Pantomime and Modernism: Blurring of Distinctions between Dance and Pantomime

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

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Blurring of Distinctions between Dance and Pantomime

Modern dancers nevertheless seemed fixated on solving the problem of Salome as an emblem of modernity. In 1908, Ida Rubinstein (1883-1960), heir to a vast fortune in St. Petersburg, collaborated with the great choreographer Mikhail Fokine (1880-1942) to produce a Salome for private performance in St. Petersburg. Rubinstein had traveled to Palestine and Syria to prepare herself for the role, and she had studied music, acting, and dance from distinguished teachers. Though she lacked talent as a dancer, Fokine recognized that she possessed great skill as a performer and that she knew how to move to amplify her seductive, lean, dark beauty. Originally, she wanted to perform Oscar Wilde’s play, but the Orthodox Church and the government forbade production of the text and allowed performance of the story only as a pantomime. Leon Bakst did the décor, Alexander Glazunov composed the orchestral music, and Vsevolod Meyerhold was in charge of the mise-en-scène. The performance was a triumph; the elite audience, which included the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, responded with “tumultuous applause”; her nearly complete nudity at the end of the “Dance of the Seven Veils” no doubt gave the spectators an intense feeling of being witness to a very “modern” event  (Bentley 2002: 138-140; Coe 2016: 187-202). But Fokine observed her exceptional skill as a pantomime: she was very economical in her movements and applied a restraint to movement that a dancer like Fuller was incapable of exercising. She knew how to make stillness (pose) dramatic by bestowing a precision, discretion, weight, and power to her performance of an action or gesture rather than simply executing a beautiful or difficult movement (Fokine 1961: 245). Rubinstein’s willingness to think of Salome as something more than “the essence of dance” allowed her to see her body as containing other glamorous identities that lacked any clear affinity with dance. Diaghilev invited her and Fokine to join the Ballet Russes in Paris to produce an even more lavish spectacle that exploited her gift for speechless drama, Cléopâtre (1909), followed by Sheherazade (1910). These, too, were triumphs. However, Le Martyre de saint Sébastien (1911), a collaboration with Gabriele d’Annunzio and Claude Debussy, provoked much less enthusiasm. It was an enormous spectacle, five acts and six hours, requiring 600 costumes, 150 actors, 350 extras, a chorus, an orchestra, luxurious scene décor (by Bakst), and condemnation from the Catholic Church. In playing the young Christian Sebastian, the homosexual obsession of the Emperor Diocletian, Rubinstein danced, mimed, and spoke, apparently with some difficulty, d’Annunzio’s gaudy and prolix verse (Levitz 2012: 425-427, 431; Fleischer 2007: 63-75; Bentley 2002: 150-152). In a letter to Natalie Barney, the artist Romaine Brooks wrote: “The sexual ambiguity of the Saint is only increased in Rubinstein’s portrayal of him; she is a masculine female acting as an effeminate man, pursued by a homosexual emperor” (Levitz 2012: 416). But a larger implication can be ascribed to her grandiose productions: to prevent Salome from becoming the Pierrot of modernist female dance and pantomime, Rubinstein saw herself as a kind of funnel for channeling large resources to incarnate different archaic historical figures who were so “big” that they each demanded their own, huge show. For her, modern female identity was an uninhibited expression of extravagance, a condition of freedom that entailed an indifference to the expense of achieving it. And yet she was not done with Salome. Indeed, Toni Bentley regards the characters Rubinstein performed as “sisters of Salome” rather than as alternatives to Salome. In April 1919, as a charity gala, she produced, at the Opera, her own version of La Tragédie de Salomé, which the Ballet Russes had already revived twice with the classically trained ballet stars Natalia Trouhanova (1912) and Tamara Karsavina (1913) as Salome. The choreographer, Nicolai Guerra (1865-1942), got her to dance on pointe, and the piece received enough acclaim to remain in the Opera repertory until 1922, when Rubinstein supposedly granted the role to prima ballerina Yvonne Daunt (1899-1962), the first to dance barefoot on the Opera stage. Rubinstein’s motive in staging the work may have contained more than her appreciation for Schmitt’s luxuriant, powerful music. She had left the Ballet Russes in 1912, ostensibly because Diaghilev believed she was incompetent as a dancer, but perhaps also because he regarded her flamboyant personality and immense wealth as unhealthy distractions. With her own company, she continued to produce large-scale spectacles with famous collaborators. Antoine et Cléopâtre (1920) was a vast, six hour realization of André Gide’s translation of Shakespeare’s play with over an hour of ballet music by Florent Schmitt and sumptuous décor by Bakst, and Rubinstein, as Cleopatra, in a stunning costume, photographs of which, as usual, newspapers and cultural journals around the world were eager to publish. She was Artemis Troublée (1922), with music by Paul Paray, then Istar (1924), using Vincent d’Indy’s music, before hiring Bonislava Nijinska (1890-1972) and later Leonid Massine (1896-1979) to choreograph pieces she had commissioned from major composers (Honegger, Milhaud, Sauget, Ravel, Stravinsky, Auric). In Henri Sauget’s David et Goliath (1928), she performed the part of David as an androgynous creature, and, as might be expected, she provoked complaints from both Massine and journalists about her lack of skill in performing dance arabesques, pas de deux, and elevations (Norton 2004: 125). Leslie Norton adopts an unflattering view of Rubinstein: “the vast majority of her works were dinosaurs, pretentious, old-fashioned, unwieldy, tedious. Rubinstein never got over her infatuation with the fin de siècle, and she never ceased to be a spoiled rich girl” (2004: 130). 

