Preferred Citation: Toepfer, Karl. Empire of Ecstasy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910-1935. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.

Schools of Bodily Expressivity

Dorothee Günther

In the early 1920s, many people realized that competing theories of bodily movement were equally persuasive, even if they contradicted each other. Some students went from Hellerau to Laban or from Mensendieck to Hellerau or from a Wigman school to a Laban school. Dorothee Günther


(1896–1975) introduced a pedagogic approach that attempted to synthesize Mensendieck, Laban, and Hellerau. At first (1913–1916) she studied art in Dessau and Hamburg, and it was while drawing nude and "crooked" bodies in class that she felt compelled to learn about bodily movement (DG 220). She enrolled in a Mensendieck school, then studied the methods of Laban and Dalcroze. After completing her gymnastic teacher exam in 1919, she taught in Mensendieck schools in Berlin, Breslau, Hamburg, and Munich. In 1923 she settled in Munich, where she collaborated with composer Carl Orff (1895–1982) on the production of his Monteverdi opera adaptations, Orfeus and Tanz der Spröden (1923). The following year, the two of them established a school in Munich, with Orff as music director. It was here that Orff developed the famous "Schulwerk" method, still used around the world for enhancing children's receptivity to music.

Günther formed stronger creative collaborations with two of her students, Gunild Keetman (b. 1904) and Maja Lex (1906–1986). In 1930 she formed the Tanzgruppe Günther, for which she acted as a sort of executive producer, with Keetman composing all the music for Lex's choreography, which emerged from the joint theoretical perspective of Günther and Orff. Keetman was a protégé of Orff and worked closely with him in editing his Schulwerk publications (see Keetman). Nearly all of Lex's choreography before the war was produced in connection with the Tanzgruppe Günther, but she did direct the Munich premiere of Alois Haba's quarter-tone opera Die Mutter (1931). Meanwhile, Günther published articles in Die Tat, Gymnastik, and Schrifttanz and wrote two books, Gymnastik Grundübungen in eigner Zeichenmethode (1925) and Einführung in der deutschen Mensendieckgymnastik (1928). The Gymnastik Grundübungen linked the study of bodily movement to exercises in drawing the body; the Einführung modified the Mensendieck pedagogy to accommodate the Weimar cultural scene.

All students of Dorothee Günther were women. At the Munich Dance Congress of 1930, where Günther students performed in Wigman's Totenmal, the Tanzgruppe Günther achieved instant glory for Lex's Barbarische Suite . Until 1943 the dance group received plenty of offers to tour throughout Germany and several European countries, especially Italy, but Keetman, Lex, and Günther (who designed all the costumes) collaborated in a slow, methodical fashion and produced a rather small repertoire of pieces. These included Miniaturen (1931), Klänge und Gesichte (1934), Paukentanz (1935), and Tänze aus dem 17. Jahrhundert (1939). The Günther school merged with the Trümpy school in Berlin in 1933, when Trümpy's status as a Swiss citizen made her suspect as the operator of a state-subsidized business in the Third Reich. Since 1931 Günther had completely owned her own school, though she still received state subsidies. She collaborated with Lex on the immense girls' round dance for the 1936 Berlin Olympiad, a work that required 3,500 children and 2,500 girls. So acclaimed was this


piece that Günther and Lex published a two-volume account of it the same year. In 1939 Günther choreographed in Berlin Stadium a gigantic waltz for 350 female dancers and musicians. During these years Lex gave numerous solo concerts, which apparently provoked widespread appreciation, aided, no doubt, by her—if I may put it so bluntly—almost overpowering beauty; but the dark, "non-Aryan" quality of her features prevented her from rising to any serious prominence within the Nazi dance culture (Abraham 42). The Nazis closed down the school in 1944 to use it as a military depot, and a bomb destroyed it in 1945.

In 1947 Günther and Lex moved to Rome to live in a villa owned by a former student, and Keetman went to Salzburg in 1949 to teach the Orff theory of musical pedagogy. Wolfgang Wagner invited Lex to choreograph the 1951 Bayreuth production of Wagner's Parsifal; in 1953, Liselott Diem offered her an appointment at the new sport academy she and her husband had founded in Cologne. (In 1933 the Nazis had shut down Diem's Hochschule für Leibesübungen, and she had enrolled in the Berlin Günther school.) Lex went to Cologne with her old assistant, Rose Daiber, while Günther remained in Rome, running some sort of school and finishing what was perhaps the most complete statement of her theoretical perspective, Der Tanz als Bewegungsphänomen (1962). Continually prone to illness, Lex did no new choreography until the late 1960s, when she formed the student Tanzgruppe Maja Lex, which traveled to a half-dozen countries around the world, performing several dances to American jazz. In this respect she differed from Günther, whose complex notion of ecstatic dance was nevertheless unsympathetic to the influence of jazz or rock 'n' roll (DG 122). But it was clear from her final project, Der Weg zum elementaren Tanz (1986), written with her student Graziela Padilla, that Lex still remained quite faithful to the theory and method of movement education established by Günther and Orff.

