Introduction: Dancing the Dream

A century ago, dance staged the riotous birth of modernism when the Ballets Russes presented The Rite of Spring in Paris. An unsuspecting white-tie audience erupted with fury at the outrage confronting them: what was all that stomping about? Where were the tutus of tradition?

At the same time, dance in America was similarly confronting the advent of modern life—though with less of a tantrum: here, opportunity flowed freely and here, everything was new. Origins explain a lot. Dance accompanied immigrants to these shores, but the sights and sounds of the American experience beat with the pulse of innovation. Newness demanded innovation, and the fleeting nature of dance incorporated change effortlessly.

“Dancing the Dream” tells the stories of performers, choreographers, and impresarios who harnessed America’s diversity and dynamism into dance styles that defined the national experience: dance was American culture in motion. From the era of live performance to today’s media age, dance’s “singular sensations” have riveted our attention—iconic figures with signature styles that leap into the starscape and strike us with wonder.

Five major dance categories are showcased in the exhibition: “Broadway and the American Dream,” “Lights! Camera! Action!,” “Choreographing Modern America,” “The Rise of American Ballet,” and “Choreography Goes ‘POP!’” In each, a uniquely “American” quality is discernible. True, dynamism and energy are essentials. But there is something else, something perhaps more ineffable—a rather wonderful sense of experiment and lack of truck with the past. As modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn once said, “When in doubt, twirl!”

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

October 4, 2013
through July 13, 2014