Perhaps no dancer of the Weimar era was as aggressive in the pursuit of an emphatically modernist group aesthetic as Vera Skoronel (1906–1932), yet she displayed a strongly ambivalent attitude toward the abstraction conventionally associated with modernism. She was astonishingly precocious. Her father was the scientist Rudolf Lämmel, whose Der moderne Tanz (1928) contains the most detailed account of her aesthetic. Born in Zurich, she studied with Laban at age thirteen and then, in Zurich, with Laban's student, Suzanne Perrottet; in 1921 she enrolled at the Loheland school but the following year shifted to Dresden to study under Wigman. At age eighteen she accepted an offer to direct the dance activities in Oberhausen, where she formed her first group. When in 1925 financial difficulties forced Oberhausen to suspend its dance program, Skoronel joined forces with another Wigman student from Switzerland, Berthe Trümpy (1895–1983), in managing an opulent school in Berlin. A Gothic-medieval aura permeated Trümpy's dances; in her Christmas piece of 1926, a choir of female dancers in silver gowns performed with silver swords and lighted candles, and in Verkündigung (1927) Trümpy was a girlish, "sweet," and melancholy Madonna to Skoronel's rather cubistic-abstract and Oriental angel (RLM 172–173).
Trümpy was an excellent teacher and administrator who grasped the necessity of bestowing bourgeois seriousness and respectability on dance studies, an ambition that, she felt, required the establishment of a rigorously developed state dance academy presided over by a "scholarly non-dancer" (Freund 27). She needed someone to give her school a strong artistic identity, and that task fell to Skoronel, a dramatic-theoretical thinker whose movement imagination revealed a physicist's delight in formal abstraction. In the solo Kriegrrhythmus (1924), she introduced the "throwing, cutting, independent" arm movements for which she became famous. But this "stringent" warrior dance, with its Balinese and Singhalese influences, also conveyed a "tender" and "animal-like innocence," a strange
"purity" of "unconscious culture" that had "nothing to do with militarism" (146–147). Quadrat (1924) began with a solo by Skoronel, performing angular, broken movements as if in the grip of a fanatical demon. She sank to the floor, and the space became silent and dark; the lights returned to reveal a "stiff wall of human bodies," their dark arms upraised. The human wall drew closer and closer to Skoronel's inert form with "heavy waltz steps," until the entire group slowly sank around the lifeless body. Both the concept and choreography of the dance seemed astonishingly simple, yet it dramatized well a mysterious tension between the convulsed, "possessed" solo dancer and the "stiff" group, with the group submissive not to the wild dancer or to a strange music but to a powerfully inert body.
For the more abstract and ambitious Tanzspiel (1926), Skoronel devised a detailed written scenario to articulate the elaborate complexities of the piece and had the Trümpy school orchestra perform music specially composed to enhance particular effects of the scenario. Here the group had no visible leader, although Skoronel herself danced in it. Indeed, the group contained no characters, only "figures" such as the Id, the Mirror Being, the Two Lengths, and the Dancing Stage Wings, but these referred more to the abstract tunic costumes worn by the dancers than to the representation of differentiated motives for action. The piece, in three parts, dramatized the dynamic geometry of abstract movement categories. Lines and rows of bodies metamorphosed into whirlpools, spirals, triangles, diagonals, quartets, double duets, diagonals within circles, canons, and fugal patterns. Yet movement within a single configuration contained its own categories of dynamics: the elasticity of the line operated in relation to notions such as "crescendo," "mirroring," "syncopation," and "extension." Musical rhythms shifted abruptly, and different sections of the group moved to different rhythms; for example, one pair of dancers might move only its head and shoulders while a second pair moved its arms and a third moved its legs; one section might make hacking movements with the arms while another created undulations. Skoronel furthermore imposed emotional categories on the movement, so that arms moved "softly" or "mockingly," "violently" or "sweetly," "grotesquely" or with "melancholy." She concerned herself with the smallest bodily details: how the eyes should dance, when to smile, the vibration of the fingers, the melody of breathing (150–156) (Figures 56–57).