From Günther's perspective, the synthesis of Mensendieck, Dalcroze, and Laban entailed not only a synthesis of gymnastics and dance but a peculiar synthesis of music and dance. Her ideas were not entirely unique; for example, a Berlin teacher, Lucie Skerl, had anticipated them in her little book Anleitung für den Gymnastikunterricht in den Schulen (1926), which used a crude drawing technique, along with photos, to describe procedures for uniting hygienic and aesthetic movement. But certainly Günther linked the notion of synthesis to a stronger sense of discipline than most other teachers; under Lex, dance instruction was pretty strict and demanding. (After working with Wigman in Totenmal, Lex believed that her improvisational method was much too chaotic.) Orff's ideas about music education clarified Günther's ideas about movement education and vice versa. With Günther, dancing and music-making became interchangeable, if not entirely synonymous. The unique identity of dance depended not on detaching


dance from music but on allowing bodily movement to structure the content of music. Keetman and Orff therefore produced music that was specific to the dance and the dancers and that permitted the dancers to create music while dancing or to exchange places with musicians. A musical work for dance always was a response to a specific problem of bodily movement. Keetman even designed all the musical instruments used to accompany the Günther dancers. The orchestra consisted of wooden flutes (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), various sizes of drums, tambourines, gongs, cymbals, bells, noisemakers, and special xylophones. One dance, Zweiklang (1938), apparently involved the unusual accompaniment of only three xylophones. The first, "cheerful" part of Klänge und Gesichte contained a dance with cymbals, a dance with flutes, and a dance with bells, with dancers performing on these instruments. Even when the music remained more explicitly confined to the orchestra, Lex and Keetman treated the playing of the music as a visible part of the choreography, as was spectacularly evident in several "kettledrum dances." This peculiar orchestra even provided the music for the gigantic stadium dances of 1936, 1938, and 1939.

In a 1931 article for Schrifttanz, Hans Redlich described the music of the Günther orchestra as "Asiatic," because it belonged "conceptually to another planet than say the music of German polyphony," the world of the Burmese gamelan ensemble (VP 75–77). However, Günther and Orff actually reached deep into the premodern European past for their models, medieval and ancient modes of music and movement. Orff stressed the notion of "elementary" musical structures or tropes in forming musical-kinetic consciousness. He built exercises and compositions around a single, elementary musical idea, such as ostinato, recitative, melisma, accentuation, crescendo, accelerando, psalmody, and intensive repetitions of a phrase at different tempos. Melodic material unfolded monophonically or homophonically rather than polyphonically or contrapuntally, even in relation to rhythm; although Keetman did like to experiment (as did Orff) with unusual rhythms for dance, such as 7/8 time, she completely avoided polyrhythmic configurations that appear, for example, in ancient African drumming.

The Mensendieck method of analyzing isolated movements in relation to specific body parts converged comfortably with the Orffian analysis of elementary musical structures. Günther proposed elementary units of bodily movement, including bending, stretching, raising, sitting, standing, falling, rolling, snaking, creeping, crawling, inclining, turning, grasping, holding, gripping, squeezing, lounging, walking, running, hopping, jumping, swinging, rotating, pressing, pushing, pulling, hanging, catching, carrying, bearing, lifting, juggling, tossing, striking, throwing, braking, climbing, balancing, plunging, arcing, gliding, striding, and leaning (DG 31–32). The human body could localize each of these movement elements within a particular body part, or bodily "element." Moreover, these movement elements


operated in relation to other, more abstract elements, including the movement's direction, repetition, magnitude, tempo, accentuation, acceleration or deceleration, and crescendo or decrescendo (71–76). When groups of bodies performed, another series of elements came into play: rows, columns, branches, circles, chains, spirals, clusters, pairings, exchanges, reversals, and so forth (66–69). But all these dynamic elements of movement functioned in relation to musical, costume, and scenic elements such as the ostinato, the mask, and the spotlight. Thus, improvisation pedagogy followed Dalcroze's rational model of almost infinite variation on ever new combinations of elements.

