GERMAN DANCE: LIVING MEMORIES WITH A FUTURE
at MoMing Dance & Arts Center
October 31-November 5
In an extraordinary week of extraordinary dance, with the extraordinary title "German Dance: Living Memories With a Future," MoMing was filled to the rafters with curious and enthusiastic multigenerational audiences--including many local dancers--for the first time within my own living memory.
The week of performances (by four outstanding West German dance artists), of seminars, workshops, and classes, of dance films and panel discussions about German dance, past and present, meant the stimulating discovery of the artistic, social, and political ferment that stirred Germany between World Wars I and II. The event acquainted many, for the first time, with the important creative movements of that memorable era--expressionism, Ausdruckstanz, Tanztheater, Dada, the Bauhaus movement--and with such leading personalities in dance as Rudolf von Laban, Kurt Jooss, and of course Mary Wigman, Germany's earth mother of modern dance. This week of activities raised as many questions as it answered about the arts before Nazism ruthlessly extinguished all light, not only in Germany but in much of the civilized world.
Americans tend to think of modern dance as an American invention, and it's true that Americans such as Isadora Duncan, Ruth Saint Denis, and Loie Fuller played a seminal role in introducing nonballetic dance in Europe. But Europeans were also simultaneously responding to the 20th century themselves by rejecting the artificial formalities of ballet and exploring and inventing new vocabularies to express their feelings. Calling their dance Ausdruckstanz (expressive dance), they were part of the expressionist movement in theater, painting, and music that viewed their society through critical prisms in which individuals were distorted symbols of that corrupt society. Not all expressionist dances were overtly political, but as Thomas Mann said: "A man lives not only his personal life, as an individual, but also, consciously or unconsciously, the life of his epoch and his contemporaries."
Expressionist art and dance for the most part portrayed life with a bleak prophetic bitterness. Jooss's The Green Table, his great antiwar ballet of 1932, one of the few to have survived, is a brilliant example of expressionist dance. When Wigman, who for much of the Nazi era had been isolated from her art and from society, reopened her school after the war, dance began to live again and thrive with a new impetus. Last week's guest artists gave Chicago a rare glimpse of what's happening today in West Germany.
Yet curiously the four artists, whose compelling works represent the postwar democratic generation of West Germany, seem to share a similar bleak view. Disunity and death seem to offer the only answers. It makes one wonder whether there's a national malaise that impinges on and haunts even the innocents, so many decades after Hitler unleashed such unspeakable horrors.
Susanne Linke, who studied and danced with Dore Hoyer, Wigman's declared successor, is a beautiful, thoughtful performer with an impeccable technique, though she never exploits it for its own sake. In a solo work that reconstructs one of Hoyer's dances, Affectos Humanos, Linke explores some very human emotions--in sections called "Vanity," "Avidity," "Fear," and "Love"--by donning various costumes hanging on a coatrack. With each change of dress, her appearance and movements alter remarkably. The suite concludes with "Dolor," a heart-stirring tribute by Linke to Hoyer, who committed suicide 20 years ago. Linke, clad in black, is seen only as a shadow against the almost total darkness, until she inexorably disappears from view. Linke creates an unforgettable tragic image as a recording of Mahler's heartbreaking Ruckert lieder continues on the empty stage.
Linke's second piece, Affekte, is a collaboration with Urs Dietrich, her partner, who also created the accompanying sound collage. The same emotions are explored as in Affectos Humanos, but with exaggerated theatricality and a skewed anger and violence. In "Vanity," Dietrich shows off the label in his jacket, while Linke becomes a woman entirely suffused with the need to be "somebody." "Avidity" is a bizarre section in which each reaches for something that's unavailable. "Hate" is short and violent, as Dietrich tries to tie Linke up into a state of total helplessness. But "Love," the final delineation, is not kind. It concludes disturbingly, with Dietrich running purposefully and unheedingly ahead while Linke falters and falls behind.
Christine Brunel, the youngest of the four Germans, is a lovely dancer, and her evening-length solo, Conditio Humana, is a powerful yet fluid portrait of the human condition. Again, this is not a happy piece, whether she is describing sleep, nightmares, or death while lying on the white sheets she has carefully spread on the floor and then wrinkled up. Her funny, pathetic portrayal of a movie star basking in the limelight leads inevitably to the unutterably moving finale, which is death, performed to an excerpt from Bach's Mass in B Minor. The program notes that describe Brunel's theme are explicit reminders that life leads only to death; these notes are typical of the notes all the artists prepared.
Gerhard Bohner divided his program between restorations of Oskar Schlemmer's Bauhaus Dances and his own work, Abstract Dances. In Schlemmer's "Pole Dance" and "Loop Dances," only the inanimate objects seem to have architectural mobility; "Metal Dance," a very short work, looks like an art-deco sculpture come to metallic life. These are striking reminders of the art form that found its permanent life in the architecture of such designers as Mies van der Rohe.
The sections of Bohner's Abstract Dances are named for individual parts of the body--"Hand," "Forearm," "Leg," and so on. In this fascinatingly unsettling work, the gaunt, gray-haired Bohner, clad in dark jacket and trousers and with a grotesquely painted right hand, arms, and legs, looks like a refugee from a concentration camp. The remarkable ways in which he articulates the various parts of his body contribute to the bizarre, upsetting reminders of the grim past.
Hellmut Gottschild's ZeroMoving Dance Company was the only company represented that now resides in the United States--Philadelphia. His program, presented twice during the week, has a sort of split personality. Most of the dancers in his eight-member troupe are Americans, and they move like American dancers. They don't have that quality the German dancers share--a sense of being rooted in the earth even when they leap, and a similar dynamic in the control of their bodies and arms. The dancers' American quality was most obvious, choreographically and in performance, in Others Journey, by Karen Bamonte, the American cofounder of ZMDC. Although the work is carefully structured and has a complex, fleet virtuosity, it resembles the work indulged in by so many postmodern American choreographers. It is also much too repetitive and long.
Gottschild's Ash and Flowers, on the other hand, has the thought-provoking power that I expect in Central European dance. The work opens with Gottschild, an authoritarian figure in a dark suit, waiting. Eight figures in shabby raincoats shuffle onto the performing area, fear their unmistakable companion. When one of the women removes her coat to reveal her bra and skirt, the rest show their angry rejection of her independence of mind. Gradually, however, at one time or another they all declare their own independence, shed their coats to reveal eccentric garb, and fall to the ground in awkward poses. But the habit of conformity is too great, and they imitate one another while Gottschild occasionally steps in to maintain his control. At the close he has won, although there's never any real doubt about his position. Are these prisoners, lunatics, or victims of some experiment in lobotomy? This is uncertain, but the message is clear. Control, and the inevitability of disintegration and death, are overwhelmingly revealed--not only in Gottschild's piece, but in the works of the other artists.
In comparing the Germans with the Americans, one sees a clear difference. Both groups have physical strength and agility and mastery of their techniques. But thematically they differ greatly. American dancers over the decades have moved from themes of social injustice to Freudian analyses of sexual conflict to abstraction and minimalism. The Germans, on the other hand, see life and society in conflict, which gives their work an immediacy of social insight. Both styles are vitally important to this generation, and if this past week's impact on local dancers lasts, the festival should play an important role in opening up American dancers to greater introspection on social issues. Meanwhile the Germans, as they see more and more American dance, may open up to the vitality of American form and structure.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Beatrice Shiller.