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Adorée Villany

Adorée Villany apparently performed a kind of refined striptease that unveiled her body as an artwork. Nude dancing was, for her, movement toward a pose; total nudity apparently brought the movement of the body to an end. Complete nakedness therefore stabilized both the body unveiled and the gaze of the spectator. Villany began performing nude dances in


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public around 1910. All were versions of works she had been performing since at least 1905, and it appears that she performed nude dances for photographs as early as 1906.

Born in Rouen, she became enamored of theatre as a child, though she had almost no firsthand experience of it. Alone in her bedroom, she performed little plays of her own composition, despite stern opposition from her mother and aunt. She was completely self-taught as a performer, blessed as she was with an astonishingly rich imagination and sense of enterprise. She first captured public attention in 1905 with a Salome dance in which she not only performed the Dance of the Seven Veils but simultaneously spoke (in French) Salome's final monologue from Wilde's play. From then on she continued to experiment with what she called "spoken dances." As an exponent of new dance, however, she displayed a curious fondness for archaic, mythical, historical, and Oriental themes: The Assyrian Dance, The Dance of Esther, Dance of the Roman Woman, The Old Egyptian Dance, The Old Hebrew Dance, The Old Persian Dance, The Dance of Phryne, The Babylonian Dance, The Pre-Raphaelite Woman, and Death and the Maiden, all of which involved pantomimic and intricately narratived movements. She combined these performances with "silhouette dances" (Turkish) and dances of a more abstract quality, such as Dance of Anger, Visionary Dance, The Seduction, and Dance of the Blind . In all these works, she exhibited a brilliant skill at manipulating costumes (which she designed herself) and scenographic effects; apparently she favored archaic themes because these provided greater opportunities to employ daring, even lurid, costumes that generously revealed her flesh. In 1909 she performed her morbid one-act femme fatale play, La Panthere, in which the heroine, in a spotted leotard, performs a strange panther dance for the man she loves before strangling him; the panther woman "strokes—then scratches." Supplementing this repertoire with dances that interpreted paintings by Stuck, Böcklin, and other contemporary artists, Villany performed in Prague, Paris, Ghent, Berlin, Rotterdam, Vienna, Brussels, and numerous spas, such as Marienbad and San Sebastian. But it was in Germany that she found her largest audience.

Villany's nude performances were attended largely by upper-class aesthetes and held in private homes or in spaces Villany rented for the purpose of entertaining members of a specially formed dance society. Munich police found these strategies distressing and prosecuted her for obscenity in 1911. The following year, she responded to her conviction by publishing Tanz-Reform und Pseudo-Moral, a huge and wonderfully entertaining book—one of the most entertaining books on dance ever published—in which she argued that reform of dance was equivalent to reform of morality. Undaunted by condemnation of her as a narcissist and exhibitionist, she perceived that to overcome a pervasive fear of the female body one had to gaze at it with the same seriousness that one applied to the contemplation


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of artworks. She felt that being beautiful was a right and that the assertion of this right entailed displaying her own beauty, which in itself did not transgress any healthy idea of the good. Of persistent fascination to her audiences was the slenderness of her body, which contrasted dramatically with the "softer" ideal of feminine beauty that prevailed at that time. Besides reprinting much of the sensational press coverage of her performances and trial, she made extensive, unprecedented use of photography to document her aesthetic and link her dances to the lofty zones of consciousness occupied by the visual arts. (Apparently she made some films of her dances, too.) But some of the nude images self-consciously show facial expressions that betray a measure of anxiety toward either her nakedness itself or toward the gaze focused upon it. Villany also included abundantly illustrated chapters on her stylized dances, on her costumes—"The reform of dance is as much a question of costume as it is a question of dance technique" (79)—on "dance language and body culture," and on her life; she condemned ballet as an oppressive, obsolete art form; she denounced her imitators; she presented witty interviews with herself and included quite humorous cartoons satirizing her notoriety; she presented the views of her critics; and she offered a series of comic fantasy sketches of nude dances she proposed to perform in public, at the Frankfurt Zoo, before government ministers, painted entirely black so that she looked Negroid, and so forth. She even imagined the creation in 1950 of a museum dedicated to her memory and wrote humorous tour-guide commentary for it.

Tanz-Reform und Pseudo-Moral is a maddeningly complicated book, and it therefore seems that Villany's nude performances must be seen in the context of a rather ambitious vision of freedom. The author's nakedness motivates a wild and monumentally generous release of discourse and imagery that allows her to shift suavely, if somewhat manically, from luxuriant tragedy and theory to exquisite comedy and affable memoir ("I have no idea what headaches are," 121). But above all, Villany linked the reform of dance (and morality) not to reform of movement, music, nor even law but to reform of the body and its image. For her, reform of the body involved not just looking at it but displaying it with unapologetic narcissism. However, it is quite difficult to determine what happened to her after 1912. In 1915 she performed, as a "special attraction," a nude dance at the Oscar Theatre in Stockholm in an operetta, Solstrålen , set in a "dance cafe" on the planet Mars (Jannario 21). After that, I find no trace of her.


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