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On July 16, 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel participated in a televised Q&A at a school for students with physical disabilities in Rostock, Germany. The focus of their conversation was the “good life in Germany,” the title of a government program sponsoring the event. The students were seated agora-style around Merkel, who roamed freely around the space. During the Q&A, a fourteen-year-old Palestinian refugee named Reem shared her story. In impeccable German, she described how she had been living in a camp in Lebanon with her family before arriving four years earlier to Germany, which she had come to view as her home. Merkel, flanked by two moderators, pressed her for more details. Reem revealed her temporary immigration status; facing possible deportation, she explained what it was like to live with such uncertainty. “I’m here … and I don’t know what my future looks like, while I don’t know whether I can actually stay here.” Her life goal was to study, though it hurt “to see how others can enjoy life, when one can’t enjoy life along with them.” Merkel countered by invoking “hard politics.” “When you stand before me, and you’re … an unbelievably nice person, but you also know that in the Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon there are thousands and thousands, and if we say you can all come—all of you from Africa can come, you can all come … we can’t manage that.”

Then, something happens. Merkel describes the situation as Zwiespalt—literally, split in two (“Ich bin Zwiegespalten” means something like, “I’m of two minds”)—and shifts the conversation from issues surrounding Reem’s predicament to administrative procedures for asylum-seekers. Midway through a sentence, Merkel pauses. Muttering under her breath, she crosses the stage to Reem, who is crying. Merkel leans in and tells her, “You did that really well.” The moderator interjects that Reem didn’t “do well” but is stuck in a trying situation. Merkel, stroking Reem gently on the shoulder, snaps back. “I know it’s a trying situation, but I want to stroke her nevertheless.” The government doesn’t want things to be like this, she assures her. “But you’ve demonstrated so well, for many, many other people, how one can get along in this situation.” The rhythmic stroking ends. Merkel nods at Reem, who nods back. Merkel stands up, and the Q&A continues.

Clips from their exchange, which showed politics as a series of balletic gestures, went viral. Audiences assessed Merkel’s more or less human face. Twitter handles chirped that the chancellor had the empathy of “a piece of toast” and photoshopped images of Merkel stroking lapdogs and Alexis Tsipras (“Crisis in Greece solved!”) peppered Facebook posts. A Green Party leader declared that Merkel’s CDU-coalition government couldn’t “stroke away” the errors of its migration policy. Meanwhile, some foreign commentators remarked that their unscripted encounter—captured by Merkel’s spontaneous actions and spatial directions (back to the camera, facing the girl, leaning in)—showed the possibility for a more authentic, meaningful politics.

If Merkel’s performance showed politics as dance, what kind of dance was it? The answer, the dance of liberalism, is especially pressing now that Merkel, despite being embattled in recent months, remains for many the last liberal the world can count on. It is also a dance that many of us participate in, knowingly or not.

Though the meaning of liberalism is contested, it encompasses a set of beliefs oriented around individual liberty, free movement, the rule of law and the protection of rights, including the right to own property. Drawing its strength from a “realistic conception of man,” wrote Arthur Schlesinger in his influential 1949 book, The Vital Center, liberalism’s power lies in its potential to restore the balance between “the individual and the community.” Yet even at the time, Schlesinger’s contemporaries pointed out the difficulties in achieving this balance. In The Liberal Imagination, an essay collection published the following year, Lionel Trilling emphasized the tension within liberalism’s approach to human feeling and freedom, which he believed was most evident in works of art: “The paradox is that liberalism is concerned with the emotions above all else, as proof of which the word happiness stands at the very center of its thought, but in the effort to establish the emotions, or certain among them, in some sort of freedom, liberalism somehow tends to deny them in their full potential.”

In the Rostock Q&A, Merkel’s artful (rather than artistic) action gives free rein to personal feeling, such as disagreement, tears, coming to terms. Yet her physical encounter with Reem, through their close proximity, stroking and nods, affirms their respective roles as head of state and model citizen. Transforming personal sentiment into a lawful, legible basis for politics, Merkel’s liberal movement negotiates a stable status quo by bridging the singular to the collective body.

