In spite of its persistent hesitation to deliver any serious statement about nudity and modernity, the Berlin nightclub culture of the early 1920s produced, in the work of a bizarre exponent of expressionism, Anita Berber (1899–1928), what was perhaps the most complex, significant, and memorable relation between nudity and dance to emerge between 1910 and 1935. Because of the sordidness of Berber's life, few dance scholars take seriously her contributions to German modern dance. Yet the perversity of her approach to dance is worth extended attention here precisely because she took risks; she staged more overtly than any other Weimar dance figure the dark (erotic) complexity governing perceptions of relations between modernity and nakedness. No one of the era has been more closely associated with nude dancing than Anita Berber. She made numerous nude photos of herself in poses from her dances, although it is not at all clear where or when she actually danced naked in public. In a comment for Das Stachelschwein (2, 2 February 1925, 46), a writer with the initials "K.S." claimed to have worked with Berber for more than a year and asserted that "she has never danced naked." But this pronouncement is probably as exaggerated as many of the scurrilous fantasies about her. Berber deepened the notion of nakedness in dance by making her dances so intensely autobiographical—and the life she made naked in her dances was very messy.
Berber came from a bourgeois family that was a textbook example of dysfunctionality. She studied under Jaques-Dalcroze at Hellerau (1913) and ballet in Berlin under Rita Sacchetto from 1914 to 1916, but she had no affiliation with the Nacktkultur societies. A brief dance scene in a film she made in 1919, Unheimliche Geschichten, shows a body well trained in ballet technique, able to move from decorative, on pointe delicacy to explosive lunges, but Berber's use of ballet technique was always subordinate to an expressionistic aesthetic that relied more on theatrical effects than on a refined sense of movement. Berber pursued an eclectic career as a concert and cabaret dancer, high fashion model, fine artist's model, and film actress, appearing in twenty-five films between 1918 and 1925. By 1917 she
was a star fashion model for the mass circulation women's magazine Die Dame, and in 1919 she posed for a number of pornographic drawings by Charlotte Berend, some of which appear in Fischer (53–59). She made her debut as a solo dancer in Berlin in 1917, introducing her Korean dance wearing an exotic, silken pajama-type costume with a fantastic headdress. According to Elegante Welt (6/3, 31 January 1917, 15), she was already a mature artist, full of "daring" presence, "remote from all sweetness," and "always a little boyish." Berber experienced powerful bisexual passions that urged her into a promiscuous, perverse lifestyle and compelled her to push dance into dark, violent regions of feeling. As her dances became more lurid and apparently enticing, she displayed an increasingly haughty, disdainful attitude toward her audiences, who tended to show little appreciation of her as an artist, regarding her as a totem of the freakish era in which they lived. As the gifted modernist Czech choreographer Joe Jencik (1893–1945) accurately explained, "Both men and women feared her creations, which showed the trash and extinction of bourgeois bedrooms and barbarous marriages. . . . The public never appreciated Anita's artistic expression, only her public transgressions in which she trespassed the untouchable line between the stage and the audience. . . . She sacrificed her person to a self-vivisection of her life" through dance (JJ 8–9).
As a dancer, she achieved notoriety through her use of flamboyant costumes and her skill at representing a variety of attitudes toward romantic music. In 1919 she introduced Berlin to her ambitious Heliogabal, a complicated piece of bisexual eroticism inspired by a passage from a Dutch novel by Louis Couperus, De Berg van Licht (1905). She performed the role of the perverse Roman emperor Heliogabulas, the high priest of a Syrian sun-worshipping religion. "Exquisite, entirely attired in gold, her metallic body lured the sun, while two Moorish boys effectively manipulated the decor.—Another image. A mask interlude during the Saturnalia, with music by Delibes. A silver mask, including a stylish headdress, was pulled back just a little to reveal the mysterious face under it. Roses, red silks and scarves, pants a la Chanteclair. It is plainly a mask ritual. Serious, very worldly, seductive, imperial, full of daring contrasts is this dance" (Elegante Welt, 8/2, 1919, 5).
It is not known when Berber first performed nude dances, but presumably it was around the same time (1919–1920) she became interested in nude photography. Yet most of her dances involved bizarre expressionistic costumes and scenographic devices. In Astarte she was the cold moon goddess who rejects the lascivious advances of the men and women who lust after her. With Salome she explored an unusual perspective: "from below." "From a place where the legs are distorted and look like mammoth columns marbleized with veins, where the thighs look like ecstatic girders carrying the terrible sex on a shameless balcony; over it the canopy of a swelling
stomach—this was Anita's perspective. Everything else is insignificant, the head is small, like an unripe plum. . . . This perspective allowed [Berber] to see somebody in love boundlessly obsessed by sex, without a head and breasts . . . love concentrated only in the lower part" (JJ 25–26). Attired in a purple cloak, she began this dance rising, undulating, out of a huge urn filled with blood. But then she froze and, with closed eyes, inhaled the blood, dipped her hands in it, while her face produced an expression that "could have been lust or torment." When she stood up, her arms crossed, blood dripped from between her legs as if she were menstruating. She discarded the robe and was naked, panting orgasmically; she masturbated with bloody hands, yet she "did not cease to be royal." Then she started to move to the music of Richard Strauss. Berber pivoted elegantly, executed ballones, arched back, then shot up straight with each violent chord. Her blood-stained hands floated in the air as she performed port de bras, "like in a beautiful exercise." She also introduced caprioles, spinning tours en l' air, and graceful tombes (falling to the knees), in what must have been one of the most astonishing travesties of ballet technique ever imagined. Finally she crawled about the urn, making undulating movements with her belly, then spiraled up triumphantly before kissing the blood and sinking back into the urn.
