Edith Von Schrenck
Edith von Schrenck (ca. 1894–?) projected a cool, aristocratic persona. She consistently garnered much praise for the seriousness of her dances, and critics often compared her with Mary Wigman. Of all dancers in the early 1920s, Edith von Schrenck probably came the closest to rivaling Wigman in cultivating seriousness of expression as manifested in complexity of
response. She was never as wild or as innovative as Wigman, but she conveyed a disturbing sense of passion, a dark power to stir deep feelings in audiences. This power depended on an intensity of boldness and vulnerability achieved by hardly anyone else (other than Wigman).
Schrenck was unusual in that she started as a teacher, then became a performer. Once she took to the stage, she showed great reluctance to perpetuate her identity through disciples. She was born in Riga of a Russian mother and a German-Latvian father who was a distinguished gynecologist in St. Petersburg, where she took lessons in piano and singing. But after attending a lecture by Dalcroze she decided to study rhythmic gymnastics at Hellerau. She spent two years there (1912–1914), received a diploma, then returned to St. Petersburg to teach at the Dalcroze institute run by Count Volkonsky. Through teaching she met an actress who had left Konstantin Stanisklavsky's company to develop a purely physical approach to dramatic performance. From Claudia Issachenko, Schrenck learned Delsartian semiotics and the Stebbins-Kallmeyer theory of "artistic gymnastics," but it is not clear if she danced with Issachenko's ballet company. She did, however, study ballet during the war years, without any intention of pursuing a career in dance (Buning, "Gesprek," 49). She also became friends with Estonian dancer Ella Ilbak, who described Schrenck's studiousness in her memoirs (Ilbak 71–72, 79–80). Then the revolution struck, pushing her out of Russia and, in 1918, out of Latvia.
Landing in Munich in difficult financial circumstances, Schrenck decided to establish herself professionally as a dancer. She was slow to do so, perhaps because the Dalcroze method as taught to her did not orient students toward professional performance. At any rate, she was always cautious about deciding anything, and her dances made extensive use of slow, "weighted" rhythms. The success of her solo debut concert in Munich led to a tour of German cities (Berlin, Hamburg, Düsseldorf), then to performances in Holland, Riga, Vienna. She worked briefly (1921) with the Hamburg-based Münchener Tanzgruppe and with Valeria Kratina, but group dances did not allow her talent to blossom, and from then on she performed only in the solo concert format (HB 229). Around 1925 Schrenck married Waldemar Bonsels (1881–1952), an enormously successful writer of children's stories and folk tales who had published praise of her since 1921. According to Ilbak, he opposed her collaboration with "strangers," even though he traveled widely and achieved distinction for his vagabond literary identity (Ilbak 172–174). She opened a school in Berlin (1929) and continued dancing until about 1930, but by this time she had completely detached herself from the mainstream of modern dance in Germany (as well as from Bonsels); she did not attend the dance congresses of 1927, 1928, or 1930, nor did she maintain contact with significant dance person-
alities of the time, and her school does not seem to have flourished beyond 1932 (Freund 49–52). Perhaps by then she had nothing more to say through dance.
Edith von Schrenck was extremely beautiful, but it is very difficult to find an image in which one sees her full face. She consistently and self-consciously withheld a part of herself from the spectator, always projecting a dark aura of aloofness and loneliness—which, indeed, became the subject of her dances. Brandenburg (203) observed that she tended to avoid the corners and sides of the performance space, conveying a sense of "dense closure" to the totality of her presence. This characteristic was represented perhaps most dramatically in Gefesselt (1919). In this piece, with music by Chopin, she danced the condition of being fettered, not moving from an initial position within the performance space. In only a tunic, she lunged and lurched with a violent swinging of her arms and turning away of her head; then, in profile, she curved her body into a bowing stance and crossed her arms over head as if her own body were the source of her bondage; she twisted with her back to the audience, pivoted and leaped high with outstretched arm, as if suddenly suspended by a chain, then immediately sank into the scrunched profile position before lunging out again toward the spectator with clasped, swinging hands, as if preparing to hurl a heavy, destructive weight (Schrenck 16–20). She gave an impression of great strength trapped in a body, not knowing where to go.
