The Dance Congresses
The big dance congresses in Magdeburg (1927), Essen (1928), and Munich (1930) were remarkable and complex manifestations of mass dancing. The Magdeburg Congress, in conjunction with the great International Theatre Exposition in that city, was organized largely by Rudolf Laban, Hanns Niedecken-Gebhard, and Oskar Schlemmer. The event attracted about 300 people, but Laban and his disciples overwhelmingly dominated the proceedings. Wigman and her disciples refused to attend because Laban declined to offer them an opportunity to perform. Laban hoped the congress would further his aim of uniting all German dance organizations and institutions under a single federation, but achieving this on paper proved to have considerably less dramatic consequences than he anticipated. Nevertheless, the congress was quite successful insofar as it gave
Ausdruckstanz unprecedented media visibility. An intellectual-theoretical aura pervaded to a greater extent here than in the subsequent congresses. The Jena monthly journal Die Tat (19/8, November 1927) devoted an entire issue to publishing the bulk of the proceedings, and the journals Schrifttanz and Der Tanz emerged directly out of the congress.
The controlling theme of the congress was the institutionalization of Ausdruckstanz . Nearly all the papers and discussions focused on the historical, aesthetic, technical, and organizational difficulties of integrating modern dance into the theatre, the state educational apparatus, and large-scale institutional structures. Impressive lectures addressed dance music (E. Wellesz), dance criticism (H. W. Fischer), dance in the theatre (H. Brandenburg, H. Liebermann), and modern dance as a historical phenomenon (A. Levinson, F. Böhme, W. Howard, O. Bie). Oskar Schlemmer discussed abstract relations between dance and costume and presented models of experimental stages designed by the Bauhaus in Dessau; Laban showed films of his movement choir experiments; and Lothar Schreyer, Gertrud Schnell, Paul Et*bauer, and Gustav Klamt, among others, held a complicated dialogue on the nature of choreography. Unlike other congresses, this one featured extensive exhibition of costumes and set designs, reinforcing the perception of dance as an art defined more by fantasy than by the reality of the body.
But perhaps the most interesting feature of the congress was the series of open meetings conducted to identify the goals of a unified dance federation and the methods for achieving the goals. Some participants, including Berthe Trümpy, Charlotte Bara, and Olga Brandt-Knack, did not believe that modern dance would benefit much from a close affiliation with the theatre, the state, classical ballet, or even lay education. In other words, not everyone agreed that it was in the best interest of dance to construct a broad united front or to accommodate a wide variety of constituencies. Nevertheless, diverse sectors within dance culture expressed a willingness to support each other and to promote new ideas and new values for dance within existing cultural institutions. Laban dominated the congress performance scene with stagings of Titan, Die Nacht, and Ritterballett, and Vera Skoronel presented her mass dance Die Erweckung der Masse . Two evenings offered solo and ensemble pieces from twenty performers, including Hertha Feist, Harald Kreutzberg, Hilde Strinz, Josepha Stefan, Rudolf Kölling, and Ingeborg Roon. Curiously, Die Tat, in its eighty-eight-page report, did not discuss the dance performances at all, though it published most of the lengthy lectures.
