Trudi Schoop, Julia Marcus, and Valeska Gert
Grotesque dancing in the 1920s assumed so many curious forms that the term "grotesque dance" came to signify a larger and larger measure of freedom for the dancer, even if it never achieved much in the way of a stable definition. Nevertheless, hardly anyone confused grotesque dancing with comic or "cheerful" dancing, and some dancers established their identities by emphasizing this distinction. Ronny Johansson, for example, consistently put on programs of cheerful ("heitere") dances, with brisk, springy, decorative movements accompanied by lyrical music in a major key. Johansson sometimes performed dances in pretty pants, but her dances exuded cheerfulness because they presented a body radiantly freed of sexual, cultural, or psychological ambiguity. In Vienna, Elsie Altmann (1899–1984) projected a similar image of cheerfulness, reinforced by an elegant taste for Biedermeyer-style costumes. This approach marked her entire career, beginning with her debut concert in 1919, just before her marriage to the famous architect Adolf Loos (1870–1933), and continuing unchanged until at least 1929. Her talent brought her opportunities to choreograph operettas (Altmann-Loos 268–278).
By contrast, the Swiss dancer Trudi Schoop (b. 1903) specialized in comic pantomime. An awkward child, she struggled to achieve elegant physicality through rigorous ballet training and then through the rhythmic gymnastics offered by the Elisabeth Duncan school; but when her own family laughed at her as she performed for them a solemn dance, she decided to devote herself entirely to comic dance, and in this direction she exhibited unprecedented ambition. In 1929 she assembled in Berlin a comic ballet company containing twenty-two members, including several men, although Schoop still employed numerous female impersonations of men. Fridolin
(1930, music: Paul Schoop) was a great success and led to performances of the group around Germany and in Oslo, Stockholm, Venice, Paris, Prague, and Amsterdam. This pantomime established the model for her subsequent successes, which followed the episodic structure of the expressionist "journey" drama. Fridolin, for example, contained twelve scenes, each depicting Fridolin's encounters with a new set of characters as he wanders eternally and vainly in search of a woman who will return his love. Scenes showed Fridolin achieving distinction as an acrobat, competing for a woman who despises him, joining a secret sect, stumbling into a boring marriage, joining a bowling club, and falling hopelessly in love with a cabaret acrobat. Schoop herself played Fridolin, and her brother Max designed the costumes. The ballet company also produced divertissements, such as Want Ads (1933) and Current Events (1937), in which Schoop presented satiric views of contemporary social realities, such as unemployment, retail selling, and male sports fanatics, but her strength lay in the ambitious comic pantomime. Blonde Marie (1938, music: Paul Schoop), with costumes by Oskar Schlemmer, presented eight scenes describing the absurd journey of Marie (Schoop) from servant girl to waitress to soubrette to diva to rich wife to bored mother to publicity-happy adulteress. All for Love (1939, music: Lothar Perl, Schoop's brother) contained six long scenes depicting episodes from the life of Catherine (Schoop) as a schoolgirl, at a nightclub, around the Christmas tree, and on trial, concluding with the grotesque apotheosis of Catherine the Clown in a "super-colossal Diamond Star Revue," in which "dancing and vocal choruses, apaches, clowns, jugglers, with the help of make-believe and blinding spotlights, combine to give the romantic illusion: ALL FOR LOVE" (Hurok).
Schoop's aesthetic seemed driven by a Brechtian inclination to puncture the illusions of socially idealized romantic erotic desire. But she achieved the puncturing through eccentric costumes and pantomimic distortions of conventionalized balletic and functional movements rather than through hauntingly bizarre transgressions of gracefulness. Her success in the United States was considerable, beginning in 1935, and when the war broke out she decided to emigrate there. She could not, however, maintain the large-scale ballet company; in the 1950s and 1960s she therefore (and not altogether unexpectedly) devoted herself increasingly to the realm of dance therapy for both physically and psychologically damaged bodies (Schoop).
