Schertel's involvement with dance was an element of an astonishingly diverse career, but he had already identified his ambitions before the war. In his 1911 doctoral dissertation on Schellings Metaphysik der Persönlichkeit , paraphrasing Schelling, he articulated a theoretical perspective that detached the concept of personality from rational empiricism:
[T]he causation of the infinite (absolute) self cannot be constructed as morality, wisdom (in the sense of rules to live by), and so forth, but only as absolute power —moral law has meaning and significance only in relation to a higher law of being . . . and the highest law of infinite being is accordingly: be (or rather, become) absolute—identical with your self (no longer separated into ideal and real). . . . Strive to be absolutely free . . . strive through freedom to expand your freedom to its absolute, uncircumscribed power (54–56). . . . The single, punctuated self, which as such indicates no personality in a higher sense, is merely an empirical median point of a finite, empirical world-sphere (77).
For Schertel, however, it was clear that, in relation to a modern personality, concepts such as the absolute and the infinite are above all obsessions, exhaustive accounts of labyrinthine "erotic complexes." After receiving his doctorate from the University of Jena, he apparently traveled on archaeological or ethnographic expeditions in Africa and the Near East. His first book, Tanz und Jugendkultur (1913), is now incredibly difficult to locate. In 1917 he published a "novel of contemporary Egypt," Die Katakomben von Ombas; at that time, he ran a publishing house in Munich, Wende, which also produced his Weltwerdung (1919), a sort of cosmic-expressionist poem; Die Sünde des Ewigen (1918), a horror thriller; and Magie der Leiber (1921), a study of occult properties ascribed by different cultures to the body. In 1922 Wende got into the movie business by producing Schertel's script for Das Blut der Schwester , an "occult sensations film" with a macabre story combining horror, incest, science fiction, and crime-thriller imagery. Meanwhile, he pursued his interest in erotic photography and dance and published his hauntingly erudite book, Magie: Geschichte, Theorie, Praxis (1923). Soon disenchanted with the fortunes of Wende, he moved to Stuttgart, where in 1925 he formed an expressionistic dance company, Traumbühne Schertel, which gave performances, as far as I can determine, in Stuttgart, Munich, Nuremburg, Zurich, Vienna, and Hamburg until 1927, when his work for Parthenon perhaps absorbed all his energies. In Stuttgart, he was apparently a friend of the Ida Herion dance school.
Schertel cultivated a monumentally ecstatic vision of modernity: "The tendency of all living power is expansion, absorption, appropriation across all possible limits . . . borderlessness" (Bedürfnis, 84). But he linked ecstatic experience to an encounter with an occult aura of the body pervaded with erotic sensations. "Ecstasy, the transcendence of profane representations of the world," he claimed, "is the foundation of all magic, for only in ecstasy does one gain contact with one's demons, which signify the source of all magic capabilities" (Magie: Geschichte, 107). By magic, however, Schertel meant that "we must perceive our bodies as seismographs of a cosmic dynamic" and realize that "there is no consciousness without a body" (60–61). But sport and gymnastics were "not equivalent" to occult dancing, for these failed to develop the "deeper regions of the inner body structure" or the "demonic" dimension (93). His 1911 dissertation on Schelling's metaphysics had persuaded Schertel that the development of a powerful, unique personality depended on a presence that dissolved conventional differences between ideal and real forms as incarnated by a blurring of distinction between the physical and metaphysical in human actions. "At the moment of ecstasy, the self and its environment are transformed—the self becomes a cosmic player on a cosmic stage" ("Traumland," 2). Such a presence obviously implied a distinctive perception of the body.
