"She would be a great dancer even if she had been born a cripple": such was the judgment in 1920 of theatre critic and producer Felix Hollaender regarding Niddy Impekoven (L. Impekoven 15). Probably no other dancer of the era more strongly evoked an aura of feminine innocence and geniality than Niddy Impekoven, yet she spent much of her career struggling against efforts to mold her body according to an image that conflicted with her desires. She was born in Berlin in 1904; her father was a prominent actor, and her family contained many members involved in one way or another with the arts. She began dancing at the age of three to phonograph records played by her father: "Papa was always entirely absent when he sat at the phonograph; his upper body throbbed up and down to the rhythm of the music, and his gaze was directed toward the waltz which one saw coursing somewhere beyond the glass window. So I did not feel I inconvenienced him at all by what I wanted to do: to dance, in which I had quite a model in his surrender to the music. I always danced what he played" (N. Impekoven, Geschichte, 22). Throughout her career, music remained for her the chief motive for dance movement. Her charm and precociousness hardly went unnoticed, and, unlike so many other dancers, she did not have to battle family prejudices to establish her identity as a dancer. On the contrary, she had to battle pressures to meet the demanding expectations imposed upon an artistic prodigy.
She was constantly an object of inspection. At the age of six she posed nude for a sculptor's photographs, a circumstance that struck her as excruciatingly boring because she could not move for long periods of time (Geschichte, 23). In 1910 she began ballet lessons with the first soloist of the Berlin Municipal Opera, and the same year she danced publicly for the first time, at which time the press acclaimed her as a prodigy. At the outbreak of the war, her family moved to Munich, where her parents compelled her to continue ballet studies, but these she regarded as painfully constricting and deadening: a collection of postcard photos depicting Anna Pavlova inspired her more than the bankrupt rhetoric of ballet did. During the war she danced for patriotic occasions and suddenly acquired a startling number of fans, not all of whom were children. The great moment in her education came when her father permitted her to study for six weeks at the Loheland school in summer of 1918; there she experienced a freedom and awareness of bodily expression that decisively con-
firmed her desire to dance (72–75). Her father, however, felt the Loheland approach lacked rigor, so she took some lessons from perhaps the most prominent ballet master in Germany, Heinrich Kröller (1880–1930), who appreciated the uniqueness of her talent.
But her health was always delicate; the arduous ballet training had turned her into a dispirited "skeleton," and at the age of fourteen she decided it was time to test the authority of her painful education. She gave her first solo concert in Frankfurt late in 1918. From then until 1923 she created a new program of dances every year, and these made her an object of enormous adulation throughout Germany. Her exquisite, nubile embodiment of fairy-tale feminine innocence often provoked dark, possessive impulses in her male worshippers, and she became eerily conscious of the power of her seemingly harmless art to produce pathological consequences—or rather, to reveal secret conditions of illness, remoteness from innocence, in others (102–105). Most curious in this respect was a book about her, Briefe an eine Tänzerin (1922), written by Fred Hildenbrandt, feuilleton editor for the Berliner Tageblatt . The dances of Niddy Impekoven awakened in Hildenbrandt a rapturous, unbridled, incoherent, even fanatical language of glorification:
She dances the breath of rapid-breathing anticipation, the play of a thousand things gleaming in the daylight, she dances the storm of tenderness, the weariness of all meanings, the blessed languor of the heart, she dances the sun, which creeps through the morning window, and [she dances] the early footsteps on the street which press in on her in her sleep. So she spreads in her arms, her hands, her lips and eyes the shimmering mosaic of love and no one is there who can destroy it with naked eyes. Her body is the chosen instrument of dance, the chosen instrument of love (41).
The book was actually an extravagant, obsessive, and often hysterical love letter, but it obviously indicated the wild convolution of feeling that Impekoven's pretty dances could stir up in male spectators. Hildenbrandt advised her not to find a partner for her dances, for "the man who dances should only dance grotesquely" (85). The very looniness of the book did much to clarify the appeal of Impekoven's dances for a particular kind of spectator, "grey with gloom" and living in a "world of rain": "I cannot love people, Ny, because I do not love myself, and I cannot hate them because I do not hate myself, and because I am bound to this [male] sex as I am bound to myself, the result is a desolate condition of foolish hours" (83). As biographer Hans Frentz put it, "She dances what we have all lost"—namely, a mythical sense of childhood purity of being (Niddy Impekoven, 35).
In 1923 she married an immensely wealthy physician, Hans Killian, whom she had known for several years. This event marked a dramatic change in her aesthetic. With gentle seriousness, Killian provided her with
a deep appreciation of the music of Bach, and through her love of Bach's music she evolved toward a more "womanly" dance aesthetic, attempting to reach an audience looking for more than a girlish affirmation of innocence. But she was never a tragic dancer nor even an especially innovative or daring one. What she offered was an acute aura of fragility. Her fragile body displayed superb mastery of fragile movements, and yet in this fragile negotiation with time and space there evidently lay a superior strength of will that has allowed Impekoven to live a very long life indeed. It was the aura of fragility (more than the aura of innocence) that allowed her dances to open up the emotional responses of audiences to a greater degree than could many dances with more aggressively modern ambitions. As she herself said as early as 1922: "My aim is constantly to distance myself from 'intellectual' dance. . . . The purest, most natural dance is for me the unreflective surrender to music" (N. Impekoven, Werdegang, 31). But the music for her dances was now rarely modern, limited to a couple of pieces by Milhaud and Bartók; otherwise her love for Schumann, Mozart, and Bach prevailed.