Fritz Böhme coordinated the Essen Congress with help from Alfred Schlee, Kurt Jooss, and Ludwig Buchholz. This time Mary Wigman was present, along with Yvonne Georgi, Gret Palucca, Hanya Holm, and Rosalia Chladek. Wigman had formed (March 1928) a new dance federation,
Deutsche Tanzgemeinschaft, to compete with Laban's Magdeburg federation, so no one expected the congress, which attracted about 1,000 participants, to produce an image of professional, aesthetic, or political unity. Panels focused on the themes of dance in the theatre (again), dance notation, dance pedagogy, and (again) the theory of lay dance culture. Unlike Magdeburg, Essen attempted, midly, to situate dance modernism within an international context. Andrè Levinson, from Paris, was on hand again to defend the classical ballet tradition, as was the Javanese dancer Rodan Mas Jodjan. A special Sunday program offered "national" dances from England, Russia, Germany, Java, and Sumatra. The congress hoped to have the Soviet scholar Alexei Sidorow present a slide lecture on Russian modern dance, supplemented by performances of several Moscow modern dance groups, but at the last minute Soviet authorities refused to issue visas. These performances probably would have been the most exciting features of the congress, for knowledge of Russian modern dance during the 1920s was (and still is) frustratingly obscure. Mary Wigman presented her ensemble piece Die Feier , Terpis and Kröller presented ballets designed for the official theatres, and the Essen Municipal Theatre dancers, under Jooss, performed Honegger's Die siegreiche Horatier and Milhaud's Salat . An evening of solo dances included work by Kreutzberg, Chladek, Skoronel, Georgi, and Edgar Frank.
Patricia Stöckemann has spoken unfavorably about this congress, claiming that panelists brought nothing new to the discussion platform and bogged down in "formal things like the length of training time for dance teachers and dancers and the repeated demand for a [state-subsidized] dance academy . . . an artistic stagnation was obvious" (MS 75; also 72–90). From my perspective, the congress's atmosphere of stagnation resulted from the complete failure to address aesthetic issues or to present any analyses of actual performances. When theoretical discourse focuses exclusively on mundane details of pedagogic method, dance notation, and bureaucratic procedure in the theatres, one senses that dance is no longer an art or even a pleasure but an almost incidental aspect of career maneuvering.
The 1930 congress in Munich, jointly organized by Wigman, Laban, Böhme, Brandenburg, and several others, achieved an unprecedented and still unsurpassed scale in dance history. It attracted 1,400 participants from several countries and from numerous schools and theatres across Germany. Scholarly presentations were virtually absent, with only a few lectures on the old themes of dance in the theatre (Emmel, Brandenburg) and lay dance culture (Laban, Gleisner), although Böhme spoke perceptively about the social identity of the dancer. Joseph Lewitan, in Der Tanz (July 1930, 2), complained acidly about the lack of academic reflection, which at a medical congress would seem "grotesque." The major administrative objective of the congress was to formulate accreditation standards for dance academies.
This task proved unexpectedly easy to carry out, probably because it was not difficult to agree on broad categories of instruction—the real (undiscussed) problem was to identify values for dance, domains of meaning. But the great achievement of the congress lay in the huge number of performances from an astonishing variety of artists. Almost everybody of significance in the world of Central European modern dance appeared: Wigman, Laban, Kröller, Chladek, Maudrik, Gertz, Eckstein, Kratina, Loeser, Wallmann, Kraus, Palucca, Brandt-Knack, Klamt, Skoronel, Heide Woog, Dorothee Günther, Mila Cirul, Manda van Kreibig, Ellinor Tordis, to name only about half of the German groups, along with dancers from Holland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria, Poland, Bulgaria, and the United States. A special program featured solo pieces by thirty-five young dancers.
Stöckemann has also complained about this congress, saying that its "failing artistic impulse had a directly frightening and disillusioning effect . . . even the protagonists of the modern dance had hardly anything new to present" (MS 91). But this view seems to derive from the belief that the congress should have displayed a more urgent awareness of contemporary political realities or perhaps a more aggressively avant-garde image of dance, such as Schlemmer and the Bauhaus designers introduced at Magdeburg. If, however, one examines closely many of the works performed at the congress—as I have tried to do throughout this book—the impression emerges of substantial innovation and diversity within the world of modern dance. The congress did not exist to unify dance as a major power broker in the national cultural scene; on the contrary, it served to reveal the impossibility of unifying dance. The congress showed that the more dance expanded in a general, inclusive sense, the more it became fragmented into an enormous program of untheorized performances that supposedly spoke for themselves. The dancing body inescapably constructed patterns of difference, not structures of unity, despite the obsession with bureaucratic rhetoric emanating from nearly everyone who spoke.