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Federal Theater

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There was a special the other night on PBS regarding the Federal Theater. For those who don't know, the Federal Theater was a project of the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. It was intended to give work to all kinds of artists by mounting theatrical productions of all varieties. It was entirely funded by the federal government.

In the special, there was some mention of how Catherine Dunham choreographed for productions in Chicago, and in an interview she stated how grateful she was that the Federal Theater gave her the opportunity to do so.

I'm just wondering how the Federal Theater otherwise helped dance, particularly ballet, if at all. I get the distinct impression that dance and dancers weren't significant beneficiaries of the program, but would love to be proved wrong. Any insight or reference to sources on the subject will be greatly appreciated.

And by the way, there's a great movie about this called "Cradle Will Rock." If you haven't seen it - go rent and watch it!!!



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There were four wings to the Federal Dance Project (1936-39), ballet, modern dance, vaudeville, and teaching. The most prominent ballet beneficiary of the FDP would seem to have been Ruth Page in Chicago, who mounted her "Frankie and Johnny" as a part of the Federal Ballet. Martha Graham, Katherine Dunham, and other moderns were underwritten for performances by Federal funds. Although not direct recipients, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the Ballets Jooss, and the American Ballet were brought to venues by aid to theater managements under another part of the WPA in places where they never would have played otherwise. The purpose of the projects was to provide wide dissemination of the arts throughout American society, and bring broader acceptance to "high culture" everywhere.

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Needless to say, this was more than what I thought. Thank you for the information.

In some respects, I think it would be great to have a program like that again. It seems awful that dance companies have to go out and practically beg for support in the private sector. On the other hand, it seems that every time the government supports the arts in this country, politics get involved - and it can get very ugly. I guess we're just not a society that can find a middle ground in this particular realm.

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