In 1928 she embarked on an amazing world tour in which she visited numerous European cities before going on to exuberantly acclaimed concerts in Port Said, Bombay, Bangkok, Singapore, Jakarta, Shanghai, Tokyo, Honolulu, San Francisco, New York, and many, many other cities. The tour made her quite wealthy, and she decided to accept further invitations to tour the Dutch East Indies and Southeast Asia in 1930. In 1933–1934 she presented her last program, which contained the Drei Engel cycle of dances to Bach preludes and Das Fest, a cycle of sixteenth-century German court and folk dances, and these pieces seemed to appeal to the conservative sensibilities that quite suddenly dominated German dance culture. Impekoven, however, felt no invigorating enthusiasm for the emerging cultural scene, so she retired to Switzerland, which she had regarded as her home since 1923. The great majority of her life still lay before her, but she lived quietly, apparently secure in the belief that she had already accomplished what she was born to do. In 1955 she published her brief and poignant autobiography, Die Geschichte eines Wunderkinds, which examined her life only up to the age of fourteen and suggested that the image of childhood innocence pervasively defining public perception of her concealed a measure of suffering, self-sacrifice, and anxiety that one could never really transcend and that in any case hardly affirmed the innocence of her audience.
In 1926, John Schikowski observed that, despite their evolution toward an "adult" phase, Impekoven's dances were "still always the dances of a child" and disclosed "a world of naive feelings": "This world is small, but it is full of beauty and fairy-tale radiance. This child gazes with large, teary, strangely shiny eyes, an aching smile on the lips. A sick child. Even over manic exuberance a little, melancholy cloud hovers. Poignant the droll exaltation, the grimacing gestures. Touching the little desires which strive
toward heaven, without soaring, but rather helplessly seek their chains. Tensions and releases of a gentle, sweet softness which appears vacuous when it does not assume a child-like style. A perfectly polished body" (153–154). What made Impekoven's dances childlike was her tendency to equate the signification of innocence and fragility with the performance of delicate, precise, highly nimble movements; it appeared as if she moved in a hostile, treacherous space in which the slightest false gesture could lead to a mishap, a fall, a desecration. She was capable of bold, swinging movements, but these always remained subordinated to a small sense of scale, to a doll-sized world. Even in her "adult" phase, she simply transformed the doll image into the image of a lithe angel. Photographs of her dances suggest that while performing she liked suddenly to gaze directly at the spectator, her large eyes leveling in a haunting and almost questioning way, as if to say, "Are you sure what I'm doing makes you happy?" She often danced on the balls of her feet and occasionally on pointe, with numerous delicate, lilting kicks, hops, and skips, and she liked having outspread arms in motion; she apparently did not favor movements that brought her hands close to her body.
She definitely preferred curvaceousness to angularity in shaping bodily expressivity. Her costumes avoided elaborate ornamentation, yet she loved dancing in a great variety of costumes. In Schalk (1918) she wore a kind of trapeze artist blouse that displayed all of her arms and legs, but in Pavanne (1918) she appeared in an eighteenth-century aristocratic boy's shirt and breeches. For Pizzicato (1918) she donned an elegant white ballet tutu, whereas in the Beethoven Bagatelles (1920) she wore a gypsy-style shirt dress with long fringes (Holdt). For her dance concerning "the life of a flower" (1918), she wore a simple, sleeveless dress with an abstract floral design. In later dances, she put on a thirteenth-century gown with mantilla or a buffoonish jacket and pants that, when performed with all sorts of quirky movements, made her look like an intoxicated imp. Her costume for Dernier cri (1924) was quite odd: she danced in heels, with a little boa around her neck and a small, feathered hat at a tilt; her dark blouse had very short sleeves, yet she wore gloves extending above her elbows. Her skirt was long, extending to her ankles, quite tight around the waist and thighs but shredded just below the thighs into a long, dense fringe. Toward the end of her career, with her Bach pieces, she went in for long, dark, completely undecorated gowns with thigh-length slits that allowed for freedom of movement and flashing glimpses of her legs. But she exuded an austere, vaguely haloed aura.
One of her most memorable costumes was for Der gefangene Vogel (1918 [music: Bruno Hartl]). Here she wore a dark caftan that entirely concealed all the hair on her head; her minidress generously exposed her legs, but its sleeves covered her arms and even her hands. Attached to the sleeves and
to the sides of the dress were wings, upon which she had painted brightly colored feathers. Unlike Sent M'ahesa's use of wings in her Isis dance, Impekoven made the wings of "the captured bird" an intimate, indistinguishable part of the dress itself, so that it appeared as if the costume was what allowed the body to soar. Yet Impekoven performed this dance in a completely neutral context, pure space, as though in the sky. Thus, she conveyed the sense of the bird imprisoned by its own wings and the dancer's body imprisoned not so much by its costume as by a peculiar sense of many things tightly attached to it: wings, feathers, cloth. The piece implied that the poignant fragility of creatures was most evident when they moved in a state of captivity; yet it also suggested that a creature's fragility was a motive for capturing it, and no amount of space or freedom could protect the body from its fragility. A cage did not amplify the body's fragility; mere consciousness of space and gravity did that (Figure 48).
In 1918 Impekoven created her curious series of doll dances, which in addition to the "rococo" doll and the Münchener Kaffeewarmer included miniatures inspired by the wax or porcelain figurines created by Lotte Pritzel, Erna Pinner, and Käthe Kruse. The Erna Pinner doll dance appeared in the film Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit (1925), with Impekoven wearing a delightful polka-dot clown costume with black stockings and gloves. She slumbered in an armchair until the twitching of her sleep and dreams propelled her into whirling, jerky, puppetlike movements that quickly exhausted her and caused her to fling herself back into slumber on the chair. Here she signaled that feminine innocence was but a toy of the unconscious, a windup doll with no discernible motive for its sputtering movement other than to exhaust itself with pleasure in its own absurdity.