Semiotics of Solo Dance
The credibility of German dance ideology depended heavily on solo dance performances, whereas the credibility of ballet and revue dancing rested on techniques and production values associated with ensemble performance. Of course, Ausdruckstanz was by no means indifferent to ensemble performance, and most expressionist dance concerts, especially after 1925, integrated solo dances into a program featuring ensemble dances as well. Yet the power of bodily movement to signify a unique, commanding personality seemed most convincingly affirmed when a single dancer demonstrated skills that could sustain the interest of an audience for an entire concert. But Germans were hardly responsible for the authority of the solo concert. Isadora Duncan established an unsurpassed threshold of glory as a solo dancer, inspiring the world of the arts on a scale that still seems amazing and that explains why so many young people wished to emulate her. In 1908 she collaborated with the eighty-member New York Symphony Orchestra in dancing to the whole of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony as well as five pieces by Chopin (the orchestra also played three other pieces). She repeated the feat, to great acclaim, in Paris as late as 1920, although by that time twenty-year-old dancer Elsie Altmann was scarcely impressed, nor was Mary Wigman (Duncan 199–201; Van Vechten 307–309; Altmann-Loos 155–156; Mueller, "Lebenslauf," 23). But other dancers of international stature soon followed in Isadora's wake to reinforce the prestige of the solo concert format.
Probably no dancer was more beloved around the world than Anna Pavlova (1881–1931). An astonishingly photogenic woman, she more than anyone else conveyed the impression of a beautiful creature who literally could not live without dancing. Although not much of an innovator in relation to bodily movement and not even a great virtuoso of ballet technique, Pavlova always seemed to bring great pathos and poignancy to every gesture. It was as if every time she danced she tried to recreate that ever-receding, enchanting moment when, as a child of six, she had first seen the magical splendor of ballet at the Marinsky Theatre with her mother (Pavlova 1–2). Her major achievement was in bringing dance and its image to an immense global audience, in showing that dance could move them with intensities of emotion to which ballet did not even aspire. Pavlova's pathos derived in large part from the haunting aura she projected of fragile beauty moving alone throughout the world.
Exotic dancers fascinated European audiences in a way that, after 1918, made European dancers who attempted to imitate them appear increasingly inauthentic. This trend pressured the Germans to look at bodily movement from genuinely modern perspectives. The Spanish flamenco dancer La Argentina (Antonia Merce [1890–1936]) acquired, from 1908, a huge international audience and, like Pavlova, danced herself to death through excessive touring (Levinson). Other exotic dancers appearing in Germany included the Indian Nyota Inyoka (1896–1971) and the Javanese Rodan Mas Jodjan (1870–1959), who participated in the 1928 Essen Dance Congress. Yet the taste for exotic dance emerged primarily through the prewar work of Westerners such as Mata Hari, Adorée Villany, Cleo de Merode, Maud Allen, Ruth St. Denis, all the Salome dancers, Ida Rubinstein, and, of course, the Ballets Russes. Exotic dance, in its European manifestations, aligned a libidinously uninhibited and somewhat "dangerous" body with decorative affluence, "excessive" materialism. It was hardly a message that died in the war, but its perpetuation required dancers who shaped archetypes around, rather than merely exposed, their personalities. Even American dancers appeared exotic to Germans. Ruth St. Denis (1879–1968), with her repertoire of "Oriental" dances, enjoyed such success in Germany and Austria that her tour of those countries lasted from 1906 to 1908 (Shelton 67–87). In 1925 Paul Swan (1883–1972), "the most beautiful man in the world," appeared in Germany with "Oriental" dances that, if his attempts to "reconstruct" them in Andy Warhol's bizarre 1965 film about him are even vaguely accurate, must have seemed as fantastically campy then as now (Cluzel 1–31). Ted Shawn attracted much attention in 1929 when he presented in Berlin his he-man versions of North and Central American Indian dances; he then worked with Margarethe Wallmann, appearing more like Adonis than Orpheus in her Orfeus Dionysos (1930), although Shawn himself was apparently disdainful of German dance culture (Dreier; Shawn 225).
