Another Wigman student who did remarkable work in the theatre was Claire Eckstein (1904–1994). In Munich she met the gifted scenic designer Wilhelm Reinking, whom she soon married, and he recommended her to Heinrich Strohm, director of the opera theatre in Würzburg. Impressed with her extravagant sense of humor, Strohm hired her to choreograph Hindemith's ballet Der Dämon (1926), then Kool's Der Leierkasten (1927) and Rimsky Korsakoff's Scheherazade (1927), for which Reinking did the scenery. Along with stage director Arthur Maria Rabenalt, Eckstein and Reinking moved to Darmstadt, where from 1927 to 1931 Eckstein, in addition to her usual duties for the opera and operetta, staged several comic ballets with a distinctive modernist ambience: Massarani's Der arme Guerino (1928), Milhaud's Le boeuf sur le toit (1928), Satie's Parade (1929), Schmitt's Ein höher Beamter (1930), and two ballets for which she herself composed
the music: Soirèe (1930) and Die Gestrandeten (1930). During these years, American dancer Edwin Denby (1903–1983) was her partner-collaborator. However, in 1930 the Berlin Kroll Opera invited Reinking to design The Barber of Seville, and this opportunity led to others for him in the city. Eckstein brought several of her Darmstadt pieces to Berlin (1931), but these did not open up possibilities for her in a theatre culture suffering from severe austerity measures. She and Reinking divorced the same year. In 1933 she danced in Berlin cabaret productions of Werner Finck and Erika Mann, but she did not return to choreography until 1942, when she arranged dances for Helmut Käutner's film Anuschka, shot in Rome and Prague. Her final choreographies were for two musical films directed by Rabenalt in Yugoslavia in 1954 and 1955. According to Reinking, she could "no longer open herself up without her partner Denby" (176). But what did Denby—or, more accurately, what did the peculiar collaborative environment in Würzburg and Darmstadt, with Reinking and Rabenalt—bring out in her? "She had the gift of being able to observe the movements of people and to arrange these observations into dance-like gestures, in which the bearing and character of these observed persons became strikingly revealed in a lightly caricatured or at least exaggerated form" (63).
It sounds as if she was close to Kurt Jooss in her aesthetic. However, Jooss never achieved the comic intensity that Eckstein brought to grotesque dance, though his caricaturizations of ordinary movements often carried him into the realm of the grotesque. Eckstein caricatured idiosyncratic movements of persons rather than of social classes or of socially conditioned modes of gesture. She exposed the absurdities of individual rather than social identity and therefore also exposed the power of dance to treat social norms as sources of humor rather than anxiety. Moreover, having a designer for a husband, she relied much more than Jooss on complex scenic effects to construct comic perceptions. In Oben und unten, Reinking's set depicted a building under construction; the construction workers (in blackface) moved on the stage, on the ramp leading to the second story of the building, and on the second story, handling boards, buckets, and building tools. Die Gestrandeten featured a bizarre collection of dancers stranded on a desert island, where they perched on small tables, lounged on pillows of "sand" under a palm tree, sewed, fixed meals, and prayed before an altar. The stage thus became fragmented into idiosyncratic zones defined by individual dancers and their props. Neues vom Tage (1929), an opera by Hindemith, was set in the headquarters of a newspaper, with dancers in business suits working at copy desks before a three-story edifice containing rows of cubicles and workers (Rabenalt 441). Offenbach's Die schöne Galatee (1929) showed dancers impersonating mannequins in display windows. Eckstein obviously delighted in pieces that used complicated or not particularly danceable costumes; in Soirèe, for example, the performers wore elaborate
formal garb of the 1890s. She constantly played with Denby's image by outfitting him in wigs, eccentric makeup, extravagant paddings, and whimsical accessories such as a monocle. Probably no other choreographer of the era was as fond of dances in which dancers wore heeled shoes or laced boots. Many of her dancers were actors, and she sometimes incorporated their voices into her works to create a "sort of sound painting, as if one heard the members of a grand society all speaking and perhaps the ladies laughing but cannot understand any individual" (Reinking 108). It was therefore through the curious movements of the body that individuality revealed itself.
But Eckstein, though entirely theatrical in her attitude toward dance, had little interest in subordinating dance to narrative. She constructed her ballets out of material she had already used for dances in operas and operettas, and her dances for the musical stage seldom had any connection with the libretto story. Reinking suggested that her dances were not ballets at all but "little theatre pieces," in which actions and relations between bodies unfolded in strange fragments and the climax resulted from the accumulation of idiosyncratic effects rather than from the resolution of an intensifying conflict. Yet Berlin theatre critic Herbert Ihering observed that her dances were "in no way abstract, but immediately, directly critical" in a way that was quite remote from the aesthetic of her teacher, Wigman. In performance, Eckstein exuded an exquisitely radiant smile, a luscious, lavish pleasure in masquerade.