- Gertrude Hoffmann's Lawful Piracy"A Vision of Salome" and the Russian Season as Transatlantic Production Impersonations
Dance is a form of performance in which we regularly see what Zora Neale Hurston calls "the exchange and re-exchange of ideas between groups."1 There is a lot of excellent scholarship tracing the genealogies of cross-cultural dialogue within different dance forms, from Brian Seibert's massive tome on tap dancing to Priya Srinivasan's discussion of Indian nachwalis or nautch dancers in Sweating Saris.2 These books consider how dance circulates across classes and nations, as well as how its meaning changes depending on who is doing the performing. In her recent book Choreographing Copyright, Anthea Kraut refocuses critical attention on the moments when creators attempt to shut down this exchange and reexchange through legal action. They do so, she argues, in response to "a perceived crisis: not the crisis posed by dance's disappearance (as an influential strand of dance and performance studies theory posits) but the peril of its reproduction."3 Rather than emphasizing dance's ephemerality, a focus on copyright emphasizes, and tries to control, its reproducibility.
This article focuses on a performer and producer who made a career out of such perilous reproductions. Gertrude Hoffmann (1885–1966) was an American dancer, comedienne, choreographer, and producer.4 Above all, though, she was a mimic. Hoffmann's first vaudeville turns imitated the characteristic songs and patter of other stage celebrities of the time, both male and female.5 Later, lavish revues by Hoffmann included imitations of Ruth St. Denis and Isadora Duncan dances. After German theatrical innovator Max Reinhardt visited the United States to perform Sumurun in 1912, Hoffmann put on a streamlined version of his Orientalist pantomime in a Brooklyn vaudeville house. In the later part of her career, Hoffmann managed a dance troupe called the Gertrude Hoffmann Girls. [End Page 37] They played the Moulin Rouge in Paris, filled out Broadway revues, and performed nightclub routines into the 1940s in New York City and Chicago. Their most-celebrated dance routines used props and techniques from circus acrobatics and sabre fencing.6 Hoffmann's career brings to light the complications of copying.
Hoffmann made her name in America by performing unauthorized copies of dances she had seen in Europe. The performance that brought her national fame in 1908 was a copied Dance of the Seven Veils called "A Vision of Salome." Maud Allan was then giving her Salome dance at the Palace Theatre in London; Hoffmann's act was billed as "an exact imitation" and "a life-like impersonation" of it.7 She followed this with an even more audacious imitation, a fully realized copy of Michel Fokine's dances for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes that debuted in New York City in 1911 and toured the country through early 1912. Hoffmann's ersatz Russian ballet toured the United States five years before Diaghilev's troupe arrived. (Early advertisements called the production "Saison Des Ballets Russes," but henceforth I call it the Russian Season for clarity's sake.) Hoffmann may not have been an innovator according to contemporary standards, but she was a tastemaker, and she brought the first performances of the dance as a total work of art to the American stage. Why does she not play a bigger role in the histories of American dance and performance?
Hoffmann has been assigned a minor part, I argue, because of her questionable borrowing practices. Her performances blurred the line between cross-cultural exchange and copyright violation, engaging in what copyright scholar Robert Spoo dubs "lawful piracy."8 He uses the term to cover reproduction of material that falls within the public domain in one country though it is subject to copyright law in others. Hoffmann's performances of "A Vision of Salome" and the Russian Season were brazen, but they were not illegal; as such, they help us understand the slipperiness of the public domain in early twentieth-century American performance. Only by examining performance that falls into legal and moral grey areas can we fully understand the historically and culturally specific processes of appropriation and dissemination. "Exchange and reexchange" does not always...