A dance for her was a matter of constructing a unique relation between these abstract categories of movement. She first enunciated this approach at age fifteen in a novel (never published), "Asja und Skule" (1919), about two female friends seeking ecstatic power through an intensely intellectual love of dance (161–162). Dance implied the mathematization of space, movement, and body, and group dance was the most powerful expression of this mathematization because it offered the greatest possibilities for combining categories of movement or signification. Skoronel associated
ecstatic freedom with "absolute" formal abstraction, and, in an unpublished manuscript from 1932, she explicitly linked abstraction with mechanization. By "mechanization" she did not mean imitation of or reference to machines; rather, she proposed the treatment of the body as an "instrument, which no longer displays human features" but moves according to an absolutely "pure harmony" that has "no content" and "nothing more to express" (MS 40). In an earlier article, she observed that with the "absolute dance," "form and content do not exist," and "superhuman ecstasy does not lie in the human psychic zones of joy and sorrow, but actually in the cosmic experience of the infinite—in abstraction" (Freund 73). In the Kinetographie, Laban sought to identify all possible abstract categories of human movement, but he was unable to apply these categories systematically in the creation of dances: he had a dictionary but could not form any sentences or syntax. Skoronel showed far greater power in thinking out dance abstractly, yet she relied on conventional writing (scenarios and theoretical essays) and stick-figure drawings to formulate her dances; she did not move toward any system of computation tables or logarithms to optimize the mechanization of movement.
In other words, Skoronel betrayed a measure of ambivalence toward her own abstractionism. This ambivalence surfaced overtly in Legende des Weissen Waldes (1927), a "dance fairy tale in four scenes," with "figures" such as a Sorceress, the Child of the White Forest, the Creatures of the White Forest, twelve Black-and-White Knights, four Water Sprites, and the Demon. The various dances making up the piece contained the complex combinations of movement categories already apparent in Tanzspiel, but this time movements constructed a semipantomimic narrative about the awakening of the solitary Child of the White Forest, the failure of the Knights and Prophets to protect the Child from the Demon, the rescue of the Child by the Sorceress, and, in a final test of "innocence," the Child's attempt to dance without sinking on the surface of a black lake. Silence accompanied several of the dances, but even more innovative was the imaginative use of lighting in the choreography. For example, spotlights showed only the arms of dancers (branches of "trees") undulating in a world of darkness; indeed, during some moments no dancers at all appeared on the stage, and one only saw the movement, the intensification or fading, of light. At one point, dancers moved in darkness; the lights came up suddenly and glaringly, then went out, conveying the impression that no one could see the whole dance, not even the dancers, who, like the Child, are blind to the world, even to themselves. The relation between the Child and the Prophets and Red Flowers was somewhat similar to that of the inert body and the synchronized wall of bodies in Quadrant, whereas the relation between the Demon and the Knights followed the model of a wild, turbulent, polyrhythmic group dominated by an explosively moving leader, who pressured the group to
explore and feed off all tensions within it without ever dissolving into individuals. But the appearance of the Sorceress, "accompanied by four Guards," complicated group-leader relations, for she performed an "angular-pantomimic" dance that inspired neither the fanatical rhythm of the Demon-group dances nor the trancelike tread of the Child-group dances. The pantomimic leader produced a slow, heavy rhythm, a steady, triumphant motion that soon dominated the movement of all groups and marked the Child's dance on water.
Few dances, including Wigman's, theorized leader-group relations with such sophistication and with such ambivalence over the ultimate authority of inert, abstract, or pantomimic bodies to lead, to mold bodies into groups. Yet Skoronel herself claimed that the "aim of the group dance (insofar as it has an aim) is the complete equality of given tensions: mass, group, soloist, leader. The harmonic, melded unity of all poles, even the strongest contrasts, is the basis of the new group dance" (RLM 169). As director of the speech and movement choirs of the Berlin Volksbühne, Skoronel applied these theoretical concepts on a larger scale in Erweckung der Masse (1927) and Der gespaltene Mensch (1927), in which, apparently, groups of women in dark tunics and bare legs moved in tension with a group of bare-chested men in black trousers. Here she pursued the gendered dynamics by which one group leads another or consolidates competing groups.
