Bara obviously constructed a unique significance for Egyptian dances within her sacral dance aesthetic as a whole, even though audiences persisted in associating her with Gothic dances. Such confusion of identity did not apply in the case of Sent M'ahesa (Elsa von Carlberg [1893–1970]), whom audiences persisted in identifying with Egyptian dances (though her dance aesthetic included images from other ancient or exotic cultures). She performed all her dances solo. Born in Latvia, she went to Berlin in 1907 with her sister to study Egyptology but became so enchanted with ancient Egyptian art and artifacts that she decided to pursue her interest through dance rather than scholarship. It is not clear whether she saw Ruth St. Denis perform her Egyptian dances in Berlin in 1908. At any rate, under the name of Sent M'ahesa she presented a program of Egyptian dances in Munich in December 1909 (Ettlinger). From then until the mid-1920s, she achieved fame for her exceptionally dramatic dances dominated by motifs
from ancient Egyptian iconography. She was apparently an aristocrat who felt no need to establish a school in which to perpetuate her aesthetic. In the mid-1930s she moved to Sweden, settling in Stockholm in 1938 and becoming a Swedish citizen in 1946. There she did some journalism and worked at the Stockholm dance museum. It is not clear that Sent M'ahesa ever visited the cultures she appropriated; many of her ideas likely came from images she encountered in Germany.
Sent M'ahesa took ballet lessons in Berlin, but she was a barefoot dancer whose debt to ballet rested primarily on her cultivation of an elegant bodily aura. She applied a very scholarly sensibility to her dances, yet she was no pedant and did not subordinate aesthetic power to academic authenticity. Moreover, in constructing her Egyptian dances, she extended her sense of detail almost exclusively to ancient Egyptian images. She did not reconstruct ancient Egyptian dances, unlike Irene Lexova in Prague, whose father was a famous Egyptologist and whose versions of Egyptian dances, in the late 1920s, deliberately contrasted with the common perception of formal stiffness associated with the Egyptian image of the body (EST 100–103; Lexova). But, as Brandenburg observed, Sent M'ahesa did "not want to show Egyptian art, but rather the relation of a modern, European person to this art." In this respect she was significant, not because of her scholarly objectivity but because of her complex subjectivity, her "entirely personal interpretations of [archaic] creations" (56). This point seemed reinforced by her determination not to create an elaborate "illusion" of Egyptian culture, for she performed most of her dances, not all of which were Egyptian, before a tapestry (HB 57). In other words, she consciously strove to present an image of the body that was out of context.
Her dances always functioned in relation to intricate, highly decorative costumes of her own design, so that it appeared as if she chose movements for their effect upon her costume. In her moon goddess (or Isis) dance, she attached large, diaphanous cloth wings to her black-sleeved arms. Around 1915 she wore a large, Pharaonic helmet when she danced this piece, but around 1920, with the choreography unchanged, she wore a short white skirt and a small, tight, cloth tiara, large earrings, and heavily bejeweled top. The 1915 costume produced greater ambiguity of sexual identity, but the 1920 image produced a greater impression of purely feminine power (HB plate 26; Ettlinger 33). Sent M'ahesa often exposed her flesh below the navel, but I have yet to find a picture of her in which she exposed her hair, so keen was she on the use of wigs, helmets, caps, scarves, kerchiefs, tiaras, masks, and crowns. In her peacock dance, she attached a large fan of white feather plumes to her spine. In other dances, she draped herself with tassels, decorative aprons, double sashes, layers of jeweled necklaces, and arm, wrist, and ankle bracelets. Only in her Indian dances did she wear anything resembling pants. In one, her legs simply appeared to move within two
large, voluptuous veils; in another, she wore what look like highly ornamental pantyhose complemented by shoulder-length gloves (Nikolaus 37; HB plate 21). Her costume for Salambo (1919) was especially complicated: she covered her left arm and left leg in matching decorative sleeves, leaving the right arm and leg exposed. An ornamental chain was attached to each ankle—she danced in shackles. She further emphasized the sense of her body's being reined in by applying a jeweled neckband, a tightly bound kerchief, and layers of swirling sashes around her waist. Yet she did not convey an impression of being oppressed; on the contrary, she appeared to surge with ecstatic energy, as if her body gave her great pleasure in spite of her own desire to restrain it. Photographs indicate she may have "bronzed" her skin to exoticize her body even further.