Today, liberalism finds itself on shaky footing. External threats—the electoral successes of populist parties, rising nationalism and nativism, authoritarian interventions by increasingly right-leaning governments—have liberal politicians caught in a dance to the death, like Giselle twirling desperately at the feet of her tormentors. But liberalism as a political ideology, a worldview and a practice of governance also contains internal contradictions that no amount of harmonious realignment can suspend. Politics-as-dance reminds us of these contradictions, yet it stops short of revealing their inner workings. Perhaps dance-as-politics can show us more.

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Under Stalin, The Sleeping Beauty was performed often. Throughout the Forties and Fifties, prima ballerina Galina Ulanova transformed seventeenth-century princesses into model communists, reconciling the deep chasm of political ideology through the qualities of her motion: the firm attitude of her hands, the strength of her balances, the even repetition of her turns. Ulanova’s actions transformed ideological restriction into human mobility, closing the gap between official structure and personal feeling. “If on the outside Ulanova projected the image of an exemplary Soviet citizen,” ballet historian Jennifer Homans writes, “inside—in her dancing—she expressed a kind of genuine emotion that was honest and self-reflective: a style and aesthetic otherwise barred from public discourse. Consciously or not, she stood both for and against: for the socialist state and its accomplishments but against its empty, canned slogans, its deceptions and lies.”

The Soviet ballet is one example of how dance can reveal the inner life of politics. If there were a liberal equivalent, it would be George Balanchine’s 1957 ballet Agon. Featured during the New York City Ballet’s 1962 tour of the Soviet Union as part of the U.S. State Department’s program for cultural diplomacy during the Cold War, Agon remains a staple of the company’s repertoire today. Balanchine was born in St. Petersburg in 1904 and emigrated from the Soviet Union in the Twenties, before going on to co-found the New York City Ballet in 1948. Following the NYCB’s opening night performance at the Bolshoi on October 9, 1962, Balanchine joined the company onstage for a curtain call. It was his first return to Russia, and for global onlookers, his dance trumpeted the might of liberalism’s vital center. In Moscow, the company performed to sold-out houses, relocating after opening night from the Bolshoi to the Kremlin Palace of Congresses, which could accommodate an additional four thousand audience members per show. Meanwhile, back home, the Cuban missile crisis played out.

Featuring an original score by Igor Stravinsky, Agon is divided into twelve small sections and has no set or decor. It is a plotless, modernist masterpiece. Twelve dancers, stripped to their leotards with no apparent motive, move in unison, counterpoint and canon, generating meaning through their gestures, timing and spatial juxtaposition. Stepping together and apart, the dancers wind their bodies, lock in and free themselves from the thicket of their limbs. They lift each other up, catch each other midair and leap away. In its opening sequence, four men pivot their feet from parallel to first position, flexing, bending and stretching their legs as if practicing the elements of an embodied language they are still learning to speak. They move outward with larger steps, slides and turns. Eight women enter and, lining up into two vertical columns at center stage, showcase in canon grande battements (kicks), turns en relevé (simple turns), pirouettes (complex turns) and pliés (knee bends): the grammar of ballet. Demonstrating these elementary movements onstage in the presence of others, they establish the lexicon of expression that they will use to communicate with one another. Punctuations in the music offer drama without a drama.

The ballet unfolds into trios, solos and duets, in various configurations of the sexes. Interpretive difference, such as the flick of a wrist, the crook of an elbow or the tilt of a head, reveals personal choice within the ensemble. In a short coda at the end of the second section, two women and a man dance to the hook of a violin, piano and flutes. Facing downstage, the trio slips in and out of unison, as if each dancer is trying to tell her or his own version of the same story to the same person at the same time. They sweep their arms, swing their legs and explode into high jumps, wickedly hard to do without a running start. Their agon within Agon ends as they cluster downstage center and slump into a heap as if to say: we give up! They bow together, legs tucked behind their bodies in civility and deference.

