Very few dancers received the pervasive acclaim and prestigious respect bestowed upon Gret Palucca (1902–1993), yet today her work seems perhaps less interesting than that of others of her generation. After spending a couple of years in San Francisco, she grew up largely in Dresden, where between 1914 and 1918 she studied ballet intermittently under Heinrich Kröller. In 1919, Palucca saw Mary Wigman perform in Dresden, and as a result she became a student in the new school Wigman opened in that city. Palucca was a member of the famous "first Mary Wigman group," which included Hanya Holm, Vera Skoronel, Berthe Trümpy, and Yvonne Georgi; with this group Palucca created her first pieces, a drum dance and Golliwog's Cakewalk (1922). By 1924, however, she, along with Trümpy, Skoronel, and Georgi, decided it was time to chart her own course. She followed an aesthetic path that gained her many admirers yet prevented her from becoming a complex, influential artist. The same year she married Fritz Bienert,
the son of wealthy art collector Ida Bienert, and through the marriage (which lasted until 1930) she came into contact with many prominent modernist artists, including members of the Bauhaus, such as Kandinsky and Klee. In 1925 she opened her own school in Dresden, much to Wigman's annoyance; as it turned out, Palucca lasted much longer in Dresden than Wigman did. She then formed a dance group in 1927 whose members for the most part merely accompanied her on percussion instruments.
Palucca was above all a solo dancer, giving up to a hundred solo concerts a year throughout Germany and Switzerland; unlike many German dancers, she found numerous admirers in Poland (1928–1929). She showed little imagination for group choreography, for she was unsure how to create complex, expressive relations between bodies without succumbing to the mechanized drill formations of the revue dance modes, which she disliked intensely (Palucca). She apparently found the process of collaboration on group pieces oppressively tedious and complicated by the necessity of managing so many unexpectedly significant details. Instead she produced new collections of solo dances every year, year after year, until she retired from performance in 1950.
In spite of her friendly connection with the Bauhaus and in spite of her completely "abstract" image of modernity, Palucca gained the favor of the Nazis, with Goebbels an especially enthusiastic admirer. Purged of Jewish students and teachers, including codirector Irma Steinberg, the Palucca school received strong state subsidies, and Palucca herself enjoyed prestigious appointments. In 1935 she turned down the leadership of the newly formed modern dance section of the German master workshops for dance, not for ideological reasons but because she felt that accepting the appointment would make her complicit in government efforts to discredit her teacher, Mary Wigman. The next year she participated in organization of the gigantic dances for the Berlin Olympics, but because these entailed group choreography on an unprecedented scale she found the experience nerve-wrackingly exhausting ("Palucca," 22–23). When at last, in 1939, it became obvious that her method of teaching paid little attention, if any, to matters of ideological indoctrination, the Nazis removed her from the leadership of her school and then from any position within it. But she continued to present solo concerts in cities throughout Germany and Switzerland during the war years.
The catastrophic firebombing of Dresden in February 1945 destroyed nearly all her possessions. She was, however, as resilient as ever: by June she had started teaching classes again, and these became the basis for a new school, which began receiving state subsidies in 1949. In 1952, during the construction of a new building for the school, she ran into disagreements with Communist authorities, and she declined to teach there until 1954, when Minister of Culture Johannes R. Becher intervened on her behalf.
From then on she and her school prospered. The Communist regime heaped upon her numerous medals, honors, privileges, appointments, foreign invitations, commemorations, and documentary tributes, although the government actually promoted a skeptical, unencouraging attitude toward the whole Ausdruckstanz legacy. East German publications on Palucca were almost entirely uncritical testimonials (Krüll; Schumann). Even in West Germany she attracted a fairly strong measure of veneration, simply because she seemed a living link to the thwarted, suppressed modernist potential in German culture generated by the ill-fated Weimar Republic ("Palucca"). But during the cold war years, Palucca's notion of "the new artistic dance" hardly represented a new direction anywhere, even when compared with the dance scene of 1920.