One might say that, through abstractionism, Skoronel sought to transcend the erotic themes or dynamics of erotic desire that exclusively female ensembles hesitated to explore, at least in an overt, romantic fashion. Nevertheless, eroticism pervaded her aesthetic. In Tanzspiel, some female dancers wore boyish haircuts and vaguely masculine (long-sleeved) tunics. Skoronel was herself a small, lithe, muscular woman who liked to be photographed performing aggressive, thrusting, surging movements that, when incarnated by such a pretty body, exerted strong erotic appeal for male spectators. Abstraction was not for her the end of eroticism; rather, she eroticized abstraction, attempting to make the desireability of the female body manifest in angular, hacking, squatting, or pumping movements. But the attempt succeeded only partially. Fritz Böhme, dance critic for the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, observed that Skoronel's formalism resembled ballet technique, with emphasis on arm rather than leg movements, and strove toward an "ideal of objectivity" based on mechanization of movement. But the result was a "pedantic" pleasure in exactness of execution not far removed from that displayed in the revue dances of the Tiller Girls (28 October 1926). In a review of Erweckung der Masse (27 March 1927), he complained that although the movement choirs performed expertly, the piece as a whole seemed guided by a force external to the "masses" themselves: "The movements are externally directed, not centered inwardly. The piece certainly contains symmetry, asymmetry, and polarities, but these lack
an inner, living, spatial necessity. Everything appears calculated, predetermined. . . . The 'awakening of the masses' does not unfold; it is given, imposed, ordained" by formal design.
Later the same year (5 October 1927), Böhme offered some deeper insight into the limitations of Skoronel's abstractionism. He remarked that she seldom sank into herself; instead, through her exaggerated, rushing movements, she projected a powerful will to test and exceed the "limits of bodily possibilities." But no matter how great her will, "she cannot overcome these limits," and "she will never reach the power of Wigman's gestural language," for "her dances continually show gestures of cutting, striking, shaking, annihilating, destroying." Without serious "content," such a dance aesthetic produced a "sort of agitation gone demonic." In Paris, André Levinson, a reactionary supporter of ballet, commented (1929) more favorably on the "turbulent agitation" of a "nearly tragic" aesthetic that did not strike him as German at all—perhaps Slavic. Skoronel "attacked" dances with "relentless exasperation," moved with "vehemence," turned "in a rage upon herself," "projected with force a steeled arm and fist," "stamped with anger" to embody "a young Fury prostrated by her paroxysm" (500). But in Berlin critical approval remained restrained. A reviewer for the Steglitzer Anzeiger (237, 9 October 1930) said of a solo concert by Skoronel that she knew "only two degrees of movement—the excited, convulsed leap and the ecstatic rotation," and as a result all of her pieces were too long.
In a 1929 article for Schrifttanz, Trümpy responded to criticisms of excessive abstraction in modern dance by arguing that Germans were a more intellectual than physical people and that therefore a distinctly German dance culture depended on intellectualism and abstraction. Russian-style ballet technique had emerged from a unique cultural context, she wrote, but in Germany ballet was a completely dead art, and efforts to promote a "healthy sensuality" in German dance based on pantomimic principles were misguided (VP 11–12). However, Trümpy's article actually somewhat confused the issue of dance's cultural identity, for Skoronel's mother was Russian, so her inclination toward abstraction and ballet-type formalism perhaps owed as much to Slavic heritage as to Germanic intellectualism (assuming the validity of Trümpy's own cultural distinctions). Skoronel died suddenly and mysteriously (of leukemia?), and when the Nazis took power Trümpy found it expedient to merge her school with the Günther school in Munich, where Maja Lex pursued a formalistic notion of the group that was far less "turbulent" and "vehemently" intellectual than Skoronel's.