In Agon, movement communicates identity without intention. The timing of solos, duets and ensembles evoke inner feeling—seduction, ambivalence, happiness or joy—which the dancers’ leaps and lifts outwardly inspire on cue. Balanchine’s brilliantly inventive variation of classical style (flexed feet, tilted hips, clenched fists) suggests classical virtue (heroism, fortitude, grace) on a journey of personal emotion. The result is a curious reversal. Through visible displays of difference, individual dancing converges in a logic of wholeness and harmony. The more dancers exercise their freedom, the more their free movement affirms them as types. Though their aims are ambiguous, their actions collapse into their motives. There is an immediacy of form and content. They feel, they move, they are fulfilled.

Agon’s title evokes the ancient Athenian arena of athletic competition and political debate and is, according to its stock description, “an ideal contest, in which there are no winners or losers.” Yet the dance displays the tensions beneath this outward show of balance, cohesion and rational order. A group of freely moving individuals celebrate their collective harmony. At the same time, they engage in forms of conflict and negotiation that threaten to undermine it.

Who are these dancers and what do they represent? With Agon, there is no shortage of interpretation. Some, for example, defend the plotless ballet as a celebration of gender equality: midway through the ballet a female soloist plays with hip, wrist and shoulder embellishment to the click of castanets and the clapping of male onlookers, her moderato piqués inverting the gaze of Castiglione’s courtier. In Agon’s original cast, Diana Adams (a white woman) and Arthur Mitchell (a black man) performed its iconic pas de deux: Agon as a defense of civil rights. Others have noted how their duet typifies the unmistakable erotic tension throughout the piece: Agon as defense of sexual liberation.

Another interpretation is an argument often launched against Balanchine, and the politics of ballet in general. Female dancers are not free agents but the fragile playthings of their male partners. Movement is manipulated, bodies reduced to objects. Linking the female body onstage to the commodification of the female dancer in the nineteenth century, dance scholar Susan Leigh Foster declares the “ballerina’s phallic pointe” as the symbol of her subjugation: “Her body flames with the charged wantings of so many eyes, yet like a flame it has no substance.” Lynn Garafola offers another perspective, commenting on Balanchine’s (as well as Merce Cunningham’s) influence on American dance modernism, which, through its “New York” style of movement—marked by “dynamism, energy, speed, and impersonality”—signals not uneven power but a common condition, “a kind of collective therapy, a ‘working through’ of male sexual anxieties of the period.” “Significantly,” she notes, Agon and Balanchine’s other works, such as Episodes and The Four Temperaments, “end on a note of heterosexual affirmation, a celebration of newfound harmony.”

Balanchine denied that his dances were abstract, or that his dancers represented anything other than themselves:

I say that [the ballet] is not abstract. It is concrete. Concrete because you see people, a man and a woman. They are there, they are present. Why must that signify something more? Supposing a man and a woman go to a restaurant. After they have had a nice dinner, they do a foxtrot together. What’s abstract about that?

In other words, we see in the ballet a nicer, more virtuosic version of ourselves. There is no gap between who the dancers are as individual, embodied selves and what they represent—or the way they are represented—onstage. But while Agon abstracts movement, it does not abstract politics. Power appears as physical force, while negotiation is something elemental and unmediated between individuals. Thus, as we watch its sections unfold again and again in suspended time—as we witness individual feeling rallied around the rational structures set out to limit it—the dance makes visible the inner engine of liberalism that typically escapes our view.

In spite of itself, or in spite of what Balanchine might have intended us to see, Agon presents more than just a man and a woman dancing in harmony. Set against the ominous notes of Stravinsky’s twelve-tone row and its shifting instrumental arrangement, the ballet’s moments of symmetry, harmony or pause never inspire a feeling of repose or resolution. There is never a sense of certainty about what, exactly, it all means. Ambient tension seethes from the stage. Agon shows us the intractability of liberalism’s paradox, even as—or especially because—it attempts to obscure it. And yet liberal politics, as it is understood in postwar America and present-day Western Europe, remains committed to this Balanchinian world: a complex yet harmonious pluralism, in which individuals coexist in spite of difference.

