Walter Holdt and Lavinia Schulz
Knowledge of the astonishingly bizarre and tragic art of Walter Holdt and Lavinia Schulz is obscure and largely based on the rediscovery in 1986 of artifacts deposited in a Hamburg museum back in 1925 (Jockel 55–75). The artistic power within this couple apparently lay with the woman, for virtually nothing is known of Holdt. After suffering from a severe ear disease, Schulz (1896–1924) studied ballet, painting, and music in Berlin, where as early as 1913 she came into contact with Herwarth Walden's Sturm circle of expressionists. Through this circle she became friends with Lothar Schreyer, who invited her, "my first student, a genial person with violent passion," to perform, apparently nude, in his wild production of August Stramm's Sancta Susanna in 1918 (LS 197). When Schreyer, disillusioned by his struggle to form an avant-garde theatre in Berlin, moved to his native Hamburg in 1919, Schulz followed him. It is not known whether she met Holdt there or whether they had already met by this time. In Berlin Schulz was a costumer and seamstress for Schreyer's early Kampfbühne productions, including the 1920, Edda-inspired Skirnismól; Holdt played Skirnir in a heavy, robotically abstract costume but seemed to dance in it without difficulty.
Schulz married Holdt in April 1920, and the couple soon drifted away from Schreyer, for, as Schulz explained in a note, "Expressionism is not a solution; expressionism works with machines and industry." Schulz and Holdt led a fanatically austere existence in a bizarre expressionist cellar apartment without a floor, bed, or hot water. They slept on straw and dedicated themselves religiously to the construction of their strange mask dances, wearing gray tights during the day so that they could work on the dances as they worked on the masks and costumes. The couple became obsessed with recovering an archaic Aryan-Nordic identity free of Jewish-Christian contamination. According to H. H. Stuckenschmidt, who was their friend, Schulz craved hardship: "Poverty, hunger, cold, Nordic landscape with snow, ice, and catastrophes: that was her world, and with Holdt she found it" (36). The couple put on only a few dance concerts between 1920 and 1924, but these were among the strangest produced by the whole Weimar dance culture, and although Hamburg audiences responded with
bewilderment, critics tended to recognize a powerful imagination. The marriage, however, experienced intense strain. The couple had great difficulty earning any money and longed to find a way to live without it; Holdt apparently possessed a character that was not entirely trustworthy, and Schulz was violently jealous, perpetually terrified that Holdt would betray her for another woman. In 1923 she gave birth to a son, but in this last year of the great inflation she and Holdt suffered from continual hunger. In June 1924 police discovered their bodies in the bizarre cellar apartment, with the baby between them. Schulz had shot Holdt to death, then killed herself.
Husband-wife dance pairs are quite rare on the stage; in the case of Schulz and Holdt the concept of marriage entailed a peculiarly deep implication in that it also referred to a haunting marriage of dance and costume. The couple created dances and costumes together and at the same time, so that bodily movement and the masking of the body arose from the same impulse. Schulz was a highly gifted artist whose drawings and sketches invariably startle the viewer with their hard primitivism and demonic abstraction, but Holdt assumed much responsibility for the design of the costumes and masks; for most of the costumes deposited in Hamburg, it is not possible to assign definite authorship to Schulz. The mask portions consisted mostly of fantastically reptilian, insectoid, or robotic heads, whereas the rest of the costumes comprised eccentric patchworks of design, color, and material to convey the impression of bodies assembled out of contradictory structures. One costume consisted of a white veil draped over a nude female body, topped by a large mask shaped like a triangular birdcage. To develop the "abstract organicism" of the mask-costumes, the couple built their designs out of diverse materials: wood, leather, rope, wire, metal, canvas, cloth, yarn, clay, cardboard, and gypsum. The costumes were often quite heavy and difficult to move in, because Schulz believed that art should be hard, an expression of struggle; however, all of the costumes disclose a quality of cartoonish, demonic grotesquerie rather than frightening ferocity (Figure 52). The couple gave the costumes eccentric names, as if they were mysterious pets: "Tobaggan," "Springvieh," "Technik," and so on. Yet the designs never achieved the level of abstraction reached by Schreyer or Schlemmer, partly because Schulz and Holdt cultivated a zealously ecological consciousness that made them associate abstraction with redemptive organic forms of nature and the animal world but also because the couple had a more refined feeling for bodily movement than Schreyer or Schlemmer did.
Schulz repudiated the ballet aesthetic she had studied in Berlin. In 1921 she published her notation of the dance Mann und tote Frau, using a graphic "scoring" technique similar to what Schreyer had done for Kreuzigung (1920), although Schulz's scoring was more precise and lucid. This Tanzschrift indicated a dance style built out of varying intensities of creeping, stamping, squatting, crouching, kneeling, arching, striding, lunging,
and leaping in mostly diagonal-spiraling patterns across the performance space, with both arms thrusting or grasping and the whole occasionally punctuated by pauses. It is not clear what the costumes or music were for this dance, but it is evident that the movement was uniquely expressive in dramatizing the violent struggle of a female body to achieve central, dominant control of the performance space and its emptiness. As for music, the couple worked with H. H. Stuckenschmidt, who composed a "dadaistic" piece for Springvieh (1922) and arranged "trivial music" for the ecstatic Mein Blut (1922) and Toboggan (1921). For Ungegeheuer vom Sirius (1922), a contribution to a Hamburg "astral dance show" involving several artists, Stuckenschmidt composed a shimmy; Schulz and Holdt "dashed in wild rotation; between them a star nebula of Loheland girls, swirling to the perimeter, their raised arms a wave full of delicate arpeggios" (Hans Fischer, Hamburger, 265). Jockel regards the couple as an example of the self-destructive fate that awaits people who live so completely for their art that they become mortally estranged from life (75). The Schulz-Holdt dance aesthetic does seem to embed a powerful masochism, not only in the marriage between dancers but in the equally passionate marriage of mask and movement. But the dances of this strange couple were also a kind of bizarre, expressionist demonization of marriage itself, the most grotesquely touching critique of pairing to appear in the whole empire of German dance culture.