Schoop's comic aesthetic relied too much on a complicated theatrical definition of society to achieve her distinction in the realm of solo dance: she showed little inclination to see how the body moved alone, apart from a group. Most grotesque dances, however, operated in a solo mode and emphasized the power of grotesquerie to separate the body from a socially determined identity. In the years 1916–1920, Rita Aurel performed solo parodies of Oriental dances, using her contortionist ability to produce
bizarrely distorted serpentine movements of the arms and belly. Aurel did a piece in which she represented a woman injecting herself with morphine, causing Brandenburg to suggest that she had devised a form of aesthetic movement that was neither dance nor pantomime. She was not a dance clown but a sort of freakish dancer. With the Mozartian Rondo (1916), she appeared in a child's costume and danced with small balls suspended by strings; then a very large black ball descended, introducing "the demonic into the supposedly naively charming music." Despite such obvious evidence of a strong imagination, this "strange, super-tall, super-slender, hysterical, graceful, and very worldly personality" most regrettably left behind very little trace of herself (HB 58–59).
Even more obscure was Hilde Schewior, who lacked any feeling for danced movement, according to Schikowski (153). But she was a dance clown with a gift for goofy, satiric costumes, and she liked impersonating grotesque types of males, deforming her movements to create an impression of bizarre physiognomy (Holtmont 227). Lotte Goslar, a student of Wigman and Palucca, was also a dance clown in the early 1930s, but she was quite a pretty woman and sought to construct a dance aesthetic in which strong comic ingenuity was not incompatible with a confident display of feminine beauty. How she achieved such a remarkable synthesis remains unclear, but a photograph of her suggests that she may have used the theme of trying to look her best as the basis for various comic misadventures with costumes or movements (MS 95). This approach apparently succeeded best in a cabaret milieu. In 1937, as a member of Erika Mann's Pfeffermühl company, she came to the United States, where she has resided ever since. Like Schoop, she felt her comic talent unfolded most effectively in a company, and she founded her own in Hollywood in 1943.
Julia Marcus (b. 1905), a Swiss student of Laban, Elisabeth Duncan, and Wigman, not only was active in cabaret performance but in 1931 became a member of the unusual Berlin City Opera ballet company under Lizzie Maudrik. She apparently had a gift for dark, dramatic voluptuousness, as in her Mexican-Aztec suite of dances (1930), but her uniqueness was most evident in her radically grotesque parodies of contemporary figures such as Al Jolson (1931), Adolf Hitler (1931), Gerhart Hauptmann (1932), and Gandhi (1933). In these she collaborated with Berlin artist Erich Goldstaub, who created for her oversized, caricatured masks of these persons (with Jolson in blackface). She modeled the movements of these dances on acute observations of the gestural idiosyncrasies peculiar to the famous personalities. In Der Friedensengel (1932) she reached a truly astonishing threshold of the bizarre when she donned a creepy, oversized mask of French prime minister Aristide Briand (1862–1932), winner of the 1926 Nobel Prize for Peace. But the mask was hardly all that was strange: she wore a tuxedo shirt and jacket over the upper portion of her body, and these
garments clashed dramatically with the white ballet tutu, stockings, and slippers apportioned to the lower half of her body. In this costume she performed a waltz satire on diplomatic gesturing. In Wälzer (1933), she danced in a gas mask.
Marcus was a friend of the Communist Party, and for party cabaret entertainments she created dance parodies not only of contemporary political figures but also of social types, such as the symphony conductor, the servant girl, the sewing machine operator. Some of her dances used music by the communist composer Hanns Eisler and strove to construct heroic images of proletarian figures ("Julia Tardy-Marcus"). Of course, the Third Reich severely limited opportunities for Marcus, so she began touring restlessly around Europe, inserting herself into the cabaret culture of Warsaw, Amsterdam, and Zurich. She finally settled (1933) in Paris, where, as usual, she made numerous friends and, even during the war, put on well-received dance recitals, sometimes in collaboration with, among others, Ludolf Schild, Lisa Duncan, and Mila Cirul. In 1937 she collaborated with Schild in the production at the Théâtre Pigalle of a "ballet," Le Fievre du Temps (music: Graca), employing a scenario based, intriguingly, on scenes from current movies. As a Swiss citizen married to a French engineer, she remained fairly safe from the Gestapo and helped other dancers escape to safety. After the war, she drifted toward cultural-literary journalism (Robinson 134–136; Jelavich 259–260).