Figure 116: Ida Rubinstein in the film La Nave (1921). Photo: Italian postcard of a film still.

She consistently overestimated the capacity of her sleek, tall body to construct dancelike responses to music, although Lynn Garafola offers a more positive assessment: “She chose her roles with extraordinary care, tailoring them to not only what she perceived as her strengths but also to an exalted vision of heroism that she never abandoned.” Her female heroes were “autonomous, agents of fate rather than its victims, manipulators of desire rather than its objects” (2005: 161). But she was much better off performing pantomime, which none of her choreographers, eager to enhance their ambitions in ballet, considered worthy of their talents. Her pantomime skill is evident in the 1921 movie she made of d’Annunzio’s 1908 play La Nave, directed by d’Annunzio’s son, Gabriellino, and Mario Roncoroni, which had already been made into a huge, Wagnerian opera (1918) by Italo Montmezzi. In the enormous film production, set in Venice in 552 CE, Rubinstein plays Basiliola, a sadistic, pagan femme fatale, who seeks revenge against the two brothers who mutilated her own brothers in their quest to become masters of the emerging, Christian city [Figure 116]. In one scene she performs a “seductive dance” before a vast crowd, and her awkwardness, her stiffness as a dancer are transparent. Yet elsewhere in the film the restrained pantomimic movement that Fokine felt was her strength creates a performance of memorable intensity, because her languid, deliberate movements possess a compelling authority when accompanied by music she did not hear when she performed them. Her great wealth gave her a body that refused to submit well to music or perhaps to any pressure external to it. Composers submitted music to her, but no amount of “study” could get her body to submit wholly to the music or even to dance. She moved in a disciplined (“restrained”), distinctively dramatic style: she could not escape any suggestion that her body seduced rather than submitted in relation to anything or anyone external to it. For this constant role of the great seductress, it was best if the music followed her or, as when you watch La Nave on video and select your own accompanying music, movement and music “fit,” even though either is unaware of the other. In a sense, Rubinstein epitomized the image of the great seductress who embodied female modernity in dance, for this “foreign” seductress, no matter how naked she appeared, constantly moved in relation to signifiers of luxuriousness and great wealth. It was the fantasy of the dance world that the seductress voluptuously submits her body to the music, to the choreography, to a system of body regulation, so that something other than her wealth or beauty allows her movements to become art and redemptive. But Rubinstein undermined this fantasy, and in doing so contributed significantly to the collapse of the seductress image driving so much of early modernist dance. 