At any rate, particularly in the years 1919 to 1925, solo dance concerts proliferated abundantly, and a great many of them were performed by people about whom hardly anything is known. The pages of the short-lived (1920–1921) journal Konzert, Tanz und Presse contained reviews of solo
concerts given around Germany by dancers whose names rarely appear elsewhere: Suse Elsler, Lisa Abt, Ruth Schwarzkopf, Annie Lieser, Ilse Freude, Chari Lindis. Paul Nikolaus, in Tänzerinnen (1919), briefly described several dancers whose careers apparently did not progress deeply into the 1920s: Solveig Oderwald, Gusi Viola, Lucie Hertel, Erna Bertini, Macka Nordberg, Hannelore Ziegler. He explained that, although most of these dancers exuded plenty of charm, they lacked sufficiently liberating intensity of feeling because they remained too immersed in ballet technique, too devoted to decorative effects of the variety stage, or too restrained in their exploration of bodily rhythms. Other prominent fashioners of dance culture in the underresearched period of 1917–1923 included Hilde Schewior, Beatrice Mariagraete, Hilde Sinoniew, Hedwig Nottebohm, Vera Waldheim, Edith Bielefeld, Nina Schelemskaja (with Ellen Tels), Olga Samsylova, Hilda Hager, Stella Kramrisch, Maria Ley, and the Bulgarian Radeja Vinarova. The significance of most of these dancers lay in the attractive images of dance they projected in widely published photographs. In Munich and Berlin, beautiful (and apparently blonde) Lisa Kresse darkened her skin to perform whole programs of "Hindu" dances and dances related to "mysteries of the cabala" in the years 1918 to 1921, but information about her work remains difficult to find (Elegante Welt , 8/24, 19 November 1919, 10).
Solo dance concerts were definitely economical opportunities to establish precedents. In 1920 a local newspaper reported on a "stormily applauded" concert in Kiel given by an eight-year-old girl, Maryla Gremo, "which offered all manner of character dances with a gracefulness never before seen," although "such dances as the nigger dance, even when presented in all possible decency, are not suited for any child" (KTP 4, 121). During these years many "modern" dancers seem to have derived their sense of aesthetic movement from folk dances, from harlequinade/fairy-tale pantomime, or from romanticized forms of dance, such as the waltz or habanera. Suse Elsler received both praise and condemnation for performing old peasant dances rather erotically in a skimpy costume, portraying "a psychosis, the girlishly floral fantasies of a confused generation." Ruth Schwarzkopf received both praise and condemnation for getting "too deep" into the peasant dances, revealing in them something no one had seen before. Hedwig Nottebohm apparently inspired doubt and curiosity with her gymnastic, "masculine" mode of movement, as in her dance following the theme of a marathon runner.
In 1907 the Danish dancer Gertrud Barrison, formerly of the five Barrison Sisters of the music hall world, began performing folk dances and waltzes at cabarets and at recitals in Vienna before moving on to somewhat more complex pieces in which she obscured the genre of the piece by introducing more and more decorative and narrative (pantomimic) details. She was perhaps the first European to establish (in 1920) a school that
offered courses in dance for film performance (Weissenböck 74). Another Viennese dancer, Grete Wiesenthal (1885–1972), was, from 1907 to about 1920, the great incarnation of the waltz spirit so closely identified with the city. Wiesenthal's training was in ballet, but she freed the waltz from the remote formality into which ballet had imprisoned it. The waltz provoked in her an unprecedented lyricism in bodily movement; Aurel von Milloss explained that she did not merely excavate or reconstruct some lost, original form of the waltz but "breathed the spirit of the waltz and danced her waltz-like feelings" (Endler 188). Whether in a swirling skirt or a loose tunic, she seemed driven by the 3/4 beat into a state of ecstatic abandonment. And she made very expressive use of her hair, as Rudolf Huber-Wiesenthal remarked: "Grete's delicate body bent over the ground, covered by her flowing mass of gold-brown hair. And then, slowly, timidly at first, she raised her closed hand into a bouquet, opened them, and with this release of the hands, her body rose also, her hair sinking back. Gradually the flow of tones strengthened the slender body until eventually she became entirely overpowered by frenzy, hurling herself, nearly flying, with her arms outspread, the gold rush of hair always a part of the movement, a part of the dance" (189). She also seems to have danced often with her eyes closed and her mouth parted in a smile; the beauty of her face was exquisitely haunting, and she conveyed that elegiac quality that, as Endler observes, is so often missing from choreographed waltzes (200).
