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The Body of the People: East German Dance Since 1945 by Jens Richard Giersdorf (review)
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Jens Giersdorf’s The Body of the People: East German Dance Since 1945 is a much needed study that is mostly absent from the standard writing of dance history. It takes this absence as a starting point from which to reflect on the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion that structure dance historical writing in Germany. As such, the book is also of value to those who might not be primarily interested in post-war German dance history, but who are concerned with issues of dance and politics, historiography, and dance in a globalized world. Giersdorf manages to simultaneously address two potential groups: one more interested in knowledge about dance in the former GDR (while actively expanding what may be included under such an umbrella of dance history) and/or a more academic audience focused on the discourses that shape and construct history and memory. Though the latter idea is especially intriguing to me, I feel troubled in writing a review of this book because I am made aware of the power of evaluation it brings with it. Am I not in danger of perpetuating hierarchies between East and West German perspectives that are revealed in the book? I am part of the same West German dance studies “clique” that is critiqued for its structuring powers and perspectives of the field. My position raises the question: what are the measures of my evaluation? what strategic considerations shape my review? While I momentarily ponder these considerations, I realize that it is exactly this enjoyment of the troubled response and precarious task ahead that I see as an important effect of the book. It encourages a discourse in German dance historical writing. This writing has been predominantly distanced from a reflection of one’s own position and identity (except a trend toward phenomenological approaches that are hardly historicized). Consequently, my review cannot be anything but highly subjective; however, it tries to take its structural inspiration from Giersdorf’s methodology.

Now let’s back up. Giersdorf presents an interesting scope and understanding of what a dance history of the former GDR is. He neither strictly follows a chronological nor a stage production historical narrative (while these are nonetheless present), but he rather analyzes a number of different dance forms and aspects including folk dancing, dance theater, performance art, everyday choreographed resistance, and representations of East German identity/history as well as transnational influences. As such, he does not restrict the book to the time span of the existence of the GDR (1949–1990), but he also looks for the country’s (historical) representation and influences of its culture after it ceased to exist. Along with a few well-known names like Gret Palucca, Tom Schilling, and Jo Fabian, the reader will discover many lesser known artists and developments, such as the folk dance ensemble of the National Army (NVA) or the inter-medial productions of Fine Kwiatkowski. The individual chapters are linked through an overarching interest in how the organizing principles of dance concurrently shape, and are shaped by, social and political structures (8). This focus on shaping, renegotiation, and bodily empowerment are of central importance for Giersdorf.

Each of the chapters is structured around a discussion of the theoretical implications (more broadly) involved, a definition of the relevant terms, and providing a context for East German history. The latter has the effect of making the history of the GDR more generally accessible to an audience not familiar with it and/or showing how it may be related to a wider field of theoretical discussions currently pertinent to the dance studies field. For instance, the first chapter, “Dancing National Identity in Daily Life: A New German Folk,” provides a discussion of general theories on folk dancing and the “imagining of community” (Anderson 1991) as well as how the state worked to shape and mold sozialistische Persönlichkeiten (socialist personalities). The flexibility regarding the purpose of Volkstanz in different contexts becomes obvious when Giersdorf not only traces the problems of redefining a dance tradition for the Socialist project (which was so much instrumentalized by the Nazi system before it), but also when he demonstrates how definitions and form could vary over time within the GDR...



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