            Women coming out of the Delsartean physical education culture contested the “oriental” seductress image and the escalating cost of maintaining it, but it took awhile for them to realize that a new idea of modern female dance did not depend on finding a new image of female power nor on establishing a reputation for creating a “freer” embodiment of the feminine by taking audiences “outside” of the culture they inhabited. The American dancer Ruth St. Denis (1879-1989) was a student of the Delsartean system, and she credited performances (1892) by Genevieve Stebbins with bringing about “the real birth of my art life” (Shelton 1990: 11-13). She spent her early career as a “skirt dancer” in vaudeville shows and as a showgirl in musicals, while seeking spiritual guidance from esoteric, theosophical, Buddhist, and other exotic sources. She wanted to infuse dance with a spirituality that was lacking in the American theater, but she believed that a spiritual dance was possible only if she also incorporated the orientalism that audiences associated with artistic dancing. Stebbins’ notions of “Egyptian” pantomime deeply impressed her, and, applying many of the Delsartean exercises, she rather slowly developed her own idea of an Egyptian dance that eventually (1905) became Egypta, “a pantomime without words […] an epic dance typifying the life of man as revealed by the progress of the Sun in its journey through night and day” (49). As she became more deeply attracted to Eastern philosophies, she revised the piece, so that the twelve hours of Egypta became the five senses of Radha, a Hindu temple maiden, who seeks union with the god Krishna but must overcome the temptations of the senses (51). St. Denis constructed Egypta/Radha as a kind of anti-Salome, a woman who was not a seductress but who nevertheless exuded an erotic aura. Compressing twelve dances into seven was the result of shifting from an intended salon audience to a vaudeville audience. She realized that American audiences favored a “variety” of acts in a show rather than a concentration of resources into the monumental performance of a powerful figure, which anyway would probably entail incarnating a Salome-like seductress. She therefore devised two more dances derived from “serpentine” Delsartean exercises, “The Incense,” and “The Cobras,” in which she “pantomimed the coiling and hissing of two serpents, her arms gliding and darting in sinister foreplay” (57). Radha (1906) consisted of seven dances: each of the five senses had its own dance, followed by “The Delirium of the Senses” and “The Renunciation of the Senses.” Each dance applied specific movement tropes fashioned from Delsartean exercises. For a couple of the dances, she made costume changes, which necessitated the presence on stage of a group of “priests,” whose minimal movements functioned to sustain audience attention long enough to complete the costume change. In effect, each of the dances was self-contained and could be detached for performance within some other larger set, and over many years, St. Denis revised or recycled the choreography, the décor, and the music. As Suzanne Shelton explains: “Essentially she employed the tools of the skirt dancer, a smattering of sentimentalized ballet—tippy-toe turns and waltz steps, simple attitudes and dégagés—embellished with the acrobatic antics of her supple arms and upper back. She combined the steps in brief movement phrases, punctuated by poses. These poses themselves suggested eclectic sources, both oriental icons and popular images of the late Victorian era” (62). Radha showed how the experience of each sense contributed to the metamorphosis of the character from a carnal to a spiritual being. With the addition of “The Incense” and “The Cobras,” St. Denis had a program of dances by which she could dramatize the metamorphosis of the dancer herself, the multiplicity of identities within her body. While Villany, at about the same time, developed perhaps a more imaginative and daring idea of the solo modern dance program, her devotion to nudity prevented her dramatization of her metamorphosis from becoming a model that others could emulate. Still, Radha had difficulty attracting American audiences. St. Denis had helpful friends in New York high society, who facilitated her introduction to cultural elites in Europe. In 1906, she embarked on a long tour of Europe that lasted until 1909. London audiences responded tepidly, but Parisian audiences were enthusiastic. In Berlin and Vienna, however, she inspired an intense excitement that proved contagious throughout Germany. Count Harry Kessler (1868-1937) introduced St. Denis to major writers like Frank Wedekind, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, in the hope that at least one of them would compose a pantomime for her. In late 1906, Hofmannsthal (1874-1929), deeply preoccupied at the time with dance and pantomime as cultic and ritual manifestations of subconscious states, had published in the newspaper Die Zeit a rapturous and influential review of her debut at the Komische Oper in Berlin. With Kessler’s assistance, she and Hofmannsthal collaborated on producing, for the director Max Reinhardt, a twenty-minute Salome piece that would be “primeval and Hebraic in tone,” not like Wilde’s play, which St. Denis disliked. Her idea was to turn Radha into Salome, with Salome performing a sequence of discrete, increasingly wild dances. But this project soon fell apart, most likely because St. Denis’s concept of the “oriental” female dancer really did not encompass Salome, and she could not imagine a Salome that was much, if at all, different from those that did emerge between 1905 and 1908 (77-78). In Europe, she did, however, construct new dances—“The Yogi” (1908), “The Nautch” (1908)—that enabled her to expand or reconfigure her programs so that audiences might return to see her assume an identity that an earlier program had not included. 

            The immense success of St. Denis’s European tour was a great inspiration for women connected to the German body culture movement, for it established the viability of the solo dance program and the professional potential of Delsartean education. The female solo modern dance program was the closest modernism came to constructing something similar to the ancient Roman pantomime, even if many dancers were not aware of it. The dance program provided a narrative framework by which the solo performer could “metamorphose” from one identity to another, from one “mood” to another, and thus display a range of talents. Many dancers, like Ruth St. Denis, evoked mythic identities inhabiting their bodies, and some showed no hesitation in using pantomimic movements, often compiled from Delsartean exercises and Mensendieckian “simple actions,” to construct the “other” identities. Following St. Denis’s tour, female solo dance concerts proliferated steadily throughout Germany and then beyond, so that by 1918, such concerts were commonplace in Central and Eastern Europe, The Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, Estonia, and Latvia. 