However, Günther identified all elements as premodern, universal categories of signification identifiable in children, primitive cultures, and advanced civilizations. Modernity pervaded the physiognomy of dance only through peculiar combinations of elements, but Günther provided little guidance on how to identify such combinations. She realized that the problem with the rational approach was its failure to link elements or element combinations to specific emotional values or meanings: elements in themselves possessed no inherent semantic resonance, and a single element might carry contradictory significations in different narrative orderings of elements. Günther therefore tentatively referred, dualistically, to what we might call "emotional elements" such as affirmation and negation, having and losing, wanting and leaving, here and there; yet these elements nevertheless existed because of spatial relations between movement elements (27, 57). For Günther, movement was always a struggle with space, not (as for Bode) with the body or (as for Wigman) with death. But space was historical as well as physical. Like Orff, Günther and Lex treated archaic or medieval dance forms as elements of a modern dance, so they set pavannes, gavottes, gigues, minuettes, and contra dances against Keetman's strange (archaic) instrumentation to produce an unmistakably modern image of the body. The drawing of bodily movement enhanced one's capacity to identify movement elements, as Lex explained in a letter to Der Tanz (10, 1937, 2–3). But it must be said that the process of identifying movement elements depends as much on naming them as on seeing them and that movement forms emanate as much from linguistic as from visual structures. In any case, Günther admitted that categories of elements were not fixed and that even the difference between a gymnastic and a dance element was not always clear, in spite of a functional distinction between a utilitarian movement (gymnastic) and a movement that is an end in itself (dance).

All the principles of the Günther-Orff method manifested themselves in Lex's Barbarische Suite (1930). Here, as in other works, Lex adopted Wigman's "cycle" structure. But in this case, each dance in the cycle represented a crystallization, so to speak, of uniquely synthesized musical, movement, and scenic elements. In "Treibende Rhythmen," the emphasis was on the


phenomenon of accentuation: six dancers engaged in a "dialogue of movement" driven by continually shifting accents, interruptions, and pauses, with "variation answer[ing] variation." In "Tanz mit Stabe," three dancers accompanied a soloist with hand-clapping and beating of bamboo shoots while the soloist manipulated a staff. The "Paukentanz" began with two dancers beating on kettledrums, and their rhythm called into dialogue the orchestra, other dancers, and then other rhythms, as the beat moved from 4/4 to 3/4 time and the dancers became more violent in their movements. This dance led to the "Kanon," in which the 3/4 rhythm coincided, "quietly," with triangular formations of the dance group and sound complexes built out of instrumentation in threes: three different flutes, three timpani, three chrome xylophones, and so forth. In the final section, "Sprungtanz," an orgiastic explosion of ever higher leaps was pitted against ever more rapid accelerandos before suddenly being punctuated by a silence from the orchestra; then came a tapping of feet, a tapping of drums, and a resumption of leaps, crescendos, and accelerandos (Selden; Losch 328–331). In both bodily and group movements, Lex continually favored crisscross, X-shaped, and A-shaped (triangular) movements; in costumes, Günther inclined toward quasi-Roman or Visigothic-Viking-type tunics or dresses with metal belts or collars.

For Günther, the meaning of dance derived from the revelation of recessed or repressed elements of expression. Dance was a struggle with space because it was a struggle with the past—or rather, a struggle to recover from the past a buried notion of freedom (love and control of space). This perspective inspired her to devote many words to the discussion of dance in so-called primitive cultures (DG 139–219), even though she recognized that differing attitudes toward sexual identity and eroticism made a reconciliation between primitive and civilized cultures impossible. Her fascination with primitive dance was not original; Jaap Kool had anticipated her quite perceptively in Tänze der Naturvölker (1921). Primitive dance was compelling because it presented undisguised musical-kinetic elements. For Günther, the experience of ecstasy depended on the revelation of elemental forces (95–122): "Rapture and ecstasy arise in and through dance. . . . With the child as with the primitive the drive toward rapture and ecstasy always attaches itself to movement, to dance" (97). But she did not think elemental-ecstatic forces revealed themselves through recovery of the superstitions and myths defining primitive cultures. On the contrary, in the civilized world the only way to expose elemental signs was through rigorous, complex analysis or deconstruction of bodies and spaces. Analytic capacities, however, separated strong dancers from commonplace dancers and prevented ecstatic dance from being a total, unifying, cultic-tribal experience. In a 1930 article for Schrifttanz, Günther subtly declared that dance education lacked rigor and remained intolerably


permeated with teachers and students of Dionysian desires and mediocre abilities who did not recognize their own limitations (VP 50–53). In other words, an elementary discourse on dance did not make dance simple or more accessible. Indeed, the disciplined effort to disclose the repressed elements of musical-kinetic energy ultimately implied that the experience of ecstasy, especially through dance, was the privilege of a gifted elite, not of a culture in a large, inclusive sense.

Schools of Bodily Expressivity

Preferred Citation: Toepfer, Karl. Empire of Ecstasy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910-1935. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.