Contemporary religious ideologies were no longer capable of disclosing the metaphysical significance of identity because of their devaluation of the body. "All religions are a tyranny of spiritual complexes. Complex-free people have no religion. Religion is a form of great hysteria. . . . Woman and religion flow together in unity" (Das Weib ). From the occult perspective, "the goal is not release from the body, but transfiguration of the body and bodies—it is then that the blue flower of romanticism—the symbol of world mystery—blooms out of the wild garden of bodies" (Irrgarten ), for only "when the realm of the body achieves a new spirituality [Beseelung] and the realm of the soul a new carnality [Körperhaftigkeit] is the ground prepared for a new religion on its old basis" (Nacktkultur ). For Schertel, dance was the optimum medium for the occult expression of bodily presence, but by dance he meant an "Ur-Kunst," or primordial, art that induced and was the result of a deep erotic trance. "All ur-dances are trance dances" ("Tanz Erotik Okkultismus," 7), and such dances occurred to the extent that the body moved according to completely unconscious energies: "What we call the self or personality or the soul is nothing but the conscious disclosure of transactions and displacements of tensions enacted inside our bodies. It is only a limited set—a so-called complex—of these transactions which reach our consciousness in conditions of waking life or achieve perceptible materialization in movement. But the great majority of these transactions abide in the so-called unconscious or subconscious and become manifest only
through conditions of somnambulism or ecstasy" (4). The most powerful forms of ecstatic trance, he proposed, result from the expression of repressed erotic love. Sexual attraction arose from illusions, fantasies, and "what we call love is only a special form of trance or rapture" (8); moreover, "every love is a sucking out of blood, a nurturing from the flesh of the beloved: every love is the devouring of a person" (Sünde, 87).
Art was the supreme manifestation of fantasy or unconscious energy and therefore the most complex form of trance, with dance being the primordial art. A superior unity of dance, eroticism, and occultism produced a grander, unified projection of "art, love, and religion, the highest values humanity can represent" ("Tanz Erotik Okkultismus," 8). "We live in an era which has rediscovered the body," Schertel asserted; in his case, rediscovery was practically synonymous with the initiation of a new religion of the body nakedly and unashamedly suffused with eroticism. That his Dionysian aesthetic creed might become confused with pornographic hedonism did not trouble him much, "for art is from the beginning amoral and even anti-moral, since it represents the breakthrough of the cultured self ["Kultur-Ich"] over the civilized self. At its root, all art is pornography and serves the glorification of 'indecency' and the stimulation of 'desire'. . . . The pornographic moment signifies the origin and axis of all cultural values" ("Pornographie," 69, 71). More specifically:
[O]ur culture is a labor-culture, not a luxury-culture, in spite of all the not insignificant luxuries acquired through labor and produced by it. Our excitation-center has been displaced and we no longer experience a cultic-fantasy but a technical-constructive imagination. . . . Our culture is technical-innovative; old cultures were cultic-imaginative. Even the rococo belongs to the cultic, to the aesthetic-theatrical in the form of an open lasciviousness. It is a luxuriously narcotized culture. . . . The rococo is, like all orgiastic cultures, aristocratically oriented. This results from the nature of orgasm, for the orgiastic person always needs a given material basis to make orgasm live and to create an object out of his rapture (340 mal, 34, 39).
But the objectification of these ideas into a specific dance practice remained shadowy, to put it mildly. In 1904 a woman named Madaleine enchanted audiences in Munich by performing dances under hypnosis while Hans Pfitzner accompanied her on the piano. Although she had no dance training at all, she moved as if "a magical command had released her body from earthly laws and gravitational powers" and created an apparition "without will" yet strangely compelling (WS, 104–109; Schrenck-Nötzing; Brandstetter). At that time, Schertel resided in Munich, so it is possible that he saw Madaleine perform and derived some inspiration from her. But his idea of trance dancing was hardly so genteel. He apparently had no systematic dance training, yet by 1919 he had begun to initiate an eleven-year-old
Finnish girl, Inge Frank, into his method of dance instruction (Soma 5, 1926, 132). It is not clear at all, however, what this method was. In 1926 he remarked vaguely that "in the modern dance, the body speaks its most puzzling and darkest language" and "is an offering of the body under the radiance of a magic sun which orbits beyond daily consciousness and arises out of the dark sea of bodily depths" ("Der neue Tanz," 22). Later the same year, he observed that the dance technique that releases the "irrational depths of the unconscious" is "not identical with traditional gymnastics, which in spite of its commendable value still over- stresses the development of particular muscle groups" ("Tanz und neue Bildung," 106). A few months later, he repeated his claim that dance, "the most primordial and mysterious of all arts," brings dark vibrations of the unconscious into an "ecstatic light" ("Tanz und Ueberschwang," 272). Then, in 1927, he explained that trance dancing involved a total aesthetic environment, mysterious deployments of light and color, a "twilight or darkness through music and exciting noise, through fantastic costume, through the introduction of narcotics" ("Tanz Erotik Okkultismus," 8).