When she first arrived in Paris, Marcus rented a dilapidated little theatre in which, according to her unpublished memoirs, one could see mice scurrying across the stage during performances. She shared this space with one of the most renowned of all the Weimar comic dancers, Valeska Gert (1892–1978). Born in Berlin to a wealthy Jewish family, Gert led a complicated international, interdisciplinary life, which she recounted in four autobiographies (1931, 1950, 1968, 1973) and which Frank-Manuel Peter abundantly documented in 1985. But Gert's dance aesthetic was also complex, allowing her to function in different artistic contexts: dance recital, cabaret, film, theatre, and writing. In the realm of dance, her success remained confined largely to the performance of grotesque caricatures, though she made occasional efforts to explore a wider emotional range. Her strength was also her weakness—an acute distrust of romantic feeling—yet she began her career with one of the more romantic figures of prewar German dance culture.
At first she considered some sort of career in the fashion industry, but in 1915 she started taking acting lessons from Maria Moissi. Through her Gert came into contact in 1916 with the dance school of Rita Sacchetto, from whom she apparently received little guidance on matters of technique. Nevertheless, Sacchetto gave Gert a chance to perform her solo Tanz in orange (1916), a parody of ballet movements danced in a curious orange dress with
billowy pantaloons. This piece was appealing enough to appear as an intermezzo item on a program of silent films. Meanwhile, Gert pursued opportunities as an actress, appearing (1917–1919) in small, odd roles—a witch, a skeleton, a parrot, a child, and so forth—in expressionist dramas and productions in Munich and Berlin. She created cabaret dances and in late 1917 introduced them in Berlin; they were so popular that by 1919 she was a prominent figure in the Berlin dance culture. Her interest in acting for the stage faded as her interest in more modernist modes of performance intensified. In 1923 she participated in an unusual production that began with the showing of an abstract color film by Walther Ruttmann, Opus 2, followed by two grotesque dances performed by Jutta Hertig and then, after the intermission, Gert's performance in the title role of Salome in Wilde's play. The program purported to demonstrate, as Gert explained, the difference between technology-driven and actor-driven forms of performance, with the Salome fragments employing extremely austere scenic elements. Gert played Salome in a simple red apron-dress, and she created the "head" of Jokanaan simply through the movement of her bare hands; Herodias and Jokanaan wore, respectively, green and silver-gray dresses, and Herod wore blue pajamas. For the Dance of the Seven Veils, Ruttmann accompanied her with "meowing" sounds on a cello, along with the "rhythmic, passionate howling of some women behind the stage" (FPV 26).
Between 1924 and 1931, Gert appeared with memorable distinction in several major films of the Weimar era: Ein Sommernachtstraum (1925), Die freudlose Gasse (1925), Nana (1926), Alraune (1927), Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (1929), So ist das Leben (1929), and Die Dreigroschenoper (1931). In all these films she played unsavory or rather freakish characters. She always left a strong impression on the spectator, but her roles remained small, and she never became a star. Berlin photographer Suse Byk made the first film of Gert dancing, Die Küpplerin, in 1925. Throughout the Weimar years, she supplemented her comic dances with sketches and songs for cabaret performances in Zurich (1918), Oslo (1919), Munich (1922), and Berlin (1926, 1931). In 1932 she formed her own cabaret company, but it provoked highly ambivalent responses. She had participated with the great dramatist Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) as early as 1922, in Munich, on a cabaret project, Der Abnormitätenwirt, that included appearances by the grotesque actor Max Schreck, the comedians Lisel Karlstadt and Karl Valentin, and Brecht himself. In 1929 the Baden-Baden premiere of Brecht's Badener Lehrstück contained a filmed sequence, shot by Karl Koch, of Gert performing her dance Der Tod (1927). Her international identity expanded with performances in Paris (1926, 1930) and a tour of the Soviet Union (1929), where she became friends with Soviet film director Sergey Eisenstein (1898–1948), who regarded her as the most interesting of all modern dancers.