                 It is not clear who produced the first solo dance program after St. Denis returned to America in 1909. In her memoirs, the Finnish dancer Maggie Gripenberg (1881-1976), a student of Dalcrozian rhythmic gymnastics and greatly inspired by Isadora Duncan’s performance in Helsinki (1908), described how in December 1909, she gave her first concert at a high school in Stockholm, with her Swedish Dalcrozian teacher, Anne Behle (1876-1966). The program consisted of eight dances to music by seven different composers. However, the performance was not open to the public, only to friends and relatives (Gripenberg 1952: 57-58), although in November 1910, a Swedish magazine reported on Gripenberg and Behle as representatives of professional “plastic dance” (Hvar 8 dag 1910 Vol. 12, No. 6: 84) . It may well be that other dancers in Europe experimented with solo dance programs within a salon or private performance venue. But tracking the advent of public solo dance programs is probably not a task that one can achieve with complete accuracy. The German dancer Rita Sacchetto (1880-1959) actually preceded St. Denis with a concert in Munich in 1905 in which she used romantic music to accompany her pantomimic resemblance to famous paintings in a manner perhaps similar to the “attitudes” performed by Ida Brun in the early nineteenth century. In 1906, Sacchetto brought this concert to the Galerie Miethke in Vienna. She trained as a ballet dancer, and performed mostly in opera ballet ensembles (DjamilehDie Stumme von Portici), but it was evident she was much more of a pantomime than a dancer (Burbank 1909: 190). She performed in several other German cities, including Berlin in December 1908. Then in 1909, Loie Fuller invited her to join her company for performances in New York at the Metropolitan Opera, which, in its “war” against the rival Manhattan Opera, was staging music and dance concerts in programs along with short operas. Her part of the program, which also included an a cappella choir and Mascagni’s one-act opera Cavalleria Rusticana (1890), consisted of six solo dances accompanied by the Opera orchestra (Met Performance CID: 45470). In May of 1910, she performed The Intellectual Awakening of Woman at the recently built New Theatre in Manhattan. Here she used music from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite to dramatize the five “periods of woman’s advancement through the ages,” culminating in the final “struggle between the woman fighting for her liberty and the conventions which try to crush her”; she somehow put into this last pantomime-dance the fight for suffrage, according to The New York Times (May 22, 1910). But this suite was probably part of a program that included another “act,” and it’s difficult to ascertain if any of her concerts before 1912 were without shared billing. At any rate, by December 1910, she was back in Germany, performing a suite of solo dances at the Oldenburg Grossherzogliches Theater on one half of a program that also featured Suppé’s one act operetta Flotte Bursche (1863) (Oldenburg Landesbibliothek 1911). Sacchetto had much ahead of her in relation to pantomimic performance, but her solo dance programs, though innovative, appear not to have exerted much influence, perhaps because they were too theatrical and too “painterly” to awaken the confidence of Delsartean women. Meanwhile, the Latvian-born dancer Sent M’ahesa (Elsa von Carlberg [1883-1970]), formerly a university student of Egyptology, presented her first program of “Egyptian” dances in December 1909 in Munich, although almost nothing is known about the program (Ettlinger 1991 [1910]: 32-34; Matile 2016: 3). 

Figure 117: Lilli Green (left) and Margaret Walker as “black Pierrot,” in “La Valse,” with Chopin’s music, in a 1920 painting by Jacob Merkelbach (1877-1942). Photo: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

In June 1910, the German dancer Gertrud Leistikow (1885-1948) gave a solo program in the Dresden Central Theater of eight dances, Orchestische Tanzspiele, titled after music pieces by Grieg, Liszt, and Beethoven (De Boer 2015: 40). Leistikow had been a student at the physical education school of Hede Kallmeyer (1881-1976) in Berlin (De Boer 2015: 36). Kallmeyer had studied under Genevieve Stebbins in New York, but she had also incorporated into her school the teachings of Bess Mensendieck, so that her school also featured Nacktturnen (nude gymnastics) (Boutan-Laroze 2011; Spitzy 1914: 310). In October 1910, another Delsartean, the Anglo-Dutch dancer Lili Green (1885-1977) produced a solo dance concert in Amsterdam with her life-long partner Margaret Walker (1886-?) accompanying her on the piano, supplemented by violin and occasional songs [Figure 117]. She also performed at least one dance with a male dancer, Andreas Pavley (1892-1931). In a long, 22-page article about the concert in De Beweging (1910 Jaargang 6, Deel 4: 255-277), Maurits Uyldert (1881-1966) mentioned Pavley only once. He never mentioned St. Denis and described Isadora Duncan as the driving inspiration behind Green’s pantomimic aesthetic. But whereas Duncan was a “lyric” dancer, Green was a “dramatic” and “tragic” dancer, whose pantomimic approach did “not diminish her aesthetic” (268). In 1929, Green published Einführung in das Wesen unserer Gesten und Bewegungen, perhaps the most satisfying and persuasive of all treatises on the Delsarte system; it is a kind of photographic demonstration of pantomimic movement understood as a semiotic code or “system.” In any case, all of these solo dance programs took place independently of each other and most likely without knowledge of each other. They did not emerge from any unified institutional apparatus or even from any shared network of professional associates. It therefore took a strong measure of courage for these women to venture on their own into solo dance programs when there was no central point for the dissemination of this aesthetic. 

