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Pair Dancing
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The Sacharoffs

Alexander Sacharoff (1886–1963) and Clotilde von Derp (1892–1974) formed the most enduringly popular dance pair in European history. The aesthetic that bound them together depended on an atmosphere of extreme artificiality and refined gender game—playing, which may explain the couple's great durability. Sacharoff was born into a middle-class Jewish family in the Ukraine. In 1903 he went to Paris to study painting at the Academie Julien under Bourgereau; however, when he saw a play in which the actress Sarah Bernhardt performed a minuet with Coquelin, he decided to become a dancer. In 1908 he began studying acrobatics in Munich, where he made friends with such modernist artists as Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Marianne Werefkin, and Alexander Jawlensky, for whom he sometimes posed as a rather androgynous figure. His own taste in art inclined much more strongly toward ancient Greek vase painting and fifteenth-century Italian masters. He gave his first concert in Munich in 1910, and in all his early performances he projected the image of an ancient Greek vase painting figure, donning a kind of tunic-skirt while dancing to music (harps and string quartet) by Renaissance Italian composers (Palestrina, Monteverdi, Di Lassos) or a waltz by Johann Strauss. In both movement and costume he strove toward adrogyny, which seemed to suppress all muscularity of expression. In 1912–1913 he danced with the Rita Sacchetto ballet company. Critics, according to Brandenburg, "found that the feminine part seemed masculine and the masculine feminine, and in fact Sacharoff moved with wonderful lightness; he even wept with his partner in his hands, without


making us think that because of this action he wanted to step too closely to a bad comedy not of his own invention." For her part, Sacchetto sputtered in "incoherent and idle attitudes of a costumed doll" (148).

Meanwhile, Clotilde von Derp was shaping her own career as a dancer. Born in Berlin to an aristocratic family, she moved with her mother to Munich in 1900, where she studied ballet and violin. Like Sacharoff, she gave her first concert in Munich in 1910, and her success was such that Max Reinhardt invited her to perform an elf role in a pantomime production, which led to her assuming the main role in his spectacular pantomime Sumurun in London in 1911. Brandenburg felt that before she teamed with Sacharoff she was a "purely lyrical dancer" with an unusual gift for constructing "rich" bodily rhythms, "song[s] of the blood" that did not seem dominated or determined by musical rhythms: her body appeared moved and freed by the music, not synchronized with it—not, so to speak, married to it (142–143). He regarded her partnership with Sacharoff as a mistake, for she "denied her blood" and intellectuality to pursue an aesthetic that made him look more masculine and forced her to sacrifice her lyrical severity for an excessively sweet femininity (155).

Brandenburg's anti-Semitism somewhat clouded perception of the couple, but as a dance pair they hardly embodied the qualities pervasively associated with a distinctively German impulse in dance. They met in 1913 at an arts festival in Munich and decided to become a dance pair once they had perfected their technique. When the war broke out, Sacharoff moved to Lausanne, with Derp following (1916), accompanied by her mother. The two did not begin dancing together until 1917, entirely in Switzerland. They married in 1919, and the same year in Zurich they made the acquaintance of the wealthy Edith Rockefeller, who offered to sponsor their performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York early the following year. American audiences, however, showed little enthusiasm for the Sacharoffs' aesthetic. In 1921 they settled in Paris, which became their base during the interwar years, and they performed throughout Europe until 1930, when they embarked upon a successful tour of China and Japan. They repeated the tour in 1934, followed by concerts in Montreal, Detroit, and South American cities. In Spain when Germany invaded France, the Sacharoffs migrated, by way of Portugal, to Buenos Aires, where they remained until 1949, when they returned to Paris. In 1950, while visiting Italy, where they had once enjoyed much success, they met Count Guido Chigi Saracini, who invited them to teach a dance course at his Accademia Musicale Chigiani in Siena. Thus, from 1952 until their deaths they lived in Rome, teaching in Siena and at their own school in Rome at Palazzo Dorio. Although they stopped dancing as a pair in 1956, they remained prominent figures in the Italian dance world, with Sacharoff the subject of art exhibitions featur-


ing his extravagant costume designs (Veroli; Fontaine; Ropa; Vaccarino; Vuillermoz).

