In: KulturPoetik 2013, Heft 2


Peter M. Boenisch


New German Dance Studies
Susan Manning / Lucia Ruprecht (ed.), New German Dance Studies




Since the 1990s, research in dance has established itself within the German academic context as a discipline in its own right. The confident methodological assertion of this emergent field as no longer mere adjunct of sports or theatre studies, alongside its infrastructural manifestation in newly established professorial chairs and master programmes across the German-speaking countries, has prompted wide-spread international attention which this collection of 15 essays responds to. Edited by Performance Studies scholar Susan Manning (Northwestern University) and German Studies scholar Lucia Ruprecht (Emmanuel College, Cambridge), the book at the same time reflects the recent fascination, not the least by US-American scholarship, for theatre and popular dance in 1920’s Germany. The essays address four distinct themes: Ausdruckstanz or, as it is here proposed: ›Weimar dance‹; dance in and about the GDR – a field hitherto virtually absent from ›dance studies‹ proper, at least in Germany itself; the concept-driven dance performances of the present, which widely challenge preconceptions about dance. Additionally, the initial two contributions offer more than a historiographical preface. They also outline what Manning and Ruprecht present as major conceptual framework of the ›new German dance studies‹ assembled in their volume: a critical approach that is sensitive to the discursive and wider cultural framing of dance. As Christina Thurner highlights, »the way in which dance was, indeed is, spoken and written about has a major bearing on how it is perceived and brought to the stage« (p. 21).
In her contribution, Thurner shows how the complex and contradictory dance discourses of the eighteenth century have shaped our own attitudes and preconceptions about what dance is to the present day. Widespread assertions of the affective ›immediacy‹ of dance and the experiential ›truth‹ of bodily expression (usually pitted against the ›deceitful‹ language of words) have their roots in a topology of dance and emotions asserted at that historic juncture. Claudia Jeschke then outlines how 19th-century celebrity Lola Montez actively manipulated dance discourses of her time. The focus on a discourse analysis of dance is most thoroughly substantiated by the methodological centrepiece of the book, Sabine Huschka’s critical interrogation of the assumed continuities between Mary Wigman’s Ausdruckstanz of the Weimar Republic and the Tanztheater aesthetics of Pina Bausch as they emerged in the 1970s. Against this rarely challenged claim of a historical linkage, Huschka’s meticulous analysis of Wigman’s and Bausch’s respective dance styles reveals the contrary politics of the body at work. Wigman’s »emotional immediacy« fosters notions of a shared collective communion. Her »absolutist model of the passively moved subject« (p. 183) not only enshrines her commitment to an essentialism of the German Volk (also addressed, earlier in the volume, in Marion Kant’s critical portrayal of the dancer), but also prefigures the peculiar self-stylization of many dance artists (and certainly many Germans) as equally passively moved victims of the Nazi Regime. Such a body politics could not be further from Bausch’s radical commitment to a shared space of human experience and her »reflexive search for identity in the space of passive emotion« (p. 183).
With her important contribution, Huschka highlights the academic dangers of dissociating dance from the ideological interest that prompted the choreographer, and from the historical situation in which a specific choreography or dance practice emerged. This reminder resonates, within the particular dynamics of this volume, with those contributions which reveal the new fascination of a younger generation of, predominantly, US-American performance scholars attracted to both prominent and lesser known figures of 1920s German dance. Susanne Franco charts in her chapter how Rudolf Laban’s filmscripts, many of which remained unrealised proposals, were a crucial part of disseminating his philosophical and aesthetic values, while also disclosing an as yet barely explored migration of images from dance to film and vice versa. Kate Elswit employs the metaphor of ›exile‹ to discuss Valeska Gert’s occupation of marginal spaces even during the Weimar period, long before her actual exile and later return to Germany where she remained as out of place as before. Karen Mozingo meanwhile reminds us of cross-disciplinary dancer Lotte Goslar, who in her time was far more prominent than Gert, yet whose parodistic mime theatre was later marginalised as ›clown act‹ or ›circus‹ both during her American exile and her post-War performances in Germany. Tresa Randall reconsiders the work of Hanya Holm, who headed the New York arm of Wigman’s School from the 1930s onwards: She argues that the ›Americanness‹ of Holm’s later work, acclaimed by John Martin, Walter Sorrell, and other critics, far more than a repudiation of Wigman’s ideology was in fact the ultimate fulfilment of its aims of a new community and Volksgemeinschaft. While well-meaning throughout, such accounts of ›alternative narratives‹ and gestures of disrupting existing ›grand narratives‹ often produce new problems, especially where the materialist and