Unlike most dancers, Gert published many brief articles on dance in major periodicals, often from a critical-satirical perspective, but her ability to understand dances other than her own was quite limited. The triumph of Nazism compelled her to wander internationally and not very successfully in search of a cabaret career, first in Paris (1933), then London (1934), New York (1936), London (1937), Hollywood (1939), New York (1940), Provincetown (1941), Paris (1947), Zurich (1948), and finally Berlin (1949). Her first husband, the physician and Sanskrit scholar Helmut von Krause (1893–1980), had built her a vacation cottage on the North Sea island of Sylt back in the early 1930s, and in 1955 she opened yet another cabaret there; it, too, failed to prosper, because of her excessively austere attitude toward scenic decor and production values. But she was always resourceful, publishing books, making guest appearances, and doing an occasional small, bizarre role in a film—for example, the hermaphrodite in Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits (1965) and the Old Bird in Ulrike Ottinger's Die Betörung der blauen Matrosen (1975).
Gert's dances appealed primarily to a disillusioned intellectual elite that favored modes of performance embodying a critical attitude toward socially determined conventions of signification. Even in her most serious pieces, such as Salome and Der Tod, she parodied conventions of signification, in contrast to Marcus, who tended to parody the idiosyncratic movements of personalities. Hers was an art of satiric quotation. Like Niddy Impekoven she always worked on a small scale, but unlike her Gert never confused smallness of scale with childlike naiveté. Moreover, the range of subjects she parodied was fairly wide, although her repertoire of dances as a whole was small. She started by parodying dance itself—first ballet, in Tanz in orange (1916), then social dances such as the waltz, fox trot, and Charleston. Her Japanischer Groteske (1917) and Japanischer Pantomime (1921) parodied not only Kabuki-style movements but also images of male bodily assertiveness that already seemed parodies; Gert stamped, strutted, and grimaced with wildly swinging arms, turning Kabuki into a parody and parodying the parody. She also parodied the conventional Spanish dance, the Negro dance, the gavotte, the minuet, and the expressionistic dance incarnated by Mary Wigman, whose compositions, according to Gert, were "never vehemently released from a central force, but constructed and therefore never unified. Something always remains stiff. She is completely undancerly in a higher sense, because she is physically and intellectually without rapture" (Gert, "Mary Wigman," 362).
In 1919 Gert moved toward the parodying of sleazy social types with Canaille, in which she impersonated the movements of a street girl who transformed herself from a "sweet, helpless" waif into a brazen, lewd, vulgar slut (KTP 4, 1920, 115–116). This parody of feminine modes of seduction remained in her repertoire until at least 1930. In Die Küpplerin (1920) she
was apparently even more lascivious (and disturbing) in her portrayal of a procuress, but in this case the imaginary object of her extravagantly wanton movements was not a man but a woman she wished to turn into a prostitute (a dramatic situation defining her role as Frau Greifer in the film Die freudlose Gasse ); here she parodied the movements she had already used to parody seduction in Canaille . More lurid still was Grüss aus dem Mumienkeller (1925), in which she presented, through movement above all, the most sordid, depraved embodiment of female desire "greeting" the habitués of the mummy dive, a "hellish vision of misery from the deepest depths" and an excellent example of "pornochoreography," according to a 1926 comment in the socialist journal Vorwärts (FPV 39). In the mid-1920s, Gert extended her range of parody subjects to include the boxer, the cabaret singer, the concert singer, the celebrated pianist, the "profane Madonna on the cigarette package," and the circus clown (Figure 51). With Verkehr (1926) she parodied the impatient movements of pedestrian, driver, and traffic cop at a busy Berlin intersection, and in Kino (1926) she parodied cinematic newsreels and film-star posturing. In the late 1920s, she began doing parodies of abstract emotional conditions, such as "nervousness," "pleasurable despair," and, most interesting, "tragic sorrow." The latter characterization appeared in Kummerlied (1928), in which she distorted the movements and sounds of sobbing until she burst into a scream, then subsided into a slow, weak, dry, pulsating sobbing (Gert, Mein Weg , 41).