Schertel's failure to articulate with any precision the actual movements, structure, or pedagogy for his dance aesthetic was hardly unusual for the dance discourse of his era. He nevertheless was unique in supposing that the otherwise ineffable mysteries of ecstatic dancing revealed themselves through photography. Between 1919 and 1925, he made many photographs of Inge Frank and other dancers, only a few of which he dared to publish in the quasipornographic journals he edited for Parthenon. Schertel did not believe one could induce the trance state through a revival of archaic, incantory, sarcedotal rituals; rather, he supposed that the elaborate process of photographing dances produced the conditions of trance, which were more difficult to obtain on a stage. Away from the conventions of live-audience approbation but before the critical scrutiny of the camera, dancers were free of the inhibitions operating in the theatre or even in nature. All of his dance photography took place in a studio, where he presided as a kind of Svengali, inspiring his performers to explore the orgiastic dimensions to bodily movement. For Schertel, who otherwise did not employ any techniques of hypnosis, bringing dance into an ecstatic light entailed photographing the bodily expression of desires that become visible only through the peculiar circumstances of having one's picture taken. The image of the dance itself was less significant than the intricate and somewhat clandestine process of making the image. Male and female dancers often displayed much nudity, but Schertel also delighted in the use of bizarre, ornamental costumes, veils, expressionistic decors, and chiaroscura lighting effects. Moreover, he worked with several photographers in constructing his dances and experimented with purely photographic techniques, such as superimpositions, to represent the trance.
Another technique for dissolving inhibitions was to have nude dancers move in relation to each other with their eyes closed.
The Traumbühne Schertel (1925–1927) contained eight dancers: Hermann Gross, Wanda Roder, Billy de Lares, Inge Frank, Helga Baur, Toni Erick, and two unidentified female dancers. So far, the most detailed description of a performance by this group comes from Hanns Heinz Rosmer, who reviewed a Munich performance for Der Blitz (7 September 1925, 4). Rosmer indicated that what he saw was neither a ballet nor a program of discrete little dances but a "ballo furioso" composed of "curious feelings, manic impulses, and excitations," which released "pulsations of the darkest and most incendiary manner." In other words, quite unusual for the time, the company performed a single, large work unified not by a story or characterizations but by an abstract emotional structure. At first, the dancers moved "as if asleep, quite naked," in glaring green spotlights. A strange, unknown music vibrated: "a music like sounds of nature, like wind rustling through the forest, like distant moaning, like sweet curls of color. And suddenly a climax, a thunder, a shaking, a voluptuously tortuous shrieking and clanking. Gongs roar and drums rattle. The bodies hurl themselves into a fantastic intoxication, crawl over each other, actually suck each other, their eyes wide open like dark holes . . . primeval wildness, stormy upheaval, and a violent red glaring on the bodies." A "powerful drumroll" abruptly produced "the deepest silence"; then a "gentle white light" began to "flow over the bodies. The music sounded like an organ and sobbed like a nightingale's song." The female dancers rose and appeared to hover over the stage, their bodies glittering with diamond droplets and silver tassels.
Although Rosmer was enthusiastic about the piece, Schertel seems not to have cared much about gaining the interest of conventional dance audiences or critics, for most performances of the Traumbühne Schertel occurred in rented theatres before invited audiences. Schertel regarded the company as a completely experimental unit, more useful in developing an audience for Parthenon publications than in building one for modern dance itself. But even if he was simply an aristocratic dilettante cultivating an expensive and perhaps prurient hobby, Schertel's dance cult was significant as an expression of a virulent, redemptive irrationality associated with both dance and modernity. It is difficult to imagine dance in any other era inspiring the magnitude of pure experimentation achieved by Schertel, who attempted large-scale abstract projects with an ensemble of eight dancers (including at least two males) and integrated dance performance into an ambitious cultural enterprise involving photographic "trance," nudism, startling musico-scenographic effects, the dissemination of pornography, and the construction of an ecstatic, paganistic religion of the body. And he pursued all this without a school, a clearly identifiable style of movement, or a conventionally understood audience for dance.