political contexts that shaped the artists under discussion remain overlooked. Susan Funkenstein traces Gret Palucca’s prominent association with the Dessau Bauhaus (she is referred to in student work as well as theoretical writings by Moholy-Nagy, Kandinsky, and others) against the dancer’s absence from most Bauhaus histories, and she presents Palucca as prototype of the Weimar ›New Woman‹. Yet read against Kant’s later account of Palucca as a »complete opportunist and willing to give up any kind of ethical principle« (p. 135), who, through her prominent post-War position in the East German Academy of the Arts, relentlessly crushed the careers of Kurt Jooss, Marianne Vogelsang, Jean Weidt, and others, we are again reminded of the need to challenge, in particular, »the myth of modern German dance as something beyond the social, historical, and political circumstances of its time« (p. 133).
Kant’s contribution links to the section on East German dance, where the book offers pioneering material. Jens Richard Giersdorf presents a slightly undertheorised, yet no less compelling reading of two post-Wende choreographies about life in East Germany. He links his analysis with his personal experience of the ›conscious choreography‹ (p. 173) of everyday public behaviour in the GDR. While he finds resonances of this experience in (East German) Jo Fabian’s 1997 Pax Germania, which ultimately provokes the audience into (physical) action, he is baffled by the lack of any tangible reflection of the socio-historical situation of choreographic practice in (West German) Sasha Waltz’s highly acclaimed GDR piece Allee der Kosmonauten (1996). Extending the major theme of this collection, Giersdorf’s highly subjective analysis, too, reiterates the warning against (artists’ and academics’) claims of political activism and emancipatory agency that remain nothing more than ›free-floating concepts‹ (p. 179), where they lack grounding and reflection of their own implications with discursive and socio-political systems. Franz Anton Cramer meanwhile explores Tom Schilling’s East Berlin Tanztheater venture and attempts to illuminate the notorious doctrine of ›socialist realism‹ in its manifestations in dance dramaturgy: above all, it demanded the location of choreographic practice in its immediate socio-political context. It may therefore offer some surprising lessons for dance and choreographic practice that proclaims its political impetus. Importantly, Cramer allows for a more nuanced interrogation of this aesthetics, claiming the same right that had always been afforded to Wigman, Palucca, Laban, and others, whose allegedly liberating ›free dance‹ practice was never dismissed outright on grounds of their more than merely opportunistic association with Nazi ideology.
The final section of essays then shifts the focus from German dance to contemporary German dance studies, introducing theoretical perspectives on recent works by international artists such as William Forsythe, Ivana Müller, Eszter Salamon, and Xavier Le Roy, thus the ›canon‹ of contemporary European concept dance. Gerald Siegmund reads Forsythe’s Human Writes alongside philosopher Giorgio Agamben to describe choreography as »the decisive point of intersection between body and law« (p. 206), marking »the very act of making subjectivity possible« (p. 211). Yvonne Hardt monitors various forms of quotation, reconstruction, and other performative strategies of engaging with dance history, which evokes the past as a purely imaginary backdrop for perceptions taking place in the present, while Maaike Bleeker outlines the recently popular performance format of the ›lecture demonstration‹ as example for an understanding of dance that is no longer confined to physical action but includes what she terms »thought movement«, too (p. 243). Whereas most of these latter contributions share the same ground with prominent international theorists such as André Lepecki, Ramsay Burt, and Mårten Spångberg, Gabriele Klein presents a genuinely innovative perspective in her concluding piece. Her approach as sociologist does not stop at using concepts such as hybridism or creolisation in a metaphorical sense, but she seeks to outline an empirically grounded analysis of the bodily experience of globalisation and cultural translation. Using tango and other popular dance forms as examples for contemporary ›urban transnationalism‹, her analytic concept of ›transference‹ seeks to take into account complex movements of cultural transmission, whereby – as Klein importantly stresses – globally circulating narratives, images, and other popular representations (of tango and other dance forms) become »as important as the bodies’ movements« (p. 254). As a collection, this volume offers a multi-faceted introduction to core aspects of German dance studies for an international academic audience. Even though German readers are likely to be familiar with some of the critical writing from more extensive German-language publications by the same authors, they would be all too quick to dismiss the book for this reason. The well edited chapters offer concise summaries of previously rehearsed arguments, further enriched through detailed bibliographies and references provided for each chapter.

Prof. Dr. Peter M. Boenisch, University of Kent, School of Arts, Jarman Building, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7UG, United Kingdom; e-mail: