Gregory Hines and has won numerous Tony Awards. This performance featured a solo from Glover, as well as pieces from other tappers. This youtube video captures the stunning performance:

Even Broadway has also been appreciated by presidential administrations. Several “Salute to Broadway” performances have been given, featuring such acclaimed performers as Shirley Jones, Stubby Kaye, and Lee Roy Reams. Musicians have also given Presidents a trip down memory lane with sections played from Oklahoma!, Jersey Boys, and Porgy and Bess.

Wow - what a conglomeration of artists! There is great evidence throughout presidential history that the arts have been noticed and appreciated. Some of this information can be surprising, for one does not usually think of the President as being an advocate for the arts. However, this information goes to show that politics and dance do have a connection. It is obvious that American culture would not be the same without the contributions of modern and contemporary dance, classical ballet, jazz, tap, and even Broadway, and this is a fact that has been heavily endorsed by our government. Good to know – huh?

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