The Sacharoffs made an enduring impression as a couple embodying a unified aesthetic, yet the pair performed only a few dances together, and most of these were romantic waltzes they had created in the years 1916 to 1919. Their romantic pair waltzes and chorales had the effect of masking differences between them and of presenting couplehood as the ultimate motive for dance. But despite Brandenburg's contention that she lost her distinctive sense of bodily rhythm through her match with Alexander, Clotilde did retain much of her original style in her solos, and her association with Alexander primarily implied (for him as well as her) a stronger mastery of ballet technique, although neither dancer was ever in any sense a virtuoso. Ballet technique enabled the couple to build a repertoire of movements, which they applied to the construction of virtually all their dances into the 1940s. They introduced no innovations in movement, and Alexander in particular consistently showed a tendency to think out dances as a series of poses, an approach no doubt due to his education in art. His acrobatic training urged him to synchronize all his movements to the music, whereas Clotilde moved much more independently of the music, urged more by the image the music created in her mind than by the rhythms themselves. In other words, she danced not to the music but rather to an idea within herself stimulated by the music, which is why Brandenburg described her style as "intellectual."

Clotilde displayed a more eclectic and modern taste in music than Alexander, who seldom chose anything from the twentieth century, whereas she favored music created during her lifetime: Reger, Schmitt, Pizzetti, Faure, Stravinsky, Scriabin. The couple displayed little narrative imagination and had difficulty developing dramatic structures for their dances. However, Clotilde's body possessed an extraordinarily dramatic and luscious glow, and in spite of her very dark hair her face exuded a hypnotic luminosity and her eyes a haunting, enticing shine. Indeed, perhaps no other dancer of the era owned such a powerful yet delicate repertoire of smiles. The music she chose projected mostly a melancholy or elegiac mood in a minor key, yet she always conveyed the impression that she experienced great pleasure in displaying, moving, and costuming her body. She seemed to suggest that no matter the context, she would feel some mysterious happiness on her own, aristocratic terms, whereas Alexander constantly adopted a more serious aspect, drifting occasionally into pathos even when he danced with her. But for neither of them was dance an expression of struggle or toil. Their art lacked a tragic dimension, just as it lacked kinetic technical innovation, yet all the same it was complex. The Sacharoffs created alluring dances by recombining their rather narrow range of balletic


movements and poses in relation to a gorgeous array of costumes, letting their glamorous outfits make old movements new.

Alexander and Clotilde often designed their own costumes, sometimes they collaborated with major figures of the Parisian haute couture: Georges Barbier, Paul Poiret, Hubert de Givenchy, Jeanne Lanvin, René Goetz, Nathalia Goncharova, Marie-Louise Bruyere. All their costumes displayed spectacular colors, luxurious refinement, and a glorification of remote historical fashions (Figure 53). For Petit Berger (1917) Clotilde wore a stunning green chiffon minidress decorated with red, yellow, and blue cloth roses, but in Poeme Printanier (1917) she danced in a fuller dress printed with an ecstatic multitude of brilliant flowers. In Danse (1921) she wore an elegant medieval-Byzantine dress in blue and gold. Even when she donned folk dresses, the designs were so lavishly stylized that folk culture appeared as a charming abstraction rather than as a stable sign of "authenticity." She also liked flaming red costumes, elegantly trimmed with silver or accompanied by black capes and accessories. Sometimes she danced in swirling chiffon trousers, and she never lost her taste for appearing in an eighteenth-century, "half-boyish, half-girlish union of pants and coat," for she looked extremely pretty and radiantly feminine in male garments (HB 142).