Palucca may have been the most abstract of all expressionist dance artists, including Schlemmer, despite his obsession with robotic dancing bodies. She produced a huge repertoire of solo dances, but she was so prolific because she did not complicate her aesthetic with narrative or thematic ambitions. She was a superb technician who regarded the mastery of technique as the subject of virtually every dance. As she herself explained in 1935: "My dances have no other content and meaning than just dance, natural movement, formed in congruity with the music. It is my wish in my dances to be just so free and so bound [by music] as a musician is. Free of themes and symbols" (Losch 104). Palucca viewed the body as a pliant structure, which movement shaped into endlessly varied arabesque forms. Movement was an end in itself, and as such it did not "express" anything except a "natural" state of freedom and a superior command of space. Her dances projected hardly any of the erotic aura found in the work of so many other modern dancers. Palucca was famous for her extraordinarily high and long leaps; when she was a student at the Wigman school, Wigman, who favored strong contact with the performance surface, had to restrain her from incorporating ever greater leaps into the group dances (HM 89). Hardly any other dancer produced such a variety of leaps as Palucca, but she was also fond of bold strides, high kicking steps, exaggerated stretches, sweeping arm movements, torso-twisting pivots, gliding surges, and precisely balanced turns on one foot (Figure 49). Her body seemed to cut across the performance space in diagonal patterns while constantly striving to spiral upward. Her dances were primarily about the beauty of these devices. She kept adding so many new dances to her repertoire because in themselves none of her pieces left a strong emotional impact; in most cases a new dance was simply a reconfiguration of her favorite devices set to different music and given a different title. Her dance titles were often quite abstract and merely descriptive of the movement she performed, such as "lively" (1925), "light" (1925), "colored" (1928), "distant" (1928), "intense" (1925), "furious" (1931), "sad" (1934), "graceful" (1941), "only so" (1945). Other
pieces carried purely musical appellations: Largo (1943), Rondo (1933), Lento (1924), Capriccio (1932), Waltz (1922, 1927, 1933, 1943, 1948), Tango (1923, 1929, 1941). She consistently chose neutral costumes that might fit any number of dances, and her taste in music was quite eclectic, though not particularly adventurous.
Throughout her career she tried to succeed at the performance of dark, somber, or tragic moods, but she could not achieve anything memorable in these dimensions, for at bottom she regarded dance entirely as an expression of joy, an exuberant release of energy. The most appealing photographs of her always showed her smiling radiantly, completely delighted by the sheer sensation of her own movement and unconcerned with its significance. In a sense she was a barefoot ballerina, putting ballet techniques and devices at the service of improvisation. She freed ballet technique from elaborate narrative contexts, and the result was dance that meant nothing other than that freedom and ecstasy depended entirely on the perfect exposure, the unclothing, of technical devices. Palucca's aesthetic transcended the political-historical contexts in which she lived and protected the freedom of the body from competing ideological perspectives about its meaning. However, detaching the display of technical devices from narrative motivations required Palucca to detach herself from any strong emotional response to the world around her; she created a perfectly closed universe that was never any greater than the space in which she could leap. Yet it was her ability to detach technique from intention that made her an excellent teacher, for she knew how to correct movements without disrupting the message the student wanted to convey. Her method of improvisational instruction enabled students to achieve superior technical mastery in relation to desires that were uniquely their own, as is evident from the abundant testimonials compiled by Schumann. Some of her students, such as Lotte Goslar, Marianne Vogelsang, and Dore Hoyer, demonstrated far greater emotional expressivity and depth than their teacher but probably could not have achieved such confidence in their expressive power by studying entirely under a teacher like Wigman, someone devoted to the realization of visions and urgent meanings.
Modernists such as Bertolt Brecht, László Moholy Nagy, Ruth Berghaus, and Wassily Kandinsky liked Palucca's dances because they seemed to deconstruct the vocabulary of abstraction that supposedly invested the body with modernity. In 1925, Kandinsky published his famous Tanzkurven zu den Tänze der Palucca (Figure 50), in which he went about as far as anyone could go in constructing an abstract image of a still recognizably human form. The artist reduced the movement of the body to a minimal set of converging or intersecting arcs and lines of varying thickness. The images created a strong impression of purely formal dynamism, as if dance were nothing more than a vigorous conflict between curved and straight lines. What
Kandinsky saw in Palucca's dances were devices of movement, expressions of nothing more than a desire to achieve a completely generic identity as a dancer. The images showed "dance" with geometric simplicity and authority, but one needs a caption to know that the dancer who inspired the artist was Palucca; the device discloses the unique identity of a form (dance), not the unique identity of its user, the dancer.