In 1921, before Wigman's genius was fully apparent, Hans Brandenburg regarded Gertrud Leistikow (1885–1948) as the most tragic and "Dionysian" of all German modern dancers, the figure closest to the primeval concept of dance as an expression of an ecstatic body (HB 157–173; Bragaglia, too, Scultura vivente, 84–85). But by 1925, Leistikow's significance seemed confined almost entirely to the Netherlands, where she had resided since about 1917, although she kept trying to achieve dramatic comebacks as a dancer until 1939. After attending girls' schools in Metz and Spa, she studied at a school of applied arts in Dresden, where in 1904 she observed a demonstration by Dalcroze. The same year she apparently took lessons in the Delsarte-Stebbins "artistic gymnastic" method of Hedwig Kallmeyer in Berlin. Leistikow gave her first dance recitals sometime between 1906 and 1910, with the earliest known dances dating from 1910 (Lustig). By then her reputation was such that until 1914 she could command sizable audiences for her solo concerts in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Lausanne, Utrecht, and Sarajevo. In summer 1914 she joined Laban's group in Ascona, where she and Mary Wigman assumed the main roles in Laban's large-scale "tragic word and dance drama," Sieg des Opfers, by Hans Brandenburg (MS 17). In Ascona, Leistikow also experimented with nude performance of several of her dances, though drawings of her by Dora Brandenburg-Polster indicate she may have performed nude dances for special audiences as early as 1911. But she did not stick with the Laban group; in 1916 she toured Germany and the Netherlands, where she attracted much attention in Amsterdam artistic circles. After her marriage to a Dutch rose dealer in 1921, her contact with modern dance culture outside Holland declined sharply, but her influence in the Netherlands grew stronger. By then she operated three schools, in Amsterdam, The Hague, and Rotterdam; a tour of the Dutch East Indies in 1924 inspired her to open three more schools there. She announced "farewell" tours of the Netherlands in 1929, 1930, and again in 1937, but in 1938–1939, she launched another tour of the Indies. When the war broke out on her return home, she and her family became stranded in Somaliland, and when she finally managed to reach Holland again, she opened yet another school in Amsterdam. However, she distanced herself consid-
erably from the pro-Nazi spirit dominating Dutch dance culture during the war years (ESG 20–21).
Gertrud Leistikow had a slender, supple body, but her face lacked charm, elegance, or mystery. She therefore constantly sought to hide her face, partly through suave manipulation of shawls, veils, or masks but also through movements that called attention to the beauty of her body. This anxiety over exposing her face appeared clearly in various carefully constructed photographs of her and even more conspicuously in Dora Brandenburg-Polster's drawings of her, some dating from 1911. Many of these show her nude but faceless or with concealed face. Her earlier dances tended to project a tragic, melancholy aura, but after she moved to Amsterdam her distinction seemed to lie in her peculiar cultivation of the grotesque. The Dutch dance critic Werumeus Buning thought she was stronger in the performance of waltzes than mazurkas, and he contended that in her pursuit of the grotesque she neglected to develop her greater potential for tragic expression (WBD 31–33). But Leistikow's concept of the grotesque was cosmopolitan, so perhaps her grotesque dances constituted a curious evolution of a controlling tragic aesthetic rather than a break with it. Junk suggested that the grotesque dance displayed "more strength than grace" or, "more recently," substituted "the bizarre for the graceful," as manifested through "unusual positions, deformed body structures, and adventurous leaps and gestures" (98). In other words, grotesque dancing did not necessarily imply a comic mood but perhaps made a calculated challenge to aesthetic conventions of "gracefulness" and bodily composure. Brandenburg thought such a challenge led Leistikow into the realms of the demonic and heroic rather than toward any spirit of parody, frivolity, or malicious travesty.