Early in her career, Grete danced with her sisters, Else and Bertha. According to Brandenburg, Else's talent was too pantomimic and Bertha's too undeveloped to compete with Grete's, so Grete moved away on her own. Else and Bertha formed a duo (then a trio with Marta, another sister), but it did not last long, as Else moved in a manner that appeared "half puppet, half schoolgirl" (HB 44–47). In 1908, in Vienna, Rudolf Jobst (1872–1952) took a famous series of photographs of Grete, all outdoors and all showing her in motion. These showed dramatically how she had linked the waltz to an expansive, unbridled experience of space. Wiesenthal commanded deep respect from the Viennese cultural-literary elite, especially the circle around Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who collaborated with her on pantomine dramas, as did Max Reinhardt. Her extremely photogenic beauty brought her into motion pictures, with Die Stumme von Portici (1913) becoming an enormous success (Fiedler). By 1919, however, Nikolaus complained (with echoes from Suhr and Fischer) that her dancing lacked expressive power and "in no way triumphed over any limits" imposed by the genre (20).
Around 1915 another Viennese, Lucy Kieselhausen (1897–1927), began specializing in performing waltzes. She, too, had evolved out of ballet culture, but her embodiment of the waltz was virtually opposite that of Wiesenthal. She favored luxuriously decorative hothouse costumes and the utmost refinement of movement. For her the waltz was not a lyrical expansion of
space into the freedom of nature but an almost perfumed distillation of the stirrings within an opulent boudoir, with its scenography of exquisite privileges and voluptuous secrets. An adroit sense of irony shaded her movements with abruptly "bizarre and jerky" rhythms; "her joyfully flashing temperament did not hover on a smooth surface but over a shadowy abyss from which issued her fool's dance with its slumbering, half-animal rapture" (HFT 47–48). Her curious appropriation of the waltz ended suddenly when she died in a benzine explosion.
Laura Oesterreich, a Hamburg native. began her career specializing in the performance of the polka, a genre of quite limited movement potential to which she brought a strange ambiguity. Brandenburg felt her polkas incarnated a slithery, darting spirit, "motherly," from the depths of the North Sea, "full of the little fear that one's foot, so capable of hovering, will stumble on a stone and glide away at each step, a small, lowering fear, which merely conceals the greater fear, not to have grown beyond a humble objective" (210). She was at her best, as in Mazurka melancolique (1917), combining this "little fear" in her steps with a face of ecstatic intoxication, eyes closed and lips parted, so that the dance seemed to reveal a puzzling internal tension. The tension intensified when she tried to appropriate the waltz, but in this endeavor she apparently failed because her body was "painfully" incapable of breathing the rhythms and tonality of this "southern" genre of music (209). Oesterreich had studied with Laban at Ascona in 1914, and in 1920 she worked, always as a soloist, with the Falke sisters on projects for the Münchener Tanzgruppe. In 1925 she gave a concert in Hamburg featuring six dances with nonmusical accompaniments—gongs, bells, horse clopping, hammer blows, buzzers, rattles—but it was not a success. It is not known what happened to her after this time (Stöckemann, "Pionierie," 40–41).
Oesterreich obviously sensed the severe limitations on the capacity of a dance genre to deepen the identity of either the dance or the dancer. Although dancers continued to explore the expressive potential of inherited genres—waltz, polka, sarabande, gavotte, minuet, czardas, tango, pavanne, fox trot, and so forth—after 1920 it was clear that the evolution of modernity in dance depended on freeing the dancer from too close an identification with generically structured responses; these subordinated dance to music, in the now passé manner of Duncan, and prevented dance from constructing personalities stronger than the genres and, indeed, stronger than music itself. Thus, in Hamburg, Gertrud Zimmermann received praise for her "nearly tragic" dance to a prelude by Rachmaninov because in this piece she seemed to get beyond the conventional, affable "sweet femininity" imposed upon her by the genre dances that made up the rest of her program (KTP 13, 1921, 214).