            In the subsequent years, solo dance programs proliferated, primarily in Germany and Central Europe, and even solo dancers from outside of Germany and Austria felt they could not pursue a career without an audience in Germany. By 1923, the number of dancers who had created solo dance programs was extensive: Rita Aurel, Grit Hegesa, Suse Elsler, Lisa Abt, Ruth Schwarzkopf, Annie Lieser, Ilse Freude, Chari Lindis, Solveig Oderwald, Gusi Viola, Lucie Hertel, Erna Bertini, Macka Nordberg, Hannelore Ziegler, Anita Berber, Hilde Schewior, Beatrice Mariagraete, Hilde Sinoniew, Hedwig Nottebohm, Vera Waldheim, Leni Riefenstahl, Edith Bielefeld, Nina Schelemskaja, Gertrud Zimmermann, Laura Oesterreich, Olga Samsylova, Hilda Hager, Stella Kramrisch, Maria Ley, Charlotte Bara, Clotilde von Derp, Niddy Impekoven, Edith von Schrenck, Ella Ilbak, Lavinia Schulz, Mila Cirul, Olga Desmond, Tilly Losch, Lucy Kieselhausen, Ronny Johansson, Elmerice Pärts, Lo Hesse, Joachim von Seewitz, Grit Hegesa, Lisa Kresse, Alexander Sacharoff—among yet others! Only a few of these dancers could produce solo programs for more than a couple of years; some found their way into cabaret revues or simply disappeared. During the peak of the solo dance program era, competition between performers was intense, and to attract audiences, it was necessary for dancers to possess a distinctive aesthetic that differentiated their performances from those of other otherwise equally attractive dance personalities. Creating such an aesthetic through a program of solo dances was extremely challenging—after all, dancers in our own time and for many decades previously seem incapable of imagining such a program. Some performers favored the inclusion of pantomimic actions into their programs, while others sought to eradicate pantomimic movement altogether to perfect forms of pure dance modeled after the “lyrical” approach of Isadora Duncan, who treated dance as a kinetic response to music or a “music made visible.” Often the lyrical approach entailed naming dances after the music that accompanied them; pantomimic pieces tended to take the names of things or persons the performer presumed to represent. However, the range of movements understood as “lyrical” or purely dance was (and perhaps still is) quite limited, and it was very difficult to build an entire program around them without relying on different kinds of music to establish a varied range of “identities” within the dancer. As might be expected, many dancers combined dance and pantomimic action. Yet the idea of constructing programs consisting entirely of pantomimic actions or pantomimic pieces seems not to have occurred to anyone, even though the Delsartean and Mensendieckian training of many dancers probably prepared them better for such programs than for pure dance. However, public consciousness intensely associated dance and lyrical movement of the body with an articulation of “the feminine,” whereas pantomime, for so long dominated by the image of Pierrot and his male literary propagandists, remained a “masculine” mode of performance that perhaps was not inviting for women—or compromised their femininity too much. A typical dance program consisted of eight to twelve pieces, accompanied most often by piano music. Different pieces required different costumes, so the pianist would perform a brief interlude to allow the dancer to change costumes. Sometimes a solo dancer paired with another solo dancer to create programs in which pieces alternated between the performers, eliminating the need for the interludes and putting less pressure on each performer to produce as many distinctive pieces as a program with only one solo performer (cf. Toepfer 1997: 207-233; Nikolaus 1922; Brandenburg 1921; Thiess 1920). 

A dance program could be reconfigured, shortened, expanded, or renovated (as when different music accompanied an old dance). Consider a Viennese program from February 1924 by the Baltic German dancer Edith von Schrenck (1891-1971), who had a Dalcrozian education in St. Petersburg. A chamber orchestra accompanied her and performed preludes at the beginning of each half. The first part consisted of “pure” dance pieces, while in the second part Schrenck performed much more pantomimic pieces. 