Yet Leistikow's aesthetic of the grotesque placed less emphasis on displays of strength or "deformed" and "adventurous" movements than on perversities of dramatic structure and decor. For Faun (1912) she wore a furry black leotard that left her arms and lower legs exposed; her head was completely covered with a horned, furry black mask, with only two slits for the eyes, and a little black tail was attached to her bottom. Borrowing from the "sylph" movement conventions of ballet, she flitted about rapidly on tiptoe, "with increasing estrangement from her own presence in this world wherein she suddenly found herself" (WBD 33). But the dance, which began with animal exuberance, grew darker and slower as "the faun began to wonder about his own nature" and felt some troubling glimmer of consciousness, an impulse to "discover another world." However, the movements of the dance were not in themselves grotesque; rather, the bizarre costume and the dramatic shift from exuberance to anxiety made the conventional, balletic signification of gaiety and frivolity seem grotesque.
In other cases, Leistikow deformed movements by performing them at flashing speed, as in the Furientanz (1912), which began slowly and ended in orgasmic frenzy. Brandenburg-Polster's drawings show Leistikow performing the dance nude, except for a great diaphanous veil. Peering directly into a glaring footlight, she started deep in the space, crouching on one knee, her entire body shrouded in the veil and projected as a great shadow behind her by the footlight. Then she rose, swirled out of the veil, and raced around in spiral configurations with the veil trailing behind her and her shadow leaping across the space. She ran lower and lower, ensnaring herself in the veil, struggling with it in dervish frenzy. Finally she stopped running and starting spinning in place with the veil looped over her head, whirling with legs spread, then on tiptoe, until she collapsed (HB plates 23–25).
Most of her dances observed this simplicity of technique and complexity of dramatic ambiguity. Totentanz (1912) also used a footlight-looming shadow effect, but in this case, Leistikow, in one of her usual tight-fitting dresses, stood deep in the space, her face nakedly exposed and her legs pressed together, and moved slowly, in tiny tiptoe steps, toward the light. She made undulating movements with a shawl, and when she tossed it away she seemed terribly naked; because she was closer to the violet footlight, her shadow appeared even larger than before. Her face was a violent glare of fear. Wrote Brandenburg:
The violet spotlight becomes coldly reflected in the pearl ornamentation of the hair. It makes the head of the dancer, with Medusa-like, wide open eyes, perch over the purple shawl which entwines and strangles her throat. The crass red cloth separates head from body, so that the head seems to float in the air, but through constant transformation the little cloth serves the movement of the dance: now it dips and flows like blood, then it throbs and flutters like lightning flashes, then it spreads like an imperial mantel around the shoulders, then it tightened again like a noose around the neck. And the language of the body discloses just as much fear of death as desire for death (HB 162; also Van Collem 22).
For many of her numerous dances, she appears to have repeated much of the movement of earlier dances, merely changing the costume. For example, in Haremswächter (1911) she wore a very short dress with long, drooping sleeves and a bizarre Asian mask with a large, black, Afro sort of wig, but her movements were grotesque. For the entire dance, she moved with her body directly facing the audience; she never turned but drifted laterally in the performance space while facing the spectator. She dipped up and down, on her toes, then on her heels; she squatted, then shot up to make odd shifting movements, with one foot on tiptoe and the other jutting forward on its heel. Meanwhile, her arms in their droopy sleeves
extended sideways from her body and made wavy up-and-down motions, like the flapping wings of a strange bird. One could say that this simple dance showed the extent to which one became grotesque in maintaining a sense of balance. But "balance" implied more than physical poise; it included the problem of balancing the body between conflicting signs of cultural and sexual identity, as the harem guard wore a dress yet donned a male mask.
In subsequent years, Leistikow used pretty much the same movements with different costumes. In Maskerdans (1914) she wore a white minidress with short, billowy sleeves and a flamboyant blonde wig, as if her hair consisted of a huge mass of plumes; her mask was not Asian but macabre, skull-like, with large dark eye sockets and a gleaming red smile (Velde). In another version of the balancing movements, she wore a black leotard that covered even her hands and feet; indeed, her hands looked like reptilian claws. She concealed her face behind an oversized male mask with vaguely Asian features. In her right hand she dangled an Asian sword (male emblem), and in her left hand she dangled a veil (female emblem), while some sort of knotted chain was attached to both arms (WBD 16). For Rote Groteske (1922), the simplest version of all, she wore a red minidress, red stockings, and a red mask of indeterminate sex. But, according to Marja Braaksma's 1991 reconstruction, Leistikow apparently did not retain the crouching or tiptoe movements in this version. What made Leistikow's dances grotesque was her determination to invest the simplest movements with startling dramatic power, an unsuspected intensity of conflict.