In Debussy's first Arabesque, a more abstract mood prevailed, as Berber adjusted her body to the "maze of rhythms" in the music. Her arms and hands developed a rhythm that contradicted the rhythm of her legs and feet, while her head followed yet another rhythm. She found a way to physicalize every notation in the score, incorporating abrupt jerking movements with gossamer rippling motions to produce, in spite of its technical density, a dance as luminous as the music. In Morphine, however, she was back in a gloomy narrative mode, and her vocabulary of movement was much more economical. Clad in a black dress, she sat in a huge armchair and injected herself with a syringe. She sat deathly still for a moment; then, according to Jencik, "she thrust her body in an incredible arch, like a morbid rainbow." Her movements appeared broken, incomplete, as the drug-induced visions arose before her; finally the drug "stabbed" her, and she contorted into the beautiful arch again and died in the chair.
One of her most unusual pieces was a "love dance" in a sadomasochistic vein, set to a waltz by Brahms. Here she had a male partner. They entered the stage dragging each other, she all in white, he in black. As the gentle waltz flowed on, the pair engaged in a violent struggle in which passionate embraces were asphyxiating and kisses—to the neck, the chest, and the thighs—appeared predatory, cannibalistic. Exhausted, the lovers sank into a stupor, but the pretty music streamed on, oblivious to the violence it motivated. Then the music revived the energies of the dancers, and they renewed the attack with even greater ferocity; their arms, legs, and torsos
became intertwined, and they exerted "the force of a lion and lioness," without rationality or even feeling, "only the senses remain[ing]." The man now dominated the dance, while the woman "groan[ed] with her knees and incredibly bent spine." A sort of rape occurred, but the music just floated on serenely. The dance ended before the music did: on their knees, the dancers let their arms hang limply as they bent their heads backward, as if to ask a question of the sky but unable to formulate it. Then they stood facing each other without even touching. Here, as in Salome, the dance made sophisticated use of ballet technique: the male executed chasses, glissades, low jetés, and degages, while Berber performed chasse glisses, ballones, arabesques, attitudes, fouettés, and port de bras to create a "true poetry of power" that did not rely on mimicry. Jencik noted the significance of the dancers' bodies: "one had female beauty in a male body, the other male grace in a female body." Another strange partner dance was Shipwrecked, in which Berber used a gramophone on stage to play ragtimes, fox trots, and Charlestons. But the marooned and naked husband and wife did not dance with each other; instead they wallowed in narcissistic, masturbatory movements, as if the other was only an untouchable mirror of the self. As the ragtime kept playing, the dancers kept "moving in the belief that the dance would kill them." On the whole, though, Jencik did not think Berber was as strong in partner dances as in solo dance. Works such as Lotusland, devised by Sebastian Droste (Willi Knobloch), struck him as hopeless kitsch glorifying the decorative, passive, masochistically submissive woman of prewar Orientalist fantasy.
In 1918, after touring Germany, Vienna, and Budapest, Berber became involved in a homosexual scandal at the Hotel Bristol in Vienna. She returned to Berlin, married immediately, and began making movies until 1922, when she fell in love with a woman and divorced her husband. But the affair did not work out; the same year, she met and then married Droste, a somewhat unsavory opportunist who became her partner as a dancer and transformed every "real feeling" of Berber's into a "sensation" (Lania 153–154). As Willi Knobloch, he published some interesting experimental poems and a quite bizarre little "visionary" drama of family salvation in the Dresden expressionist journal Menschen (2/7, 1919, 14–24), but otherwise he spent his life in shady enterprises and sleazy homosexual subcultures. He and Berber went to Vienna in 1922, where he soon was accused and then imprisoned for fraud. Berber paid his debts, and he went to Budapest; then Berber was arrested for trying to steal the objects she had put up as collateral to pay the debts. The police told her to stay out of Austria for five years. In 1923 the marriage broke up, and Droste fled (with Berber's jewels) to New York to start a new career as a representative of avant-garde counterculture, appearing, for example, in a startling experimental film by Bruguiere in 1925 (Enyeart 29–48). Droste apparently succeeded in inter-
esting D. W. Griffith in a movie script he had written about his life, but ill health compelled him to return home to Hamburg, where he died in 1926.
Meanwhile, Berber continued with another male partner she met in Munich, the American Henri Chatin-Hoffmann, whom she married within fourteen days of making his acquaintance. The couple traveled throughout Europe, creating scandals almost everywhere because of her perversity on stage and off—sometimes she would go out into the streets wearing only her fur coat; she conducted orgies in her hotel rooms; she danced lasciviously with other women. The couple visited Breslau, Cologne, Leipzig, Hamburg, Dresden, and Prague, but in Zagreb she went too far during a performance by insulting the King. For this she went to jail. Henri finally managed to obtain her release, and in 1927 the couple embarked on a tragic tour of seedy nightclubs in the Middle East: Athens, Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, Alexandria, Beirut. Soaked with drugs, Berber became progressively ill and barely made it to her deathbed in a Berlin hospital, where she died of the same disease, tuberculosis, that had claimed Droste. As Jencik put it, her dances carried with them the "scent of bedrooms, hospitals, asylums, and morgues." The central focus of her artistic existence was "not the studio, but the boudoir," which she treated as a luxurious laboratory-temple for the exploration of sensual pleasures of all sorts. She surrounded herself with a huge collection of idols and religious images, and she collected sexual partners as if they, too, were part of her icon collection.