1. Orchestral Prelude (Schubert, Rosamunde Overture)

2. Valse Caprice (Rubinstein)

3. Chaconne (Händel)

4. Scherzo (Bach)

5. Polonaise (Bach)

6. Mazurka (Chopin)

7. Temple Dance (Grieg)


8. Orchestral Prelude (Bach, Sarabande)

9. Prayer (Grieg)

10. Bound (Chopin)

11. Gothic Song (Scriabin)

12. Page (Schumann)

13. Menuett (Bach)

14 Bajazzo (Schumann)

“Bound” (“Gefesselt”) dated from 1919 and depicted a woman struggling to free herself from the chains that bind her. But the piece does not appear in subsequent programs performed in 1924 in Berlin, Bremen, Dortmund, and Stuttgart. “Bajazzo” appears in four out of the five programs, always as the last piece, but in Bremen Schrenck did not perform the piece at all. “Chaconne” appeared second, third, fourth, and ninth in five programs, but not at all in the Bremen performance. The “Menuett” appeared in two of the five programs, “Scherzo” in three, “Page” in two, “Mazurka” in two, “Gothic Song” in two, and “Valse Caprice” in two. Schrenck introduced new or alternative dances in the other programs. These included pieces from a “cycle” called Vier Jahreszeiten (The Four Seasons) and from a “dance poem in four parts,” Ein Menschenleben (A Human Life): “Childhood,” “Struggle,” “Aloof,” “Confession.” But in only one of the programs did Schrenck perform either cycle in its entirety. Other pieces: “Wellen” (“Waves”) she performed in three programs, and “Marsch” (“March”) in two, but “Spuk” (“Spook”), “Erde” (“Earth”), “Schmerz” (“Pain”), and “Last” (“Vice”) she performed in only one program (Hübsch-Pfleger 1997: 62-66). It appears, then, that Schrenck had thirty-five or so dances in her repertoire at any one time, and these could fit into different “slots” within a ten or twelve piece program, although she consistently reserved the more pantomimic pieces for the second half of every program. Other than this difference between dances and “dance poems,” the dance programs did not follow a consistent structure or emotional architecture. Each program had its own emotional “mood,” dependent probably on a variety of variables: the audience, the city, the accompanist, the stage, and the performer’s own feeling toward her material. This way of thinking about the narrative organization of solo performance of scenes is close to the ancient Roman way of constructing a pantomimic narrative out of separate scenes. But whereas the Roman pantomimes employed this narrative strategy on behalf of themes and figures from mythology, the female dance modernists tended to employ the strategy in relation to themes and figures derived from history (“Page,” “Gothic Song,” “Bajazzo”), ethnology (“Mazurka,” “Polonaise”), nature (“Winter,” “Waves”), and emotional conditions (“Pain,” “Bound,” “Aloof”). 

            Occasionally a program became exceptionally imaginative. In 1910, Gertrud Leistikow produced a suite of “historical” Orchestische Tanzpiele or “dance plays” on the theme of “women’s love and life in the orient.” This consisted of eight dances occurring in a “women’s harem tent” and then in a temple. Leistikow danced the roles of slaves, brides, harem guards, temple worshippers, mourners, Death, and concluded with a “rapturous” nautch dance. In 1911, she produced Adonisfeier, a program of eight more dances connected to the celebration of Adonis, although the dances varied in mood from “lamentation” to “fury,” to “blessed shadows,” to a grotesque, masked faun. The success of these programs inspired her to expand (1912) the concept of the program to include Ein byzantinischer Blumengarten, in which the Byzantine Empress Theodora invites the women of her court to perform dances in her garden that are expressive of the diverse beauties and sorrows of the Empire—the “fiery” Armenian, the “lotus blossom” of ascetic Christian “longing for the Beyond,” the “volatile” Alraune, among others. By 1912, Leistikow saw the three programs as components of a single mega-program that would unfold on three successive evenings (Leistikow 1912: 7-9). While the separate programs inspired high praise from reviewers, according to the brochure Leistikow published about the project, it is not clear how well, if at all, she was able to carry out the complete mega-program (De Boer 2015: 43-53). Even so, the ambitiousness of the concept is stirring. On the other hand, solo programs with less than eight dances tended to appear within a larger framework, like a variety show, that might include singers, a symphony concert, a piano recital, a short opera, or a play. In other words, dancers showed little, if any, inclination to produce solo programs with fewer but longer works. A dance seldom lasted more than ten minutes, with most pieces lasting between four and six minutes, if pieces were as long as the musical works that accompanied them. Some of Anita Berber’s pieces were probably longer than ten minutes, because of their rather complex narratives, which followed poetic scenarios that she and her partner, Sebastian Droste, composed in a violently expressionist style. However, a long solo dance was much more difficult to choreograph than a series of short, varied dances, especially if the dance did not tell a story or only attempted evoke a “mood” or abstract condition or phenomena, like “Autumn,” or “Longing,” or “Rustling Forest.” Long solos undoubtedly required more pantomimic action to sustain audience interest in them, but because the dance culture tended to value the performance of beautiful movements over the performance of actions that drive narratives, dancers were perhaps reluctant to conceptualize large pieces that exposed too easily the limited range or vocabulary of acceptably “beautiful” movements for a solitary body on stage. 

