Ellen Tels and Mila Cirul
Perhaps even more than Sent M'ahesa, Mila Cirul (1901–1977) demonstrated the degree to which German dance ideology could suffuse with ambiguity not only its own cultural identity but also that of the dancer. Like Sent M'ahesa, Cirul was born in Latvia. The example of Isadora Duncan inspired her to become a dancer, but she began with the study of classical ballet technique in Moscow under the famous dancer Mikael Mordkin (1880–1944). At the same time, she studied Delsartian semiotics and the early "biomechanics" of theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874–1940), whose "intention-realization-reaction" theory of physical action incorporated ideas from gymnastics, acrobatics, fencing, sports, circus acts, and commedia dell'arte (Braun 197–206; Robinson 133). In 1918 she entered the then influential school and company of Ellen Tels (aka Ellen Rabanek [1885–1944]), the daughter of a German baker in Moscow. Tels pursued a kind of pantomimic dance derived from Delsartian principles, although she, too, had studied with Mordkin. Her "dance idylls" attracted audiences in Germany, Austria, and even England between 1911 and 1914, partly because she aligned pantomimic movement with literary scenarios, as in her Chrisis (1912), coordinated with music by Reinhold Glière, which evoked erotic texts by Pierre Louys (Suritz 407).
Tels and Cirul began dancing as a pair, but in 1919 Tels saw no future for her company in Russia and moved to Vienna, taking Cirul and three other women with her. Soon her school-company, which briefly included Ellinor Tordis, was producing dance pantomimes of great refinement and
very subtle, delicate bodily rhythms, free of metricality. In 1921, Brandenburg described one of these dance pantomimes, Mozart's Les petits riens , as being the "nerve" of rococo without being an academic imitation of it: "It is a series of dainty solo dances, tender gavottes, flirtatious war, erotic cunning, snatching and concealing, carnivalistic processions, masquerade interludes and a pantomime in which the jealousy of a masked girl, stuck in a cage of green silk, enacts her suffering acrobatically and everyone executes their actions stiffly, convulsively, like dancing marionettes—yet it all remains a single flow of movement, in which costume and mask are nothing but a play of light and color that only make the waves livelier. That is no ballet in an antiquated sense of dance craftsmanship." (126). Brandenburg did not think much of Tels herself as a solo performer ("too rational") but hailed her as a rare "symphonic creator" of elegantly pliant group movement (although, he complained, the pantomime approach tended to end every dance in a tableaux vivants pose). Tels apparently had a strong gift for what I would call "theatricalized rhythm," a skill of seeing the movement potential of theatrical devices: purple and white-clad dancers bearing baskets set in tension with gold-clad dancers tapping gold cymbals with mallets; an entire ensemble moving while wrapped in a great veil (Rochowanski, Tanzende 37–38). A girl might swirl like the wind while other dancers undulated like flowers, but with Tels this sort of narrative premise always led to dances in which "movement became visible" rather than a mere imitation of nature (HB 127). In Vienna, Tels produced nearly fifty dance pantomimes, many for opera productions, and in 1924 she collaborated, as scenarist, with composer Egon Wellesz on the Persisches Ballett, which Kurt Jooss actually choreographed and presented at Donaueschingen (Amort 394). In 1927, however, for reasons that are obscure, Tels moved to Paris, where Janine Solane (b. 1912), among others, became her student.
Meanwhile, Cirul's star began to rise. In 1926 she and Tels gave a concert in Frankfurt attended by Mary Wigman. Ensuing conversations with Wigman urged Cirul to rethink her dance aesthetic in relation to submission to unconscious forces, and for awhile she worked in complete solitude (AI 21). Then her career suddenly began to blossom: she became a soloist at the operas in Vienna, Hanover, and Berlin, and in 1930 she performed with Margarethe Wallmann's Tanzgruppe 1930 in Berlin and at the big Munich Dance Congress. Unlike Tels, Cirul liked to dance violent, passionate modes of feeling, often with music (Bach, Handel) seldom associated with violence or passion—as in her Barbarischer Tanz (1930), using Bach's music, or Niobe (1931), wherein pride, terror, and sorrow struggled within her, or in Wallmann's Orfeus Dionysos (1930), set to Glück's music, in which she impersonated the Priestess of Death. In Russischer Tanz (1929), "she symbolized the sufferings of revolutionary Russia" through the figure (judging from the heavily buttoned dress she wears in a photo) of an austere middle-class
woman, not a peasant. The photo is quite interesting: one foot (wearing high heels) firmly planted, the trailing foot on tiptoe in peculiarly Wigmanesque fashion, the body arcing backward, head tilted back, eyes closed, arms spread wide and flinging a dark mantel. At first glance it looks like a surge of ecstasy, but the face, with its dark eyes and mouth shut, conveys a beautiful tinge of melancholy, reserve, or uncertainty: it is a dark ecstasy, a great pulsation of movement, learned from Wigman, complicated by attention to the delicate detail—the "exact expression," as Cirul put it—learned from Tels.
In spite of her success in Germany, Cirul was seeking something she could not find there, for in 1932 she, too, migrated to Paris. However, she did not resume collaboration with Tels; instead she worked for several years in partnership with the French critic Fernand Divoire, who was immediately captivated by her smoldering temperament and her ability to enlarge every space with her intensity of feeling. She received great acclaim for her version of Strauss's music for Salome, presented at the Comèdie Champs Elysèes in 1934. Then her sister Elia began dancing with her in complex duets, of which Tentation (1935), with scenario by Divoire, was an example. This piece dramatized the struggle between consciousness, performed by Mila, and the unconscious, performed by Elia—thus, two bodies dramatized aspects of a single persona. Accompanying the dance were two voices, both male, in dialogue not only with each other but with the dancers as well. A stunning photograph suggests the sleek image of the modern psyche she sought to create (Figure 47). But this provocative "association of literature, philosophy, and movement did not make a strong impression on the audience" (AI 21; Divoire 287).
Cirul continued dancing until the early 1940s and taught many significant French dancers until 1962, when she retired to Nice. Though critics tended to consider her an avant-garde dancer, her Wigmanesque submission to bold, "instinctual" movement always remained subordinate to a strong sense of dramatic structure and detail gained from the pantomimic aesthetic of Ellen Tels. Cirul did not embody the unconscious force, as Wigman did; rather, she dramatized, through movement, a struggle within herself between consciousness and the unconscious. Indeed, one might even say that the relation between pantomime and the Wigman aesthetic constituted a major tension between self-consciously and unconsciously driven forms of dance. But the synthesis of the two forms in Cirul produced an identity that was neither German nor French nor Russian but always alluringly foreign, always the restless movements of an exquisite body seeking something more or other than that yielded by the space it occupied. Her image of movement toward death was at once less abstract than Wigman's and more clearly identified with the abstract dramatic structure of the dance, rather than with bodily movements, as in her ironically entitled Le
Chemin de la Vie (1947), a collaboration with Divoire, using music by Liszt. In scene after scene, death arrived at the ball, the war, the revolution, the modern city of lovers, and led all the dead in a final, grand procession of death . . . into darkness, somewhere else. No frozen pose to end the scene.