Alexander's taste in costume was just as flamboyant: from the time of Visione del Quattrocentro (1913), introduced during his work with Sacchetto, he strongly favored sacerdotal, medieval-Renaissance robes and vestments of imperial splendor. He often appeared, especially in pair dances, wearing luxurious pajama-type pants of an exotic nature or Venetian-Pierrot costumes with all sorts of precious details. He loved painting and powdering his face, with Pavane Royale (1913) being perhaps his most elaborate masquerade of masculinity, for here he parodied the already fantastic mannerisms of an aristocrat in the court of Louis XIV. Golliwog's Cakewalk (1916) was virtually a transvestite performance, even though he wore gaudy puff-trousers, but he really did not cultivate female impersonation. Rather, he sought to show the beauty of "effeminate" masculinity, freed from the conventional markers of modern male identity, the male body completely detached from muscularity and heroic posturing yet nevertheless pleased with itself and not at all constrained in its power to lead the woman.

When he teamed up with Clotilde, Alexander ceased to adopt the ancient Greek look, but Clotilde began to explore it, most notably in Danseuse de Delphes (1916), in which she achieved a far more elegant, refined, and yet modern (proto—art deco) look than Isadora Duncan ever did. The Sacharoffs delighted in bizarre hats, shoes, and wigs, with some of their wigs consisting of "hair" sculpted out of gold or silver metal and further ornamented with extravagant garlands of silk flowers and wax fruit.


For their pair dance Chanson des Oies (1923), they wore identical furry white duck masks and trim "duck suits"; only Clotilde's little "feather" skirt established a difference between male and female. For Chanson Negre (1921), which used a black gospel song as accompaniment, she actually wore, for once, a modern-style dress, with spats, black gloves, a scarf, and a sort of Little Orphan Annie wig, but she attached to her waist a skirt of huge ostrich plumes. One cannot say that she impersonated a black person or even a black way of dancing—rather, she demonstrated how black music disclosed yet another mask of her white femininity (Vuillermoz 33).

Indeed, the great message of the Sacharoffs was that sexual identity, pairing, and marriage itself were all masquerades, the consequences of perfect artificiality rather than "nature." The happiness of a couple depended on elaborate masks and a common balletic rhetoric of movement to disguise powerful differences between them. Brandenburg found this implication so haunting and unsettling that he spent an unusually large number of pages trying to explain it away, for perhaps he grasped intuitively a further implication: that the "happy couple" consisted of two people who were happy together, not two people who were happiest only when they shared the same desire. In the artificial world of the Sacharoffs, no one was happy who was not intensely narcissistic. Perhaps this point was never clearer than in Clotilde's solo interpretation of Debussy's Le prelude à l'apres midi d'un Faun (1936). Nijinsky's 1912 interpretation of Debussy's music had provoked much controversy in Paris because of his friezelike presentation of a bacchantic female choir and his own muscular but delicate impersonation of the faun, who, unable to consummate his desire for any of the women, concluded the piece by masturbating in his bower-lair (Nectoux). Clotilde's version was just as daring, especially if one reads it as a commentary on Nijinsky's piece. She wore not an animal-like costume but rather a flimsy white chiton printed with red and black splotches, which gave the effect of violent bloodstains on her torso. Around her shoulders she looped a long purple scarf, and around her head she set a garland of wax grapes. She performed her dance largely by sitting on the floor in a soft spotlight, undulating, writhing, arching, discarding the scarf, and spreading her legs so that the hem of the dress slid down her thighs to display the splendor of her flesh (Veroli 148–149). She passed through her wonderful repertoire of smiles and langorous glances. The dance was a masturbatory glorification of her beauty, of her love for herself, the dominant source of an ecstasy that depended on no one but herself; for as close as she was to the spectator, her pleasure always seemed remote, a secret she alone appreciated. Of course, it is extremely rare to witness a forty-four-year-old woman dancing with such voluptuous pleasure in herself, basking in her own beauty with a brazenness that seems to awaken an outraged urge to violate her—an urge she herself has already anticipated.


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