            As solo dancers proliferated after 1913, dance programs had to be increasingly competitive to attract audiences. Displays of acrobatic virtuosity or excellent movement technique were not enough; the solo program had to reveal a distinctive aesthetic, a unique “personality.” Sent M’ahesa specialized in “Egyptian” dances, even though others also did Egyptian dances and she herself did non-Egyptian dances. With the Egyptian dances, she did more than wear various Egyptian costumes: she moved within a very confined space, and her movements were angular, stressing verticality and a kind of muscularity and tensile coiling and uncoiling of her torso, and she often performed in profile. Edith von Schrenck also liked performing in a confined space, but she brought a deeply melancholy, even tragic mood to her performances, as if dance were the struggle of the body to break free of invisible pressures or constraints, as in her “Kriegertanz” (1919), with music by Rachmaninoff, in which she depicted a wounded Amazon warrior, with shield, helmet, and dagger, battling enemies who surround her. Before she became more closely aligned with pantomime production and silent film acting, the Viennese Grete Wiesenthal (1885-1970), a student of ballet and Dalcrozian rhythmic gymnastics, specialized in performing various kinds of waltzes (cf. Brandstetter 2009). The Belgian-Swiss Charlotte Bara (1901-1986), who studied under a disciple of Isadora Duncan, concentrated on dances of an idiosyncratic religious character, a kind of personal Christianity mixed with references to Asian and Egyptian “mysteries,” even though she did not use religious music or even identifiably religious costumes. “She never moved with urgency, nor did she move […] with a plodding sense of burden. When she swung her arms, she conveyed the lilting, pendulum-like motion of a priestess dispensing incense. She moved through a sequence of obviously ‘pious’ categories of bodily signification—prayer, invocation, supplication, meditation, imploration, annunciation, baptism, anointment, sacrificial offering, reverie, lamentation, adoration, resignation, and ascension”; “her sense of movement seemed dominated by the image of procession” (Toepfer 1997: 173-174). Far more profane were the solo dance programs of Anita Berber (1899-1928), a native of Berlin, who studied under Rita Sacchetto while briefly pursuing a career as a fashion model. Berber performed many of her solo programs in nightclubs that encouraged the exploration of lurid, sensational, and even unsavory themes (KokainMorphine)—a lewd Salome, a morbid Astarte. Varying degrees of nudity featured in her dances, but she was also an inventive designer of iconic costumes, such as for her “Korean Dance” (1919). Her dark subject matter inspired her to produce pantomimic actions rarely, if ever, seen before, as in Morphine (1921), in which, according to the Czech choreographer Joe Jencik, after injecting herself with a syringe while sitting in an armchair, “she thrust her body in an incredible arch, like a morbid rainbow.” Her movements appeared broken, incomplete, as the drug-induced visions arose before her; finally, the drug “stabbed” her, and she contorted into the beautiful arch again and died in the chair (Jenčík 1930: 25-27; Toepfer 1997: 85). In 1919, drawing on scenes from Louis Couperus’s novel De Berg van Licht (1907), she performed the solo role of the transsexual Emperor Heliogabal, “Exquisite, entirely attired in gold, her metallic body lured the sun, while two Moorish boys effectively manipulated the decor. —Another image. A mask interlude during the Saturnalia, with music by Delibes. A silver mask, including a stylish headdress, was pulled back just a little to reveal the mysterious face under it. Roses, red silks and scarves, pants a la Chanteclair. It is plainly a mask ritual. Serious, very worldly, seductive, imperial, full of daring contrasts is this dance” (Elegante Welt, 8/2, 1919, 5). Much more beloved were the programs of another Berliner, Niddy Impekoven (1904-2002), whose dances projected varieties of a sometimes impish, sometimes doll-like, sometimes angelic, sometimes droll, sometimes exuberant, and sometimes quaint girlish innocence and fragility. “It appeared as if she moved in a hostile, treacherous space in which the slightest false gesture could lead to a mishap, a fall, a desecration […] no amount of space or freedom could protect the body from its fragility”  (Toepfer 1997: 185-186). She performed this innocence in a wide range of costumes derived from different historical eras or from her own fertile sense of fantasy. Her dances from 1918 into the late 1920s told little stories, such as “the life of a flower” or “the imprisoned bird” or the dream of a doll—vignettes, shifting glimpses of a fragile girlish pleasure in trying out new identities (cf. Frentz 1930). But perhaps the most pantomimic of all the solo dancers was the German Grit Hegesa (1891-1972), who, in the years 1917 to 1924, delighted in revealing various “Asian” identities within herself; she conjured up scenes of herself as a Javanese, a Japanese, a Chinese, and a Hindu. Such scenes allowed her to cultivate her taste for luxurious or expressionistic costumes, but she often danced in pants and sometimes impersonated male figures, such as a page, a samurai, a Javanese prince, and Pierrot. She had a taste for melodramatic scenes in which her character, betrayed or bereft of love, dies—kissing, for example, poisoned flower petals—in an atmosphere of opulence. She was unique among solo dancers in using music composed especially for her by the Dutch composer Jaap Kool (1891-1959). The music that Kool composed for her cut across musical genres, for in addition to ambitious symphonic works, he wrote commercial pop tunes, jazz pieces, cabaret arrangements, and experimental “sound works” that employed non-Western instruments and musical values. For Hegesa, he composed works using only gongs or gamelans or glass chimes; other pieces were jazzy or suavely urbane, such as the Hegesa Tango (1922), the lilting melody of which derives from the letters of her last name. Yet other pieces were somberly modernist or at any rate supportive of the “tragic” mood Hegesa sought to create (Wendingen 1919 2/3: 15–21). The music rose directly out of the scene and the movements of the performer, presumably freeing the performer to make abrupt adjustments in movement or even the tone of a scene. Though she evidently trained in ballet and made use of some ballet positions, her programs received skeptical responses from German dance critics, who saw too much pantomime in her work, while modernist artists and commentators saw her as emblematic of an exciting new performance scene. Her dance career unfolded at the same time as she pursued a successful career (1917-1922) as an actress in the German film industry, so her performance aesthetic probably appealed much more strongly to audiences who grew up closer to cinematic rather than to ballet or dance entertainments [Figure 118].