Even within the realm of genre dancing, dancers strove to differentiate themselves, to compete with other dancers for the attention of audiences,
by imposing a personal attitude onto the genre. As a result, the aesthetics of the solo concert grew more complex. Programs began to include dances with unusual musical sounds for accompaniment—zithers and harmoniums, bass drum and woodblocks, harps and gongs. They contained mixtures of genre dances—a mazurka followed by a tango, a waltz before a polonnaise. But musical genres did not determine the identity of all the dances. Some dances carried programmatic titles that subordinated the composer's intention to that of the dancer: Sea Clouds, The Pied Piper, The Amazon, Heart Flame, The Captured Bird, Astarte . Others signified "genres" established entirely by dancers: sword dance, barbaric dance, marionette dance, demon dance, machine dance, wolf dance, temple dance, celestial dance, death dance. Variety of costume further displayed the complexity of the dancer's personality. A simple, elegant tunic exposed the beauty of the dancer's legs and arms, but romantic moods went best with long skirts, capes, mantels, hoods, or period garments (quite often from 1830–1845); a dance or two might feature an exotic look, appropriated perhaps from the Orient, ancient Egypt, or imperial Rome. And it could not hurt to perform a dance in sleek, decorative pants, although few dancers performed in leotards unless they sought to convey a harlequinesque effect. Performers perfected the expressive authority of their dances with accessories: strange hats, gloves, scarves, sashes, gilded belts, bizarre necklaces and bracelets, ribbons, garlands, veils, masks, fans, stockings, helmets, and feathers. Ausdruckstanz was not synonymous with barefoot dancing, and the use of sandals or high-heeled shoes was not at all rare, with Kreutzberg going so far as to employ knee-length boots in a couple of dances. But a dance concert should never turn into a fashion show; Nikolaus, Thiess, and Suhr warned that costumes could distract from perception of movement, although only Nikolaus supposed that nudity did not help to create an expressionist dance (70). Finally, dance concerts offered a range of moods: a solemn, heroic dance, then a melancholy dance, then a grotesque dance, then an exuberant dance, then a "Korean" or "Javanese" dance, then a romantic dance in bluish tones.
Nearly every dance was only as long as the corresponding musical composition; very rarely did a single dance involve the stitching together of several pieces of music. The vast majority of music came from composers who were already long dead or who had written their music without the dancer in mind. Only when the accompaniment included drums and gongs did the dance determine the length of the music. Most dances lasted about four minutes, but one or two in a given concert usually exceeded ten minutes in length; the entire program typically contained about twelve pieces, with various musical interludes to allow for costume changes. Solo dance concerts were never devoted to the performance of a single, ambitious work, such as a sonata, that explored a theme in depth, although Wigman seemed to move
toward this goal with her concept of dance cycles. The dance concert followed the model of the musical recital rather than the epic poetry recital, the dramatic lecture, or the Ciceronian political oration. A successful concert should include at least one experimental dance that violated performance conventions: a "silent" dance, a dance with mirror floors and walls, a dance performed entirely while sitting in an armchair, a dance created by shadow projections, a dance with two masks, a dance involving march movement against waltz music, a dance with sword and shield, a dance performed behind a curtain, a dance depicting murder or sexual rapture (bacchanale ), a dance in which the body moved faster and faster or slower and slower, a dance allegorizing revolution or the body of the marionette/machine or the Idol of Death. The Danish film melodrama Afgrunden (1910), probably the most profitable motion picture released in Europe that year, contained a fascinating scene in a music hall in which the great actress Asta Nielsen (1881–1971) performed a kind of polka-mazurka while smoking a cigarette and wearing a Wild West costume (Seydel 41). By using different combinations of all these aesthetic variables, dancers could pursue a montage mode of performance that allowed for considerable flexibility as long as the dancer maintained an expanding repertoire of pieces. Yet by 1920 Mary Wigman had presented concerts that challenged the semiotic conventions described here. She dared to present concerts almost entirely governed by a somber mood and indifferent to variety of decorative effect or charm. As always, she displayed a deep awareness of the dramatic potential of bodily movement—every step, every gesture, every glance laden with tension, conflict between the body and space, the body and time, the body and death, the body and itself.
The solo dance concert revealed above all a unique, compelling personality, not the values associated with a complex of conventions. One did not attend a solo dance concert to see this or that dance but to observe, across a repertoire, the terms under which the movement of a body expressed an utterly unique personality. This ambition was reserved for all but a few dancers and in any case became less imperative after 1925, when dance had become sufficiently institutionalized to allow dancers to shape their identities through teaching or even through a dance company rather than through solo performance.