Delsartian semiotics allowed her to build a "dance architecture" out of dramatic tensions and ironic details. In Kriegertanz , later called Amazone (1919–1921), using music by Rachmaninov, she appeared in a pleated miniskirt with helmet, shield, and dagger. She constantly moved on tiptoes, first in a high march step with head tilted straight up, shield held level before her, and dagger clenched with straight arm down her side; then, in profile, she thrust shield and dagger behind her and pushed her belly forward, her head level; suddenly she swung around, shield at her belly, dagger raised high, her whole body a sinewy, muscled curve; she stabbed the space not before her but directly at her feet, then arched back ecstatically, dagger and shield raised over her uplifted head. Wounded, she sank to the ground, danced, pulsated on her knees, on her elbows; finally, some strength returned, and she began moving stealthily on her knees, face behind the shield, then surged up on tiptoes again and made a final, fatal plunge with the dagger before sinking to death (Schrenck 1–8). Brandenburg marveled at her skill in combining movements of "attack and flight, triumph and defeat, pounce and rest, kneeling, sinking, reclining, stretching" to produce a dance that was "no imitation of a sculpture" but the "primeval image" (Urbild ) of the warrior. Buning saw in her a pagan, heroic spirit, and her Schmerz (1922) reminded him of a verse by Hölderlin: "[B]ut where
danger is the salvational wakes, too." In this piece, Schrenck employed slow, hunched, rocking movements that became increasingly more delicate, slower, and smaller, continuing after the music had stopped (WBT 153).
To Buning it always seemed as if she danced with an invisible partner, and this curious sense of presence and absence of body made all her movements dramatic (WBD 36). Commentators consistently spoke of the "strictness" of her movements, as if she constantly sought to keep in check a great power or pressure within her, even in pieces such as Wellen (1922), in which she blended the motion of combing with the movement of sea waves. In Polichinelle (1919), with music by Rachmaninov, she began to dance joyfully, with extravagant lunges, leg stretches, leaps, and sways on one leg until, suddenly conscious of a dark, invisible energy surrounding her, she turned her dance into a melancholy image of pathetic loneliness. her early dances sometimes displayed a serious sense of humor or irony, as when she did a temple dance dressed as a "piquant Jacobin" or presented her goblin dance with Grieg's music (KTP 13, 212–214). But in the ensuing years she completely favored dances of a tragic, melancholy, or elegiac character: Polonaise, Page, Gothisches Lied, Last, Besiegt, Einsamkeit, Abseits, Marsch, Chaconne, Ziguenerin, Kampf. Even in Kindheit (1923), she made the joy of being a child seem tinged with consciousness of a diminishing innocence. Her summer dance, from a 1924 cycle of the four seasons, began radiantly and luxuriously but suddenly turned somber; she performed again all the movements that had begun the dance but now slowly, heavily, as if under a withering heat.
Schrenck liked music in a minor mode (Bach, Rachmaninov, Scriabin). In 1929 she presented a concert in which all the music was serious: five pieces by Scriabin, two by Mussorgsky, one each by Brahms, Bach, and Handel. She was fond of dancing before and on tapestries, and she chose decorative costumes that displayed the great beauty of her arms and legs. Suhr thought she was perhaps too decorative in her approach: she held back some violence, something deep and great in her that she intimated but never really released (WS 46). Very few dancers could make such expressive use of the arms, yet she never seems to have danced fully erect—she loved displaying her capacity to bend, to twist, to hunch, to fold herself up, and remain beautiful all the same. This ability is quite evident in the twenty stark, expressionistic lithographs Ottheinrich Strohmeyer made in 1919 of three of Schrenck's dances: Kriegertanz, Polichinelle, Gefesselt (Schrenck) (Figures 39–41). Hans Fischer saw in her art a "visionary enclosure" of power (KTP 13, 1921, 213); Schikowski had "the feeling that through unprecedented exertions of strength [Schrenck] subjugates the depths of a boiling volcano. And one expects at any moment a sundering of the cool surface . . . "(Geschichte , 152). But one may also see in this aesthetic a woman's tragic awareness of music as a great force pressing in upon the body—a
sense conflicting sternly with the doctrine of her decisive teacher, Dalcroze, who insisted that, for anyone as sensitive to music as she obviously was, music could only bring the body to a state of supreme liberation.