This determination was perhaps most mysteriously evident in Gnossienne (1924), which used as accompaniment Erik Satie's equally simple and haunting piano melody "Gnossienne No. 1" (1889). Here Leistikow stood in a tight-fitting, shimmering gown and faced the audience in a veiled light. She concentrated the dance almost entirely in the hands and arms, which undulated slowly, like waves, horizontally, then vertically, while her face constantly stared straight ahead with Sphinxlike inscrutability (one had to see the dance more than once to make this observation, so strongly did the arms and hands attract focus). After performing a pattern of arm undulations, the dancer took a step forward and turned into profile to repeat the pattern but raised her right leg slightly and held it suspended for the duration of the repetition. Then she turned and faced the audience again and repeated the pattern. The dancer repeated the initial pattern five times, thrice forward and twice in profile. With each repetition, the dancer merely moved forward a step or, while in profile, suggested a step in another direction without actually taking it (Braaksma). The dance conveyed a sense of a body very slowly and hesitantly moving closer to the audience without, in its trancelike state, even seeming aware of the spectators. Repetition of movements was the key to bringing bodies closer to each other, but in this case it
did not induce a feeling of familiarity; rather, the closer the body came and the more it repeated its movements, the stranger it appeared. This was a highly sophisticated form of irony. The spectator gained the impression of watching a body moving underwater, its arms and hands undulating hypnotically like the tentacles of a luminous, aquatic plant, a human anemone. This dance still fascinates audiences today.
Buning (Dansen, 32), Van Collem (21), and Brandenburg (HB 169) all remarked that in Leistikow's dances, the body undulated like wind or water. More important, she showed that the expressive power of dance depended not on any virtuosity of technique but on intensity of dramatic purpose. Because she subordinated technique to dramatic effect, she could produce many new dances, without having to devise much in the way of new movement, for what made movement new was a different dramatic or theatrical element, such as costume, mask, lighting, or props. Her taste in music was eclectic but not adventurous. She heavily favored music from the nineteenth-century romantic repertoire and folk songs, although in 1921 she attempted a dance to music that contrasted conditions of "blindness" and "seeing" (Buning did not think it successful ). In 1929 she experimented with the accompaniment of two harmonicas, then of an accordion, and further introduced a dance employing jazz music, but these did not resonate well with Dutch audiences. She appropriated folk music from many cultures—Spain, Russia, Ukraine, Java, Bohemia, India, Chile, Hungary—yet her dances never gave an image of the culture from which the music derived. Rather, they created a mysterious image of cultural ambiguity, as in Gnossienne, which adapted arm movements found in Javanese dance to produce an atmosphere of accumulating uncertainty regarding the cultural identity of dancer and movement. In Goldene Maske (1921) she used a Russian folk song (as she had in Rote Groteske ), but for Anton Van Collem, "the dark, slender little god with the golden mask" performed a dance reminiscent of an ominous Aztec ritual (24).
In the early 1920s, Leistikow worked with the Dutch sculptor Hildo Krop (1884–1970) on the construction of many of her masks, and her success with them inspired other Dutch dancers to work with gifted artists in creating bizarre dance masks. Whereas Krop's masks tended toward a sleek, constructivist image of the face, Jaap Pronk's masks for Tilly Sylon's group exuded a fantastic primitivism. In 1932, Hein von Essen created masks for dances by his daughter, Dini von Essen, but these were more "realistic" than either Krop's or Pronk's—that is to say, they functioned more as caricatures of Western faces ("social masks") than as cultural estrangements of Western bodies (Lagerweij-Polak; Hein von Essen; Dini von Essen). But no dancer
seemed as sensitive as Leistikow to the face as a mask and as an object of masking and veiling; she saw in the face the decisive emblem of imperfection and deception, regardless of whatever technical perfection the body as a whole possessed. Perhaps this perception was most obvious in her dance to Weber's Scherzo (1914), which apparently she performed in a body-covering veil before a mirror. Van Collem remarked of this dance: "The beautiful woman in the dead little village lives as one estranged from herself" (24).