In these strange pieces, she used dance to parody conventions of acting , and only a dancer with strong acting talent could produce such entertainingly sophisticated semiotic analysis. Actors tend to conserve rather than complicate bodily movement, preferring to emphasize the transparent function of a gesture instead of its autonomous beauty, although in 1920 a critic complained that Gert's dances suffered from too much superfluous, "restless" movement (KTP 4, 116). Gert relied heavily on her upper body to construct parodistic signification, but in Der Tod (1927) she went to extremes, wearing a simple black dress and painting her face white. One critic wrote: "She does nothing. She stands and dies." That is to say, she moved only her hands and face; her eyes, mouth, chin, cheeks, forehead, and shoulders did all the dancing to convey the approach of death, presenting a "face which seeks help . . . and already knows that nothing more is possible, no return, no escape." No music accompanied the piece, just the dancer's soft sighing or moaning. The movements of hands and face gradually diminished into a "soft and scarcely perceptible trembling." She became so still and silent, yet with eyes wide open, that spectators could not even hear themselves breathe, so powerfully did the parody of dying intensify rather than dissipate the fear of death (Hildenbrandt 128–129).
Gert always danced to popular forms of music—waltzes, Charlestons, tangos, jazz tunes—for "so-called art music says nothing to me." She claimed
her favorite musical instruments were the accordion, the saxophone, the calliope, and the street organ. She contemplated a "new music" derived from the sounds of neighing horses, mooing cows, squeaking birds and frogs, barking dogs, the rustling of wind or waves, the buzzing of airplanes and motorcycles, the pulsation of machines, the scolding of women (Gert, Mein Weg , 44–45). She believed, however, that dancing without music was "senseless," for she regarded music as the whole motive for dancing. Thus, for her, Der Tod was "no longer a dance" but simply an impersonation of dying and death (Gert, "Der neue Tanz"). Hardly any other dancer appeared so closely identified with the cynical, antiromantic atmosphere of Weimar-era Berlin. Bragaglia thought she was the most vivid incarnation of femininity deformed or demonized by immersion in "modern life, the immensity of the city" and the most perfect example of the "macabre apparition" the dancer becomes when she invests the grotesque with purely modernist qualities (Jazz Band , 161–168). But one can just as well say that, through her dance parodies, Gert embodied a highly intelligent femininity, deriving ecstasy from the "brutal," as she put it, deconstruction of semiotic conventions that strangled bodily expressivity with "gracefulness."
One could discuss other dancers who pursued careers in the solo concert mode, including Lisa Ney, Hannelore Ziegler, Tatiana Barbakoff (1899–1944), Leni Riefenstahl, Oda Schottmüller (1905–1943), Ilse Meutdner, and numerous others. However, their contributions to the solo medium still remain inadequately documented or, as in the case of Riefenstahl, less important than their contributions in another vein. As for Meutdner, she did not begin giving solo concerts until the late 1930s; though she was not an especially innovative dancer and did little to expand the expressive power of the solo medium, she was nevertheless significant in preserving a measure of the individuating spirit of Ausdruckstanz during a time (1937–1949) of intense efforts to discredit Weimar-era dance. Oda Schottmüller was a sculptor as well as a dancer and created an extraordinarily imaginative variety of self-designed masks of fascinating, exotic beauty; in one dance from 1940 she wore a tuxedo, carried a bowler and umbrella, and covered her head with a mask that made her bald and put strange eyes on her forehead, above her real eyes. She also employed music written especially for her, including a "xylophone dance," and, intriguingly, she constructed dance cycles using the music of different composers. But knowledge of her aesthetic remains obscure; research has focused on her participation in the anti-Nazi resistance and her arrest and decapitation by the Gestapo. Her dances themselves apparently did not trouble the authorities, who permitted her to perform them for troops at the front (Molkenbur; MS 202–203).