On Balanchine’s stage, people can be who they are, and who they want to be. They can do what they want to do, freely. They just do it. Their encounters are our encounters, only—as Balanchine himself put it—they are “a little faster, and a little better,” like reflections in a slimming mirror. They move, we feel, we are fulfilled. This happens because the dancers don’t actually represent anything (neither good Soviets, nor good Americans): they are stripped bare. Instead, they show us what it feels like to feel powerful. This, their movement tells us, is what we have been feeling all along. Balanchine’s liberalism slides from the singular figure to the corporate unity, from the staged abstraction, the dancer, to the person on the street. But these dancing bodies, like Ulanova’s, are never without friction; they are always for and against. In the case of Agon, they express both the harmony of liberalism’s ideal, and the disharmony lurking beneath it.

On the campaign trail in 2016, Hillary Clinton released an ad entitled “Brave,” which some observers noted shared a strong resemblance with Merkel’s Rostock Q&A. In the video—also the title of a 2012 animated Disney feature—Clinton listens as a Latina girl, speaking at a community gathering, expresses fears that her parents will be deported. The girl begins to cry. Sitting across from her, Clinton tells her to “come here, babe.” The girl stands up, crosses the stage and stands beside Clinton. The audience claps. Awkwardly facing the camera, Clinton pulls the girl close with one arm and assures her, “I’m going to do everything I can so you don’t have to be scared. And you don’t have to worry about what happens to your mom, or your dad, or somebody else in your family. I feel really, really strongly, but you’re being very brave … I’ll do all the worrying, is that a deal? I’ll do the worry[ing]. I’ll do everything I can to help, okay?” The girl nods and wipes her tears. They hug. More clapping.

In some ways, the scenarios are different. Merkel walks to Reem, while Clinton summons the crying girl. Merkel and Reem form a pact, while Clinton announces a deal. Yet in both examples, feeling legitimizes leadership and communal structure. Self-consciously angled to the audience to win approval, Clinton transforms unequal power into empathy and care: mother protecting child. Merkel, more skilled in her variation, wields sentiment without sentimentalism, comfort without the promise of a cure. (In 2017, Reem was, in fact, granted German residence.) Attempting to give the impression of harmony, Clinton stumbles as she offers something that she has neither the power nor authority to give. Not worry? Of course the girl should worry. We should all worry.

“A liberalism which purports to shape a real world must first accept the limitations and possibilities of that world,” wrote Schlesinger, the Balanchine of American liberal political thought. “It must recognize that the great decisions of public policy are not actor’s poses, struck with gestures for purposes of dramatic effect; they are decisions made in practical circumstances with real consequences which cannot be separated from the meaning of the decision.” This is a liberalism liberated from paradox. It is politics severed from dance. For vital-center liberals then and now, rational minds lead and correct irrational bodies, whose emotions suggest a territory beyond liberalism’s reach.

Days after Trump’s election, Mark Lilla argued in the New York Times for the end of “identity liberalism,” urging fellow liberals to abandon navel-gazing constructions of selfhood in favor of a broader Blick toward institutional power, coalition-building and a culture of attention to the “main political responsibility in a democracy: to form committed citizens aware of their system of government and the major forces and events in our history.” Clinton, he argued, “was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy”—when, in other words, she made the vital center vital again. When and where, Lilla asks, did liberalism’s dance trip up? Like Schlesinger, Lilla suggests it was never the free movement of bodies to begin with. “And what people in identity movements haven’t faced up to,” he noted in a follow-up interview with the New Yorker, “is that institutional politics will trump movement politics all the time.” Onstage, Reem and her “brave” counterpart in the United States learn to control individual affect, to contain its dramatic and unruly effects. Sublimating their feeling, they are reborn as once and future liberals.

What is political responsibility? Most of the time it is a vision generated by the dance of political leaders, whose actions smooth over tension and irreconcilable difference, and mark out “the place in which particles of reason that are strewn unequally among human beings gather themselves and bring public power under their control.” Post-identity liberalism resolves liberalism’s paradox, but in doing so it obscures the coercive action of liberal imaginations, liberal institutions and liberal movements.

Movement in the “real world” reveals our precarious condition, alone and together. Stability is the precious, fleeting outcome of our agonistic pas de deux. Dance lays bare the logic—and politics—of this motion. Who are we, dancing? Agon ends with a variation on its opening theme: four dancers tracing their steps backwards, upstage, in reverse.

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This essay appears in issue 17.
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