In 1924 Fritz Giese, though quite enthusiastic about her dances, said that Sent M'ahesa was "neither beautiful nor young" and that her dance aesthetic was "antierotic" (FGK 174). Such a statement might explain her focus on decorative costume effects. But I find Giese's comment obscure: her body was wonderfully svelte, and her face displayed a cool, chiseled beauty. I think, rather, that she sought to decontextualize female beauty and erotic feeling from archetypal images of them originating in cultures other than her own or her audience's; she sought to dramatize a tension between a modern female body and old images of female desire and desireability. Ettlinger, in 1910, was perhaps more accurate when he remarked that
Sent M'ahesa's dance has nothing to do with what one commonly understands as dance. She does not produce "beautiful," "sensually titillating" effects. She does not represent feelings, "fear," "horror," "lust," "despair," as "lovely." Her art requires its own style. Her movements are angular, geometrically uncircular, just as we find them in old Egyptian paintings and reliefs. Neither softness of line nor playful grace are the weapons with which she puts us under her spell. On the contrary: her body constructs hard, quite unnaturally broken lines. Arms and legs take on nearly doll-like attitudes. But precisely this deliberate limiting of gestures gives her the possibility of until now unknown, utterly minute intensities, the most exquisite refinements of bodily expression. With a sinking of the arm of only a few millimeters, she calls forth effects which all the tricks of the ballet school cannot teach (33–34).
What is especially peculiar about Ettlinger's description is the perception that Sent M'ahesa put the representation of feelings in quotation marks, so to speak, by using a style of movement that was incongruous with expected significations. Brandenburg felt she subordinated movement to a pictorial effect and therefore unnecessarily reduced the powerful expressiveness of her body (57–58; WS 48). She moved primarily in two dimensions and displayed little inclination to develop a sense of depth within the performance space. Her body consistently moved in profile and often within a very narrow zone close to the tapestry backdrop (Figure 46). Within this restricted
space, her body stirred with tension-laden movements. She carefully coordinated the sinking or lifting of her head, for example, with the precise raising of one arm above her head and the other arm above her waist; the fingers of each hand, pressed tightly together, trembled delicately and somehow caused a leg to rise and bend at the knee, the foot dangling elegantly in a pendulum motion. Sometimes she performed such complicated movements very rapidly, giving rise to the perception that she had a "very well-trained body" (KTP 4, 1920, 119–120). Yet she never gave an impression of fragility. In her Isis dance, she knelt down with her great wings outspread, head back, eyes shut, and conveyed a most provocative effect of femininity opening up to a yearned-for power that it will soon enclose; on her feet, she marched, erectly, then in a lunge, with the wings wrapped around her like a mysterious armor, her eyes still closed, as if the wings, driven by a force deep inside her, propelled rather than uplifted her.
Ettlinger mentioned that Georg Capellen composed all the (piano) music for Sent M'ahesa's 1910 concert, and from then on she apparently used only music written specifically for her dances, although it is not clear how long her collaboration with Capellen lasted. In 1920 a reviewer of a Hamburg concert complained that Walter Zaun was not an appropriate accompanist for her, but a year later he praised the sensitivity of a "Director Frisch" at a concert in Nordhausen. In Berlin in 1922 she appeared as the first, "tragic" half of a program on "the tragic and the gay dance" with Ronny Johansson and Ernst Blass, who gave an introductory lecture. Margrit Goetz accompanied both dancers, but although the program (deposited at the Cologne Tanzarchiv) listed composers for all the pieces danced by Johansson, it did not identify the music for any of Sent M'ahesa's five dances or a costume intermezzo. It is possible, then, that she used music so severely modified through various collaborations and adjustments to her bodily movements that its authorship was no longer clear. The music became convoluted because the bodily movement, to achieve dramatic effect in such a confined space, became convoluted, tending toward ever more precise refinements.
Sent M'ahesa was similar to Schrenck in one respect, even though Schrenck never performed exotic dances: both projected an intensely erotic aura while moving within a very confined space. They showed persuasively that convincing signification of erotic desire or pleasure did not depend on a feeling of freedom in space, as exemplified in the conventions of ballet and modern dance, with their cliched use of runs, leaps, pirouettes, and aerial acrobatics. These dancers revealed that erotic aura intensifies in relation to an acute sense of bodily confinement, of the body imploding, turning in on itself, riddled with tensions and contradictory pressures. They adopted movements to portray the body being squeezed and twisted, drifting into a repertoire of squirms, spasms, angular thrusts, muscular sus-
pensions. Contortionist dancing is perhaps the most extreme expression of this aesthetic. But Sent M'ahesa complicated the matter by doing exotic dances—that is, she confined her body within a remote cultural-historical context, as if to suggest that the ecstatic body imploded metaphorical as well as physical space. Perhaps this point appeared most evident in her coral tree dance, given at the 1922 Berlin concert, which contained only Asian dances. She signified the slow, gorgeous blossoming of a coral tree without moving from an initial position in the performance space, employing considerable inventiveness in the ornamentation of her movements. This aesthetic, even when she appropriated Indian, Bedouin, Siamese, or Javanese cultures, derived from her love of Egyptian art, which was the complete distillation of it. But, unlike Bara, Sent M'ahesa did not associate Egyptian art with a sublime aesthetic of death; rather, she saw in it the revelation that images that strongly confined or "froze" the body were ultimately the source of the ecstatic desire to make the body move. The body did not need more space beyond the image for movement: it needed to become itself the space containing movement.