Figure 118: Grit Hegesa in 1920, adopting a quasi-Pierrot look with modernist background and intoxicated pose. Photo: Ani Riess. 

Much more can be said about the manifold distinctions between solo dance programs and their numerous performers. The point here is simply to indicate the diversity of aesthetic zones available to the women who adopted, as a sign of their modernity, a narrative architecture that closely resembled the Roman pantomime narrative format. The solo dance program reached the height of its popularity probably around 1923, and then it began to decline precipitously. Competition between so many solo dancers escalated audience expectations; it became harder and harder for dancers to think about movement in ways that were sufficiently innovative or bold to attract audiences seeking some sort of guidance from the arts about how to construct modern identities. Modern dancers sought a more institutionalized environment for their art. Either they wanted positions within official, state, or commercial theaters or they discovered that they could make more money by running schools than by endlessly touring. Solo dance seemed limited in its power to connect the body to larger social themes or to an image of society. The establishment of numerous dance schools in the early 1920s allowed many dancers with choreographic ambitions to build performance ensembles and create choreographed pieces that explored group dynamics and relations between bodies. By 1925, European audiences as a whole had become much more preoccupied than those of the pre-war era with understanding conditions of social unity, disintegration, reformation, and transformation. The concept of a “modern” identity required integration with the concept of a modern society. Solo dance performance could have claimed some territory in this new cultural discourse if it had incorporated a larger range of social identities and social sources of movements. If instead of a constant presentation of mysterious “foreign” or fantasy identities, solo dancers found within themselves the identities or socially observed movements of, say, shopkeepers, mechanics, professors, athletes, scientists, military officers, mothers, office workers, or government officials, then the solo dance program might well have continued to thrive. Indeed, the Germans Valeska Gert (1892-1978) and Julia Marcus (1905-?) did produce (only) comic or satiric solo dances of this type, but they tended to embed their pieces within a cabaret or variety show format. To access, especially in a “serious” way, these other, social identities within themselves, dancers would have to perform movements they believed transgressed the beautiful image of the modern dancer that only movements considered “dance” could create: they would have to perform more pantomimic actions rather than the increasingly abstract and geometric movements that prevailed in group choreography by the late 1920s. But this way of thinking was simply too radical even for the incredibly exciting dance culture of the turbulent Weimar Republic. By 1930, solo dance programs were practically extinct. Niddy Impekoven remained immensely popular, especially after a hugely successful 1928 world tour. With the rise of Nazism, however, she lost interest in performing and in 1934, now very wealthy, she retired to Switzerland for the rest of her long, quiet life. The Estonian Ella Ilbak (1895-1997), who gave her first solo program in Tartu in 1918, continued performing solo programs throughout Europe and even in the Middle East until 1939. Her programs always consisted of eleven or twelve pieces, with her most famous work being The Flame (1924), in which, accompanied by Wagner’s Magic Fire Music, she simulated the sparking, flickering, blazing, and dying out of an ecstatic flame without ever rising from a kneeling position. But other identities in her repertoire included an Odalisque (1924), a Page (1924), a Witch (1924), a Muslim woman (1923), and a sword dancer (1923), although by 1929 her dance style had become less pantomimic or “sculptural,” as one reviewer described it, and more a kinetic response or “submission” (as Duncan or Impekoven might say) to different pieces of music: Valse, Capriccio, Gavotte, Dolce con grazia, Caresse dansée, and so forth (Ilbak Archive 2018). Yet pieces from the earliest part of her career remained in her programs until 1939, suggesting the remarkable tenacity of particular images of female aloneness on stage to survive social upheavals, historical shifts, and cultural boundaries. But Ilbak was utterly alone in clinging to this Roman-modernist narrative aesthetic. Audiences and performers had long since given up on the solo dance program as a stirring format for exploring the “other” identities within the body. With the collapse of the solo dance program, modernist pantomime separated itself from modern dance and in doing so drifted away from the Roman idea of bodily movement as the “metamorphosis” of a body from one identity to another. 

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